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The Best of the Blue Rider Group: Reopening Munich’s Lenbachhaus Museum
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The Best of the Blue Rider Group: Reopening Munich’s Lenbachhaus Museum

Picture of Helen Brady
Updated: 19 December 2016
Most famous for its collection of paintings by Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), a group of expressionist painters established in Munich in 1911, the Lenbachhaus underwent extensive restoration by architectural firm Foster + Partners in 2013. We take a look inside the transformed historic building that should be on every architecture enthusiasts bucket list.

The exhibition spaces of the Lenbachhaus Museum have been augmented with a spectacular new wing which provides the ideal environment in which to view the spectacular Blue Rider collection. Located within the museum quarter, Lenbachhaus is central to the Kunstareal – the ‘art district’ neighbourhood of the city centre. Before World War I, many of the Blue Rider artists resided within the area. Figures within this important avant-garde collective included Wassily Kandinsky, Marianne von Werefkin, Franz Marc, August Macke, Gabriele Münter and Paul Klee. Along with radically improving the buildings’ environmental performance, the remodelling has created a new entrance and social spaces – including a restaurant, terrace, education facilities and a large atrium.

Built by Gabriel von Seidl for the painter Franz von Lenbach between 1887 and 1891, The Lenbachhaus was built as a Florentine-style villa and has gradually extended over the last century. The architects elaborated upon the idea of accentuating the sculptural qualities of the building. Foster + Partners removed a two storey extension dating back to the early 1970s and replaced it with a three storey rectangular structure. The new entrance is located between the new extension and the Lenbach studio, leading visitors into an atrium lobby in which various parts of the collection can be reached. The Blue Rider collection is housed within the newest space, and comprises a series of small galleries with more intimate rooms intended to replicate the domestic scale of their original settling in Villa Lenbach.

At four thousand square metres, the renovation included a pioneering lighting technology in which artificial and natural light are indistinguishable. The fifty five plus exhibition and gallery spaces are lit through a combination of LED lights and natural lighting from the atrium. This innovation in lighting used on such a large scale is a first for the Lenbachhaus and will set new standards for the setting of art museums all over the world. The unquestionable focal point and social nucleus of the new building is its top-lit atrium, which houses a temporary exhibition space as well as a specially commissioned artwork by Olafur Eliasson entitled Wirbelwerk. The location of the atrium has shifted the orientation of Lenbachhaus towards a newly created open space with fabulous views of the Propylaea and the Königsplatz.

The Blue Rider group was formed by Wassily Kandinsky in 1911 and lasted until 1914, when Kandinsky was forced to return to Russia with the start of World War I. This group of artists did not conform to a uniform style, and they were loosely associated by their distinctive creative talents. From Wassily Kandinsky’s abstract compositions to Franz Marc’s large symbolic animal paintings, these artists were united by the shared belief of a spiritual dimension within art that accommodated diverse forms of expression. They had a strong interest in abstract forms and prismatic colours, which they believed could counteract the corruption and materialistic contexts of their age. The name Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider) refers to a key motif in Kandinsky’s work: the horse and the rider, which for him was a symbol of moving beyond realistic representation. The horse was also a prominent motif in Franz Marc’s work, referencing the notion of animals as symbols of rebirth.

Over the past five decades, the Lenbachhaus has continually worked with its ‘Blue Rider’ collection presenting the pieces in major cycles of significant exhibitions and important retrospective surveys and catalogues of the individual artists. During the museum’s closure for renovation, parts of the ‘Blue Rider’ collection went on tour until 2012 to shows in Den Haag, Baden-Baden, Moscow, four cities in Japan and works of graphic art went on display at the Albertina, Vienna. Other exhibited works to be enjoyed within the collection include pieces by Andy Warhol, Joseph Beuys, Ellsworth Kelly and Dan Flavin. The entire third floor of the Stadtische Gallery is dedicated to the abstract art of Wassily Kandinsky; this is mostly thanks to Gabriele Münter, Kandinsky’s former mistress who donated her 1,000 plus collection of Kandinsky pieces to The Lenbachhaus in 1957.

The overall collection of the new and improved Lenbachhaus is not only outstanding but also overwhelming. The new spaces contain in total over 30,000 avant-garde artifacts to navigate and explore. Experimental settings and arrangements in the new architectural design disregard traditional viewing conventions, as a blend of eras and genres are combined together. With special emphasis upon Munich artists of the 19th and 20th centuries, it is most certainly worth a visit in which to experience some of the most iconic works of art that have been produced within the city itself.