Norman Foster Turns Munich Villa Into Home for Kandinskys

North Germans tend to stereotype Bavarians as flamboyant -- even flashy. Think of all those blingy baroque churches stuffed with cherubs and gilt.

Munich’s new museum buildings are doing nothing to challenge the cliche. After the completion of the shimmery Brandhorst Museum in 2009, the city’s Lenbachhaus museum reopens today with a brassy new entrance wing designed by Norman Foster that makes the Brandhorst look restrained.

The Lenbachhaus is home to an exceptional collection of paintings by Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, Paul Klee and Gabriele Muenter, as well as other members of the “Blue Rider” group of Expressionist artists. Muenter, a member of the group and one-time pupil and lover of Kandinsky, donated 1,000 “Blue Rider” works to the museum on her 80th birthday.

The ochre house with its green shutters and pretty courtyard garden was built to emulate a Tuscan villa and belonged to the artist Franz von Lenbach (1836-1904). Munich’s city government bought the house from his widow in 1924 and opened the museum there in 1929.

Back then, the city expected about 10,000 visitors a year. In 2008, the last year before the museum closed for its 59.4 million-euro ($77.7 million) renovation, it drew 450,000.

Cramped, Dangerous

The museum had become too small and cramped, too unnavigable for wheelchairs and too much of a fire hazard. It needed a shop and a restaurant. The renovation has resolved all those issues.

The energy-efficient lighting alone cost 4.3 million euros. Special LED lights created by Osram GmbH in collaboration with the Munich artist Dietmar Tanterl emulate daylight and can be adjusted for a warmer glow and to minimize damage to artworks.

Yet the rustic grace of the old villa is only discernible from the peaceful courtyard with the addition of the extension. The new facade, clad in metal tubes made of an alloy of copper and aluminum, will weather with time, according to the architects. At the moment it looks more like a swish nightclub or luxury department store than a museum.

Inside the foyer hangs a glittering “Wirbelwerk” (Whirlwind) by Olafur Eliasson, reflecting the colors the “Blue Rider” used in their painting. The old villa is encased in the new atrium, itself becoming a museum piece in a vitrine. A 1972 extension was demolished to make way for the new building.

Wurm, Richter

The effect inside is somewhat fragmented, at least on the ground floor. A roomful of Erwin Wurm’s headless sculptures with outsized sweaters leads into Munich’s 19th-century landscape painters.

The first floor houses postwar art including works by Gerhard Richter, Isa Genzken, Sol LeWitt, Ellsworth Kelly and Wolfgang Tillmans. A separate wing houses huge works by Joseph Beuys, some acquired recently. “Zeige Deine Wunde” (Show Your Wounds) features two mortuary trolleys, Italian newspapers and gardening implements. Other Beuys relics include a bath tub, a felt suit and blackboards with esoteric scribblings.

The reward for visiting is the top floor, bathed in natural light, airy yet intimate. The Lenbachhaus’s “Blue Rider” collection is of a caliber to make the first-time visitor say “oh I didn’t know that was here” more than once.

Marc’s blue horse and his watchful tiger are among the gems familiar from a million reprints. A roomful of wild, joyous Kandinsky abstracts sets the heart racing. I could have spent all day there.

(Catherine Hickley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are her own.)

Muse highlights include Martin Gayford on European art, Warwick Thompson on London theater, Ryan Sutton on New York dining and Amanda Gordon’s Scene Last Night.

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