Is it a flying saucer? Or a dinosaur emerging from the bowels of the earth? The new underground extension to Frankfurt’s Staedel Museum invites odd comparisons.
I’d go for a space capsule -- though that suggests it looks alien in the depths of the gracious 19th-century building on the banks of the Main river. It doesn’t. The extension nestles discreetly beneath the foundations, serving as a message from a new era to centuries gone by.
Open to the public starting this weekend, the exhibition space is white, airy and suffused with daylight that enters via 195 disc-shaped skylights in the softly undulating ceiling. The skylights create a futuristic pattern on the lawn above. A hillock at the center forms a dome in the cavernous hall below, whose walls are higher than 8 meters in places.
The Staedel is one of Germany’s most prestigious museums, covering 700 years of European art history from Cranach to Degas, from Vermeer to Picasso. Until now, it lacked a contemporary-art wing to house an important postwar collection built up over the past six years, with works by Gerhard Richter, Georg Baselitz, Anselm Kiefer, Jean Dubuffet, Cindy Sherman, Andy Warhol, Isa Genzken, Olafur Eliasson and Francis Bacon.
The biggest contributors were Deutsche Bank AG and DZ Bank AG, which agreed in 2008 to hand over more than 800 artworks. About a third of the 330 works on show are from those long-term loans. Ninety percent have not been exhibited in public before. The focus is on German artists, with some notable exceptions.
Designed by the Frankfurt architects Schneider & Schumacher, the extension cost 34 million euros ($45 million) to construct. The old building was renovated at a cost of 18 million euros at the same time. Unusually for Germany, where arts funding is primarily the job of the state, half the money came from private foundations and individuals.
From the foyer of the old building, two arched entrances lead down into the new wing. A new conference room looks out on to the disc-dotted garden.
A purpose-made work by Thomas Demand clads the conference room walls, looking like a sumptuous velvet curtain surrounding the room. On closer inspection, it’s flat and lacks texture: a photograph printed onto fabric stretched over the wall.
A larger staircase descends into the underground hall. This is no dingy basement, nor is it a boring white cube. The curvy ceiling and staircases with textured, rounded side walls soften its contours and add to the spacey allure.
The visitor is met with early-20th-century works by Ernst Wilhelm Nay, Josef Albers and Lyonel Feininger to show a natural progression from the classical modern collection upstairs.
“We wanted to make the point that there is a continuum here -- that World War II was not as much of a rupture in the development of art as is often believed,” Max Hollein, the director of the Staedel, said in an interview.
Two narrative strands lead through the halls (with much overlap) -- one following the path of abstract painting and the other, figurative. A sculpture by Otto Freundlich that could either be a disjointed figure or a composition of abstract blocks reminds you that the distinction is not always clear.
The Staedel’s focus is on painting and sculpture and the new wing continues that tradition, with no videos or large installations. Still, Hollein says the museum seeks to broaden the discourse with its inclusion of photography and paintings about photography -- works like Richter’s “Boat Ride.”
The blurry 1965 canvas, dominated by shades of midnight blue, is painted from a projection of a newspaper photograph onto a large screen.
Movable walls partition the museum space into galleries, each dedicated to major sponsors, including the Hertie Stiftung and Bankhaus Metzler seel. Sohn & Co. KgaA. In one of these galleries, Joseph Beuys’s “Mountain King,” a heavy bronze that looks like an ancient relic, shares space with Kiefer’s 1990 “Argonauts,” a canvas caked with ash, lead, glass, teeth (really), snakeskin and dolls’ dresses.
The city council is seeking to promote Frankfurt as a culture destination as well as a business hub, with the Museumsufer (Museum Embankment) as the main attraction. The new Staedel extension should certainly help. The public can view it for the first time at open days on Feb. 25 and 26.
(Catherine Hickley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are her own.)