I thought Bremen was a bit dull at first (and coming from the Netherlands, very car-dominated, with two road overpasses in front of the railway station), but I changed my mind when I found the pretty small historic area near the cathedral. I thought Hamburg was unpleasant at first and I didn’t really change my mind, although I did find quite a few positive features, notably the excellent art collection in the Kunsthalle. They’re Germany’s two main ports, both with estuary access to the North Sea, and have been since the time of the Hanseatic League, but I’ll say more about the Hanse when I get to Lübeck.
The historic centre of Bremen is Marktplatz, where the Old Town Hall (1405-10) looks out over the statue of Roland, one of Charlemagne’s heroic paladins, which was raised in 1404 as a symbol of the city’s status as a free city within the Holy Roman Empire (I saw another one in Brandenburg a few weeks later). Immediately adjacent are two fine Gothic churches, the Liebfrauenkirche (Church of the Virgin) and the Petri Dom (St Peter’s cathedral) – the bishopric was established by Charlemagne in 789, and the present building was built after a fire in 1041.
It’s hard to see that this small area really justifies its World Heritage listing, especially as it’s partly fake, with façades brought from elsewhere in the city when the square was rebuilt after Word War II – but an alley immediately to the southwest is the real surprise. The medieval Böttcherstrasse (Coopers’ Street) was rebuilt in 1922-31 by Ludwig Roselius, coffee merchant and inventor of HAG decaff, with a heavy dose of expressionist features and unusual external decorative features, notably a golden relief of the Archangel Michael, and a carillon of 30 Meissen porcelain bells. Roselius was a Nazi sympathiser but his applications to join the party were rejected and Hitler tried to have the street demolished. The Roselius Museum houses his art collection, from medieval Madonnas to Picassos via Cranach, and he also built the Paula Modersohn-Becker Museum here to show her works (see below).
The Free Hanseatic City of Bremen, the smallest of Germany’s federal states, consists of Bremen itself and the exclave of Bremerhaven (a new port founded in 1827 at the mouth of the Weser). I’d not actually heard of the Grimm Brothers’ story The Musicians of Bremen, but it’s commemorated by a sculpture at the western end of the Town Hall – it’s about four animals who set out for the city that they saw as standing for real freedom (sorry, spoiler alert – they never actually reached Bremen).
Just south of the cathedral the Schnoorviertel consists of a few moderately quaint streets with cute cafés, restaurants and boutiques; just to the east, on the site of the old city walls, the Kunsthalle is not as big as Hamburg’s but still has a pretty decent art collection.
In the nineteenth century the burghers of Bremen mainly collected Dutch art, donating works by Pieter Claesz, Jan van Goyen, van der Velde the younger, Salomon van Ruysdael, Jacob Jordaens, Rubens, van Dyck, Jan Brueghel the younger, Isenbrandt, Lievens, Aert van der Neer, van Ostade, Dou, Jacob de Wet (yet another Haarlem painter I didn’t know about) and Rachel Ruysch (qv). The museum also acquired a few old German Masters (by Altdorfer, a couple of Dürers and some Cranachs) and some minor (but superb) Italian Gothic paintings – they’re in Room 1 which is appropriate but not an easy place to start your circuit.
The museum’s first director Gustav Paoli then started buying French art, which was controversial but has proved a smart move – the collection ranges from Vigée-Lebrun, Corot, Delacroix, Horace Vernet (see my post on Avignon) and Géricault to Pascin, Gris, Léger, Metzinger and Picasso, by way of Boudin, Courbet, Manet, Monet, five Renoirs, Pissarro, Cézanne, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, van Gogh, Vallotton, Bonnard, Maurice Dennis, Bernard, Serusier and a whole room of Derain, not to mention sculptures by Gauguin, Rodin and Maillol. He also bought German art, of course, with quite a few paintings by the Nazarenes (who had similar ideas to the Pre-Raphaelites) and the Impressionists Max Liebermann, Max Slevogt, and Lovis Corinth. There’s Expressionism too, with plenty by Kirchner and Beckmann, as well as Schmift-Rotluff, von Jawlensky, Gabriele Münter, Campendonck, Marc, Nolde and Heckel, as well as sculptures by Ernst Barlach.
But what you won’t see much of elsewhere is work from the artists’ colony of Werpswede, just north of Bremen, established in the 1890s by Fritz Mackensen, Otto Modersohn, Heinrich Vogeler and Carl Vinner. Mackensen’s pupil Paula Becker married Modersohn, and – in addition to the Paula Modersohn-Becker Museum mentioned above – there’s a whole room of her paintings here, showing how she increasingly went her own way independently of the Werpswede group, eventually being hailed as ‘Germany’s Picasso’- a bit overcooked, but she was good. Incidentally, her friend the sculptor Clara Westhoff married Rainer Maria Rilke, a sort of German T S Eliot who I mentioned in my post on Trieste. Finally, contemporary artists include Olafur Eliasson and Kehinde Wiley, as well as a room of works by Nam June Paik, who was big in Amsterdam too, although he spent a lot of time in Germany from 1956 on.
I arrived in Hamburg mid-afternoon on a Friday (during the Covid-19 pandemic, but that didn’t seem to matter) and the roads and the Hauptbahnhof had seized up due to the number of people trying to get in and out of the city. Outside the station there was a stink of stale tobacco and a wail of sirens, people were raiding the rubbish bins for who knows what, and the taxi-drivers were all convinced that red lights, speed limits and basic good manners didn’t apply to them. The supposedly hippest areas of the city are plastered with graffiti (some of which might qualify as street art), which I usually see as a bad sign. Schanze is a bit like London’s Camden with more graffiti and lots of cafés, none special; the Karoviertel (Karolinenviertel in full) is marginally classier – it’s been well traffic-calmed, but is surrounded by the Messe trade fair complex and former abattoirs, and yes, there’s graffiti everywhere. So I have my doubts about Hamburg, but it’s one of Germany’s half-dozen main cities and there’s lots to see and do.
Anyway, that’s the old Hamburg, which has the same problems as big cities across the world – there’s also a new Hamburg, which may show ways to make these cities more liveable. In particular I was interested to revisit the Victorian warehouses of the Speicherstadt or ‘warehouse city’ (like Shad Thames, if we’re going to keep up the comparisons with London, but with wider streets), and see the HafenCity, currently the largest urban development project in Europe, where 157 hectares of former docks will become housing (one third social housing), shops and cultural venues, expanding the downtown area by 40%. Sustainability and energy-efficiency are key, and fully 25% of the area is to be open space.
I was particularly keen to see the Elbphilharmonie, the prestigious concert hall by Herzog & de Meuron which finally opened in 2017, seven years late (and costing €870 million instead of €200 million). It’s a glass box with a wave-like top set on a 1960s warehouse, but although I’m sure it would be fantastic to go to a concert there, I found the exterior underwhelming. The rest of HafenCity seemed to me to be mostly generic modern architecture (although the earlier phase is less corporate and more interesting). As usual, I find modern European architecture rather too constrained compared to what I see in the Americas, particularly (you may be surprised to know) in Uruguay. Plans are being developed for an extension to the southeast in the Grasbrook and Veddel areas, including a 245m-high tower designed by David Chipperfield, so maybe this will look more distinctive.
In any case, the Speicherstadt is still very impressive and worthy of its World Heritage status; there must be some fabulous loft apartments up there, and the Wasserschloss café’s terrace has a wonderful location. The HafenCity’s information centre is actually in the Speicherstadt (in an 1887 boiler house) and is worth a visit – they have an English-language booklet on the buildings and a café and free toilets.
Following the waterfront a little way west, you’ll come to the main ferry docks and the Sankt Pauli-Elbtunnel, opened in 1911 (after three construction workers died from the bends); it seems similar to the foot tunnels in London, Newcastle, Antwerp and elsewhere, but this one also takes cars (which come down by lift), although not at the moment thanks to refurbishment work. So it’s a great ride by bike, and you can continue south into Wilhelmsburg, which was a poor immigrant neighbourhood that was hit by a serious flood in 1962; more recently it has been transformed into a model of sustainable living. The centrepiece is the Energy Bunker, a World War II anti-aircraft gun tower converted into a solar power plant, alongside a biogas combined heat and power station.
Not far northwest of the tunnel is the notorious Reeperbahn (see below) and beyond it the middle-class Altona district, with a station where many intercity trains terminate, mainly so that they don’t occupy platforms at the Hauptbahnhof for too long – but now DB (German Rail) has sold the station site and will build a smaller terminus just to the north. After 2024 the present station site will become another green development, with housing (half subsidised or co-operative), shops, a school and for some reason four day-care centres, as well as a park. Also in Altona, the A7 motorway (heading north to Denmark) will be covered for about two kilometres, creating a new linear park leading down to the Elbe.
A couple of kilometres further west, the waterfront cycle route ends at a pontoon and ferry dock (a great ride, especially if getting close to container ships is your thing) also known as the Övelgönne Hafenmuseum, where roughly twenty historic vessels are moored – the pontoon is open 24/7 but the boats can be visited less predictably. In 2008 the International Maritime Museum of Hamburg opened in a Speicherstadt warehouse (though it too claims to be in HafenCity), and there are some full-size ships moored nearby that can also be visited – at least a couple offer Escape Room experiences.
There’s plenty of art here too, and the Kunsthalle is a major collection by any standards. As with the one in Bremen, it’s hard to find the chronological starting-point – go upstairs and to the left, through a small room of Klee and Ernst to start the Rundgang with a few Italian Old Masters (notably Pietro de Rimini) and altarpieces by the fifteenth-century Hamburg artists Bertram von Minden and Meister Francke. It’s more natural to start with the central room, currently dominated by the immense Entry of Charles V into Antwerp by Hans Makart (1878), which was very controversial because of the naked women rather improbably taking part in a welcome pageant. As in Bremen, there’s plenty of art from the Dutch Golden Age, including Jan Gossaert, Jan Massys, Cornelis Corneliszoon van Haarlem, Willem van der Velde, Jacob van Ruisdael, Joos de Momper, Jan van Goyen, Aert van der Neer, David Teniers the Younger, Jan Steen, Gerard ter Borch, Gerrit Dou, Gerard van Honthorst, and still lives by Rachel Ruysch and Willem Claesz Heda (both of whom I mentioned here), Rubens and van Dyck. There’s Rembrandt, of course, in the form of Simeon and Hannah in the Temple (1627), which is the story of the Nunc Dimittis.
But maybe you’re here for the German art, which continues with a small room of Cranach the Elder, Holbein the Elder (a big but not particularly good Presentation in the Temple), eighteenth-century portraits by the Tischbeins (uncle and nephew) and Graff, Romantic paintings by Philipp Otto Runge, Carl Gustav Carus, Ludwig Richter, Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg and Caspar David Friedrich (notably THE famous one of The Wanderer above a Sea of Fog), more by the Nazarenes (see above), Realists such as Adolf Menzel, Wilhelm Leibl, Hans Thoma, and Anselm Feuerbach, then Max Liebermann, who began as a Barbizon-style realist, then became an impressionist and leader of the Berlin Secession.
Incidentally, the Hamburg School seems to refer both to artists such as Georg Haeselich (1806-94), Jacob Gensler (1808-45), Adolph Friedrich Vollmer (1806-75) and Valentin Ruths (1825-1905), and then to the more interesting group led by Arthur Siebelist, Arthur Illies, Ernst Eitner and Thomas Herbst who formed the Hamburgische Künstlerclub (Hamburg Artists Club) in 1897. Paula Modersohn-Becker (see above) and Max Beckmann are here too. It’s also worth mentioning the Norwegians Johan Christian Dahl (a close friend of Friedrich) and Edvard Munch who tend to get lost among the Germans.
There’s plenty of French art, from Lorrain, Delacroix, Courbet, Daubigny, Corot, Diaz de la Peña and Millet, via Manet, Monet, Renoir (including an instantly recognisable sculpture), Degas, Sisley, Pissarro, Boudin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Cézanne, Gauguin and Jongkind to Chagall, Robert Delaunay, Sonia Delaunay-Terk, Picasso, Feininger, Vlaminck, Derain, Gris, Vallotton and Léger (although the only Matisse is a bronze sculpture).
Modern German art begins with a room of Corinth paintings, two by Hodler and one by Ensor (I don’t see enough of Hodler outside Switzerland, but I see too much of Ensor), a Brâncuși sculpture and then the Expressionists – Macke, Schmidt-Rottluff, Pechstein, Kirchner, Otto Mueller, Heckel, von Jawlensky, Marc, Gabriele Münter, Kandinsky and Nolde, as well as Dorothea Maetzel-Johannsen (a local artist who was new to me) and sculptures by Ernst Barlach. From the 1920s come hyperrealistic paintings by Franz Radziwill then Anita Rée (another interesting local artist), Grosz, Dix, the Constructivists, De Stijl and the Bauhaus (including Willi Baumeister, Sophie Tauber-Arp, Hans Arp, Klee and Ernst). Then you should go down to the basement level and across to a modern extension for the contemporary art collection, which includes German names such as Joseph Beuys, Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, Hamburg-born Gustav Kluge and a room of Baselitz; plus David Hockney, Mona Hatoum, Dan Flavin, Jeff Wall, Marina Abramovic & Ulay, Ian Hamilton-Finlay, Giacometti, Bacon, Serra, Nauman, Fontana, Twombly and much more.
There are a few more bits and pieces hidden away – from the café you can get to The Transparent Museum, offering behind-the-scenes insights into identifying forgeries, framing, and restitution of art stolen from Jewish families, as well as another gallery dedicated to the Hamburg Artists Club, and the Sculpture Agora.
I was happy to see that the cut-out silhouettes at Beatles Plaza on the Reeperbahn (at Grosse-Freiheit) show five figures (although the Rough Guide refers to the Fab Four) – Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, Best and Sutcliffe, of course, and not Ringo. It’s well documented that they were tough rock’n’rollers living in sordid conditions (washing in water taken from the club’s urinals) in the most sordid part of town, playing in clubs crowded with hookers, pimps and drunken sailors – but this was where Stu Sutcliffe met the photographer Astrid Kirchherr (who died a few months ago, in May 2020) and and was soon living with her. As well as taking iconic photos of the band, she persuaded them to copy her Juliette Gréco-style bob and to swap their leather jackets for black polo-necks, a less macho look that showed the way ahead for pop culture. When the Beatles returned to Liverpool, Sutcliffe stayed here to study art (one of his tutors was Eduardo Paolozzi, who later said he was one of his best students) – but he died in April 1962 from a brain haemorrhage, possibly caused by a fight outside a club in Liverpool.