Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Artful Leipzig

Music, art and the peaceful revolution are the points that stick in my mind after a much too short stop in Leipzig, Germany. Unfortunately, I don't have the photos to match - camera problems plagued all attempts to record this stop.

We arrived early evening and made a beeline to Auerbachs Keller where our group of way too many travel writers and associates had dinner. I say way too many because we literally took over the place - not a good way to judge a restaurant or to have an authentic experience.

It was an important part of the first trade court in Leipzig, built 1530 to 1538, and has been dispensing huge steins of beer and bounteous plates of food ever since. I'm sure every tourist tour goes there but it's fun anyway and the dark beer, Ur-kroftitzer (if I decipher my notes correctly), is excellent. Goethe was a student here,  used the Keller for a scene in Faust, and I bet he drank some too.

Tip: There are 27 steps down from street level to the restaurant.

Peaceful Revolution
As we left the Keller we passed by the 800-year-old St. Nicholas' Church where in 1989 the Peaceful Revolution began and Leipzig became known as the "City of Heroes." For a decade, East Germans had been meeting at the church on Mondays for Prayers for Peace sessions to pray and talk politics.

What began with a dozen dissidents became a movement and on Oct. 9, 8,000 packed the church. Afterward, 70,000-100,000 people gathered and marched around the city center. Under banners of "We are the people" and "No violence," they went past headquarters of the feared Stasi, secret police, and ended at the train station.

As the East German regime said, according to our guide, "We were prepared  for everything but not for people with candles in their hands walking around Leipzig."

More peaceful demonstrations followed and on Oct. 23, 300,000 people returned to city center with their banners and candles. Two weeks later, the Berlin Wall came down, the Russians left and Germany was on its way to reunification.                                                                    
Masters of Music
Music has always put a lilt in the air for Leipzigers. Many are the musicians and composers connected to the city.

J.S. Bach, former choirmaster of St. Thomas' Church, lived here for 27 years and is buried at in the choir hall. Felix Mendelssohn directed the Gewandhaus Orchestra and his home, now a museum to him, was a magnet for other musicians. Clara and Robert Schumann were perhaps the city's most famous lovers and their former home is both exhibit space and concert hall.

Richard Wagner was born and educated here. Edvard Grieg studied and wrote his first compositions here. Gustav Mahler became assistant conductor of the Leipzig Opera at age 26 and completed his First Symphony here.

Each has his own festival, too. The Museum of Musical Instruments has one of the world's largest collections of its kind.

Art, Art and More Art
Alas, the only world I had time to dip into was the art world and only a day's sampling of that. Still, it was enough to consider the city a major stop for art lovers.

Spinnerei, once the biggest cotton spinning mill in Europe, complete with workers' homes, gardens and kindergarten, has become the center of contemporary artistic activity. Galleries, artists' ateliers and one of the best art supply stores I've encountered haven't begun to fill the available space, but give it time. Once Neo Rauch, probably the Leipzig's artist most familiar to Westerners, moved his studio here other artists, craftsmen and galleries followed.

It's definitely a place to visit in warmer weather. As you can imagine it's a bear to heat and once winter hits - it had by mid October last year - the artists move to warmer digs.

Warning. Levelers, there are a lot of steps: some buildings rise five-stories with no elevators. However, many of the galleries and the art store are on street level.

It would be a good idea to visit the exceptional Museum of Fine Arts first. Its eye opening collection contains many familiar names but more important are the ones which will be new to you. The German artists in general and the Leipzig School in particular are relatively unknown to most of us, a shame for we've been missing some wonderful work.

In addition to Rauch, I was intrigued with works by Gustav Adolph Hennig, of course the Maxes - Klinger, Liebermon and Beckman, Otto Mueller, Raul Kleinschmidt (his dancer is not a Degas sprite), Arno Rink (a teacher in the New Leipzig School), Matthias Weischner, Julia Schmidt and the wonderfully painterly Max Slevogt.

Tip: Forget the stairs, take the elevator. It's huge and there's a delightful art film, the result of putting a camera on a dog's back and letting the canine explore his way around the building.
Also, as you exit the elevator at each floor, look for the folding chairs you can take around with you.

Shoppers, browsers and architecture fans will love wandering the inner city's shopping arcades, courtyards and old trade fair centers. They made Leipzig famous for more than 500 years, but that's something I'll have to explore on another trip.

See you there?


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