Munich in English - selected by independent Locals for Cosmopolitans, Newcomers and Residents - since 1989

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June 2008

Decent Ornaments or Monumental Expressions

Art in public spaces

Munich is blessed with a rich architectural landscape that spans centuries: The city gates and the Alte Hof are relics of the Middle Ages. There are baroque palaces and the rococo castles in the Nymphenburg Park. The Residence, the university buildings on Ludwigstrasse, the Nationaltheater, and many of the city’s squares and bridges represent the great architectural and artistic achievements of the 19th century. In addition, numerous sculptures and monuments further stud the city’s landscape: the Mariensäule on Marienplatz, the obelisk on Karolinenplatz or the Friedensengel at Prinzregentenstrasse, to name but a few. These are all historic objects, but they are also expressive examples of public art. Certainly many tourists would be satisfied with the institutional patina of these older landmarks, but Munich is a flourishing modern city. City officials have managed to fit new architecture between the old iconic buildings, while also brightening public spaces with art installations.
After World War II, the idea of integrating art into urban surroundings seemed like an old-fashioned luxury. Public art was only accepted and subsidized as architectural ornamentation. Pictures, sculptures and mosaics “usefully” adorning schools, kindergartens, new housing estates and parks were the only representatives of modern art in public space. In 1951, for example, Munich artist Rupprecht Geiger created a neon relief for the façade of the Hauptbahnhof. The innovative work stretched the boundaries of taste in the city, which had banned neon signs as unmünchnerisch (unfitting for Munich) until 1929. Geiger’s installation was the first sign of a new era for the Munich art scene.
The true battles of taste, however, were fought out behind closed doors by an artistic elite. Munich authorities kept most artistic radicalism off of the streets. Neither the efforts of the artist group Zen 49—which fashioned abstract paintings—nor the manifest works by the group SPUR could make their way to public spaces. It was another two decades until contemporary art could truly conquer the urban arena. The first steps in bringing such innovation out of the museums were installations in front of exhibition halls, such as the bronze sculptures The Frog, The Tortoise and The Assistant (1967) by Max Ernst at the entrance of the Lenbachhaus.
While these sculptures are still connected with the notion of representative art, other pieces have popped up in the city showcasing a different view of public art. For some artists, such works are deviations from common experience that almost subconsciously undermine the given structures of urbanism. One example is a 1971 installation by Günter Fruhtrunk, who coated a subway ventilation shaft at the corner of Herzog-Wilhelm and Herzogspitalstrasse. The inconspicuous framework in white, blue, violet and red was inspired by a general musical experience, and attempts to counter the function of the building by transforming it into a “pointless” expression of pure emotion. Another subtle piece of art focusing exclusively on function is the 1994 light installation by Dan Flavin that connects the Lenbachhaus with the Kunstbau on Luisenstrasse. The seven illuminated pillars resembling traffic lights or street lighting have no obvious function. Still, they are a delicate shift from the habitual. Elsewhere in the city, other installations demand one’s attention: the massive trumpet-like fountain by Albert Hien at Gasteig (1989), or the famous white Walking Man by American artist Jonathan Borofsky on Leopoldstrasse (1995), for example. All of these works represent different conceptions of how public art should blend with or challenge urban surroundings. To ensure equal consideration of these positions during urban planning, the Cultural Administration formed a “Comission for Art in Public Spaces” in 1985. Under its auspices, artists and architects may suggest and critically survey projects, but have no final say regarding what is built.
Still, the debate on public art continues. How self-referential may such an object be? How much should artists consider the common taste of the masses? The exploration of such questions will produce even more interesting works, but most certainly no agreement. In the meantime, Munich is full of gargantuan, unassuming, garish and subtle pieces of contemporary art, lying in wait around every corner. Assessing such pieces will always be a matter of individual taste. Still, it is clear that all forms of public art are a cultural achievement of an open society, one which supports commercial endeavors, but also fosters aesthetic values and thereby reminds us to take a closer look at our surroundings. <<<

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