Leipzig on View
Published: May 2009
By Raul Barreneche
Before the war, this former East German city was a hub of culture and commerce. Now, thanks to a new school of acclaimed artists and influential dealers, it's becoming the country's next art capital.
It's a crisp, sunny morning in Leipzig, and I'm on my way to Plagwitz, the heart of Leipzig's emerging art scene. As my taxi heads west from the Zentrum (city center), Gothic bell towers and Renaissance spires speed past my window and are soon replaced by classic prewar apartment buildings and empty Soviet-era housing blocks with peeling paint, broken windows, and graffiti-covered walls—all remnants of the city's darker days under Communism. My destination, the Spinnerei, is a soot-covered complex of turn-of-the-19th-century brick cotton mills that now houses artists' studios, galleries, and cafés. A small crowd of hip twentysomethings sits outside the building's entrance, sipping cappuccinos in the pale sunlight.
Welcome to the new Leipzig. Like London during the reign of the YBA's (Young British Artists) in the 1990's and Cologne in the 1980's, this stately Saxon city in the former East Germany is the center of an important artistic movement: the Leipzig School of neorealist painters and photographers trained at the city's esteemed Academy of Visual Art. The work of artists such as Tim Eitel, Martin Eder, Ulf Puder, Tilo Baumgärtel, Martin Kobe, and Neo Rauch, the group's éminence grise, has been called the first bona fide artistic phenomenon of the 21st century. It hasn't taken long for art-savvy travelers to put Leipzig—a city of just half a million—on their itineraries. During a big opening weekend last spring, flashy convertibles with license plates from Italy and the Czech Republic lined the Spinnerei parking lot—as collectors from Korea and the United States arrived at the Leipzig-Halle Airport in private jets.
Though the neorealists are receiving most of the buzz, not all of Leipzig's artists toe that particular aesthetic line. Leipzig-born Christiane Baumgartner, who trained at the Royal College of Art in London, is garnering praise for her large-scale woodblock prints, made from photographs and video stills. Uwe Kowski, who trained at the Leipzig Academy in the eighties, creates messy, textured abstractions. And the stark, hypnotic color prints of photographer Frank Mädler, another Academy grad, are worlds apart from Rauch's unsettling and graphic canvases.
Still, it's the neorealist superstars who have put the city on the art world's radar screen. Rauch's paintings hang in the Guggenheim and Museum of Modern Art in New York as well as in the Centre Pompidou in Paris; big-shot collectors Michael Ovitz, Eli Broad, and Mera and Don Rubell buy his work. "Neo single-handedly brought a lot of attention to Leipzig," says New York gallery owner David Zwirner, who represents Rauch. Rauch also shows in Berlin and, of course, Leipzig, at Galerie Eigen + Art, the influential gallery founded by Gerd Harry Lybke.
"Leipzig is younger, more outside the mainstream than Berlin," says Lybke, a talkative, charismatic character who goes by the nickname Judy. (As a boy, he resembled Jody, the red-headed twin on the sixties American television show Family Affair; Leipzigers mistakenly pronounced the name "Judy.") Lybke founded Eigen + Art in his apartment in 1983, during the waning years of the German Democratic Republic, and is now the undisputed leader of the local art scene; other gallerists want to be where he is. So when he moved Eigen + Art to its new space in Spinnerei, in April 2004, others followed. The complex currently has nine commercial galleries; two nonprofit spaces; Halle 14, a venue for experimental, site-specific installations; and roughly 80 studios where architects, ad agencies, glassblowers, and artists, including Kowski, Johannes Tiepelmann, and Rauch, have set up shop. The latest addition to the Spinnerei scene is an unlikely one: a satellite of the Williamsburg, Brooklyn-based Pierogi gallery. Owner Joe Amrhein, himself an artist, found it cheaper to open a gallery here and commute from New York to Leipzig every two months than to pay upward of $20,000 a month for a space in Manhattan's Chelsea.
Leipzig's evolution is a familiar tale of art and real estate. Artists flock to where they can find cheap apartments and studios, energize the neighborhood, and eventually get priced out as rents soar. It has happened in New York's SoHo, London's East End, even Williamsburg. But in Leipzig's case, it's an entire city attracting a creative class—and so far the city is still affordable. After Germany's reunification in 1990, many easterners headed west in search of higher-paying jobs. Meanwhile, investors from West Germany came east to Leipzig in search of business opportunities, as cheap rents and the world-class art school drew the artists, including Eitel, David Schnell, and Mattias Weischer. "Once, artists would come here to study, then move to Berlin. But now they stay, because it's so much more affordable. And you can be in Berlin in less than two hours," says Mädler. "In London, New York, or even Berlin, you can be rich and still not find spaces like this," Lybke says, gesturing at the lofty environs beyond the brick walls of his gallery. "There is more room here, literally and metaphorically, for creating art."
Another of the city's venues is the Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst (Gallery for Contemporary Art), or GfZK. In 2004, the GfZK opened a new wing designed by the Berlin and Vienna-based architecture firm AS-IF. The gallery's mission is to exhibit Leipzig artists alongside their colleagues from other former Soviet Bloc countries in order to explore how they are addressing post-socialist life in Eastern Europe. The show "Urban Paintings" recently paired Leipzig-trained Doris Ziegler's old-guard realist canvases with pieces by Verena Landau, a Leipzig artist schooled in the former West Germany, and work by Rafal Bujnowski, a Polish artist. On the new building's ground floor, locals young and old gather for conversation at Café Neubau. On Friday and Saturday nights, the café becomes Club Weezie, with music from DJ's and live bands.
Leipzig was spared the devastation suffered by neighboring Dresden during the war, and much of the city's gilded Baroque architecture survives. There are also a few visible remnants of Communist-era architecture, including a heroic sculpture of Karl Marx, for whom Leipzig University was once named. The city's latest cultural landmark, the Museum der Bildenden Künste, sits squarely between relics of two architectural eras: the empty hulks of dour housing blocks and the Katharinenstrasse's neat file of sherbet-hued Baroque houses. Designed by the little-known Berlin architects Hufnagel Pütz Rafaelian, it opened at the end of 2004 as the new home of the city's most august museum, founded in 1873 by the Leipzig Art Association. The building doesn't look like much from the outside: a plain box with parts of its skin cut away to reveal two-story glass atriums around the perimeter. But inside, double-height galleries filled with daylight and finished in blond wood and smooth, exposed concrete showcase work from new Leipzig School artists alongside the canvases and sculptures by Max Klinger and Caspar David Friedrich.
Much of eastern Germany has been struggling with economic stagnation, a shrinking population, and more than 18 percent unemployment. But in 2002, Porsche opened a test course and a gleaming factory (which looks like a giant UFO) in Leipzig, and in 2004, shipping giant DHL announced that it was moving its European operations base from Brussels to Leipzig-Halle Airport; nearly $400 million in investment and the prospect of 10,000 new jobs came with DHL's announcement. And last summer, former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder cut the ribbon on a swooping building by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Zaha Hadid at BMW's new plant outside the city center.
Zwirner recognizes that someday, like London and Cologne, Leipzig will see its reign as a hot new art city come to an end, and another city—he predicts Shanghai—will take its place. But Leipzig's resurgence will outlast the art world's waning interest. As GfZK curator Ilina Koralova puts it, in every sense, "Leipzig is back."
Raul Barreneche is a contributing editor for T+L.
WHEN TO GO
The weather is best spring through fall.
The Leipzig Tourist Service (www.lts-leipzig.de) sells a day pass ($9.50), for unlimited use of the city's trams.
Though there are no direct flights from the United States to Leipzig, Lufthansa has frequent service from Frankfurt and Munich. You can also fly nonstop from Paris (Air France), Vienna (Austrian Airlines), or London's Stansted Airport (Air Berlin). The train trip from Berlin's Ostbanhof station takes between 11/2 and 2 hours.
WHERE TO STAY
The best hotel in town is the Fürstenhof (8 Tröndlinring; 49-341/1400; www.luxurycollection.com; doubles from $130), a restored 18th-century mansion that's a 10-minute walk from the Museum der Bildenden Künste. The Art Deco Seaside Park Hotel (7 Richard-Wagner-Str.; 49-341/ 98520; www.park-hotel-leipzig.de; doubles from $170) is across from the main train station.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
For creative cuisine, the gallery crowd heads to Stelzenhaus (65 Weißenfelser Str.; 49-341/492-4445; dinner for two $70), a canalside bistro in Plagwitz. Chef Olaf Herzig serves Mediterranean fare at Medici (5 Nikolaikirchhof; 49-341/211-3878; dinner for two $80), in the center of town. On weekend nights, DJ's and live bands play at Café Neubau (11 Karl-Tauchnitz Str., in the GfZK contemporary art space; 49-341/ 140-8120). Stylish ENK Café (10 Katharinenstr.; 49-341/215-3775) serves strong cappuccino and wines by the glass. Leipzigbar (919 Neumarkt; 49-341/225-5714) is a trendy bar that also serves sausage and crostini.
The gallery at the Leipzig Academy (11 Wächerstr.; 49-341/213-5149; www.hgb-leipzig.de) displays work by students hoping to be the next Neo Rauch. Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst (GfZK) (11 Karl-Tauchnitz-Str.; 49-341/140-810; www.gfzk.de) shows artists from former Soviet Bloc countries and from Leipzig. The collection at the Museum der Bildenden Künste (10 Katharinenstr.; 49-341/216-990; www.mdbk.de) has everything from 17th-century Dutch paintings to Leipzig School canvases. Galleries in the Spinnerei complex (7 Spinnereistr.; www.spinnerei.de) include Galerie Eigen + Art (Halle 5; 49-341/960-7886; www.eigen-art.com) and Pierogi Leipzig (Halle 10; 49-341/ 241-9080; www.pierogi2000.com).
WHAT TO READ
The magazine Kreuzer (www.kreuzer-leipzig.de) has detailed listings of restaurants, galleries, and cultural events. The Web site www.rundgang-kunst.de runs an extensive list of exhibitions on view throughout the city.