When it comes to the visual arts, Germany’s harbor city quietly but confidently rivals Berlin. From world-renowned contemporary collections to intimate independent galleries, Hamburg’s art scene holds its own as an international artistic center while always taking care to cast a spotlight upon its local heroes. Here is a dynamic cross-section of the galleries to be found among the canals and red brick streets, with our insider guide to the top ten must-see galleries of Hamburg.
Vera Munro Gallery
Serenely overlooking the bank of the Alster River, the Vera Munro Gallery occupies a space that is both a beautiful representation of Hamburg’s physical landscape and an essential place on Germany’s avant-garde scene. The building itself constitutes a noteworthy example of jugendstil architecture, the art nouveau of the German-speaking world. It provides an open stage for the personal tastes of Vera Munro in her time as a model, TV personality, and, since 1977, a formidable authority on avant-garde works in Germany and around the globe. The gallery was expanded in 2011, and now covers more than 600 square meters of space in which established and up-and-coming artists can be exhibited side by side.
This gallery’s unique fusion of western and eastern, of the abstract and the political, can be directly traced back to the colorful life story of its founder and curator Andrée Sfeir-Semler. Born in Beirut in 1953, she studied art history in her home city before going on to Germany to complete a PhD on a social history of French art of the 17th century. The Middle Eastern themes and artists represented in the gallery’s exhibitions reflect Sfeir Semler’s continued connection to her home country, where the gallery also has a twin. Sfeir-Semler’s mindfulness of both Europe and Asia was exemplified by her recent exhibition of works by Swiss minimalist photographer Balthasar Burkhard, whose monochrome vision of Lebanon perfectly encapsulated her vision.
Kunstverein in Hamburg
One of the oldest art societies in Germany, the Kunstverein in Hamburg has been formally dedicated to showcasing the very best of contemporary art since 1817. The institution’s history is colorful: having evolved its progressive philosophy in the midst of the March Revolution and having had its exhibition Malerei und Plastik in Deutschland halted by Nazi culture minister Adolf Ziegler in 1936. Today the gallery continues to challenge accepted norms. Recently, the exhibition Let’s Make the Water Turn Black has brought the kinetic creations of Canadian artist Geoffrey Farmer to Germany. Working with complex algorithms, this mechanical theatre of sculpture, light and sound is never the same twice, bringing into play ideas of freedom and ever-evolving identity.
When leaving Hamburg Hauptbahnhof, the first building to meet the eye is the grand façade of the Hamburger Kunsthalle. This old building houses some of the greatest works of art from the past five hundred years including David Caspar Friedrich’s ‘Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer.’ Yet beyond the grand old entrance looms a vast white box, a signature architectural work by Oswald Matthias Ungers. The striking cubist structure is home to the institution’s Galerie der Gegenwart, which houses an ever-changing selection of contemporary art, from 1960s pop art through to the present day. Curators place emphasis on the constant introduction of new works and reevaluation of the old, meaning exhibition space is forever in flux. No cultural survey of Hamburg is complete without a visit to this landmark gallery.
An unmissable feature of Hamburg’s harborside skyline, the Deichtorhallen forms the backbone of the Hamburg ‘Art Mile,’ which together constitutes one of the largest centers of contemporary art in Europe. The gallery’s tripartite structure encompasses three important artistic media. At the building’s center, the Halle für aktuelle Kunst gathers together more conventional works of painting and sculpture, with work by Richard Serra, Mario Merz, and Imi Knoebel lining the halls. In the south building, the Haus der Fotographie pays similar homage to the very best of international photography, tracing from the medium’s inception through to the present day. Finally, the Sammlung Falckenberg satellite gallery makes large-scale multimedia installations possible, allowing the loftiest ambitions of the likes of Jon Kessler and General Idea to be realized. And with fourteen million euros worth of investment currently being poured into the first of the three galleries, the only way is up for Hamburg’s premier contemporary art establishment.
The Heliumcowboy Artspace might claim to be the most subversive art establishment operating in Hamburg today. Founder Jörg Heikhaus is not shy about his vision to redefine the future aesthetics of art itself, as he endeavors to send global shockwaves from his little space in St Pauli. Having done away with conventional exhibition tactics, the gallery seeks to cultivate the potential of a tiny group of blossoming creatives and provides these individuals with support for projects both in and outside of the city. Entry is by appointment only, but the bold future vision which awaits the visitor within is more than worth the phone call.
The Produzentengalerie is located deep in Hamburg’s labyrinthine industrial canal district. The rusty red brick exterior conceals an arena for the illustrative depiction of a given theme or issue. The visitor is asked what the term might truly encompass: is it a deviation from realistic, figurative art, an aesthetic flight into the spheres of color and shape? Or is it a certain utopian quality in the subject matter? The mosaic of responses by the trio Achim Bertenburg, Heinrich Modersohn and Norbert Prangenberg is characteristic of the Produzentegallerie’s ‘variation on a theme’ approach, bringing together prints, drawings, photography, paintings and sculpture for one common purpose.
The experience of Galerie W is one of magic and intrigue, as the enigmatic Wittus Witt seeks to derive artistic merit from the quaint tradition of the Victorian conjuror’s show. At 9 p.m. each Friday, Wittus Witt invites all who are curious to visit his Zauber-salon, where the curtain is raised to reveal a world of illusion and double meaning. Expressly distancing himself from tacky Las Vegas style cabaret, Witt draws his inspiration from 19th century Viennese magician Johann Nepomuk Hofzinser, whose performances held a depth and darkness lacking in modern shows. In daylight hours the gallery also showcases local artists’ responses to these ideas of deception and conspiracy that are so integral to the world of magic.
Galerie Hilaneh Von Kories
Since 2005, Galerie Hinaneh von Kories has become an established space in Hamburg for innovative photography. It is of paramount importance for founder Hinaneh von Kories that her gallery not only represents the most promising individual photographers, but also that the larger shifts and trends of the contemporary photographic art scene. As such, review shows are regularly put together as a means of placing usually separate talents in the context of our time. From Corinna Holthusen’s large-format portraits of human faces, declared by the artist herself to be ‘irritating,’ to Stephan Vanfleteren’s unexpectedly captivating collection of shop façades and vitrines, photographs found in this gallery can be relied upon to open up new perspectives on upon the often ignored peculiarities of daily life.
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