I have come to Munich, Bavaria's capital, for a few days to visit the city and in particular to explore its world-class art museums, mainly concentrated in the Kunstareal or art quarter, located next to Ludwig Maximilian University, North of the city centre. Munich became a sort of cultural capital of West Germany after the division of the country in 1945 and has by all accounts remained a hub of the arts ever since. After the stress of the final preparations I made it safely to my base in Schwabing, the quarter just Northwards from the museums and an area with an extremely loaded cultural tradition, having been home to many artists and intellectuals including two of my all-time idols, Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee. Schwabing has also been the location of the Academy of Fine Art -Akademie der Bildenden Künste- since 1886.
The morning after arrival I headed straight to the Alte Pinakothek, which opened its doors in 1836 and is now primarily devoted to old master paintings up to the 1700s. Regrettably, as I was preparing my holiday I had failed to notice that most of the museum is still closed to the public due to lengthy renovations scheduled to finish later this year. Not currently accessible areas include early German, Flemish and Netherlandish painting and the German, Flemish and Italian Renaissance. You can imagine my disappointment, the one silver lining being that selected masterpieces from the closed-off sections have been relocated to the comparatively few rooms open to the public.
As it was, the visit to the accessible areas of this massive institution (built in austere Italian Renaissance style, and restored in the same vein after World War II) took the better part of a day and was full of beautiful surprises. Not to be missed is Leonardo da Vinci's Madonna and Child with Carnation (one of his earliest paintings), which looks unassuming in its temporary location in a side corridor, alongside Raphael's Madonna Tempi and pieces by Fra Angelico and Filippo Lippi. Entry to the collection is currently through the room devoted to Dutch Golden Age painting, including the museum's Rembrandts. Out of these I was particularly touched by his 1661 Resurrected Christ, whose very human expression stares disarmingly at us straight out of the canvas. The Alte Pinakothek is home to the five paintings of Rembrandt's Passion cycle (depicting scenes from Christ's death and resurrection), which at the moment share a wall with Albrecht Dürer's arresting Self-Portrait at the Age of 28, completed on the year 1500. The room also contains beautiful pairs of portraits by Rembrandt's Dutch contemporaries Ferdinand Bol (1616-1680) and Rembrandt's pupil Nicolaes Maes (1634-1693). The room next door devoted to the Italian Baroque is also packed full of arresting pieces, including two depictions of Cynic Philosophers by Luca Giordano (1634-1705), painted realistically from live models in the style of Caravaggio and his followers, which Luca probably acquired in Naples from his master Jusepe de Ribera (1591-1652). Equally not to be missed are two tremendous compositions by the Venetian Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770), The Adoration of the Magi (1753) and The Holy Trinity seen in a Vision by Pope St Clement (c 1737). Out of the paintings in this room I was particularly touched by the searingly beautiful Noli me Tangere (the apparition of the resurrected Christ to Mary Magdalene) painted in 1590 by Federico Barocci (1535-1612). The room devoted to Spanish Old Master painting is equally noteworthy, including the unfinished 1631 portrait of a gentleman by Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) which offers a tantalising glimpse into the master's working process; Other highlights include four of the five depictions of Seville street children by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-1682) owned by the Alte Pinakothek, as well as El Greco's striking Disrobing of Christ (c 1590?). It is relatively unusual to find a section devoted to French painting as large and detailed as that in this institution, which includes masterpieces by François Boucher (1703-1770) -including his iconic 1756 portrait of Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV's official mistress-, Valentin de Boulogne (1591-1632), Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) and Claude Lorrain (1600-1682), as well as a fascinating section on pastel portraits from the 1700s by the likes of Maurice Quentin de La Tour (1704-1788) and Jean-Étienne Liotard (1702-1789), who was the subject of a recent exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.
Pride of place in the Alte Pinakothek is given to the institution's stunning collection of works by Flemish artist (and international star of his time) Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). Rubens's oeuvre is displayed across several rooms and presided over by his massive 1617 The Great Last Judgement. At over 6 metres high, it is the only painting to have hung continuously in the same spot at the Alte Pinakothek since the creation of the institution, and in fact the need to accommodate this work was a constraint on the original design of the building. Personally speaking I am not a huge fan of the over-the-top flamboyant, unabashedly fleshy style typical of Rubens, but there are some portraits here which come across as much more direct and sincere and which are a pleasure to gaze at.
Last but not least, I really enjoyed ambling through the Alte Pinakothek's side corridors to gaze at the small-format paintings which almost universally play second fiddle to larger artworks. What these works lack in size they often make up for in subtlety and attention to detail, two examples out of many being Adriaen Van der Werff's stunning 1703 Entombment of Christ and Rembrandt's small but perfectly formed 1629 self-portrait.
The Alte Pinakothek is decidedly a must for any art lovers finding themselves in or near Bavaria, much more so after it reopens fully later this Summer. For a quick half-way stop you could do worse than heading to the museum's delightfully old-fashioned cafe with its mouth-watering selection of cakes (After much debating with myself I personally opted for the Apfel Kuchen but the other options looked equally appetising!). Don't forget to ask for the (very thorough and helpful) audioguide, which is included in the ticket price but which (as in other Munich museums) may not be offered as a matter of course by the staff.
Keep an eye out for follow-up pieces dealing with other major art museums in Munich.