Adolph Menzel

Radically Real

16 May31 August 2008

The draftsman

From May 16 through August 31, 2008, the Kunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturstiftung in Munich presented the exhibition “Adolph Menzel: Radically Real”. With 230 works, including some 70 paintings, gouaches and watercolours, about 20 photographs, and a large number of his best drawings, this was the first exhibition in Munich devoted to the art of Adolph Menzel (1815-1905). This project aimed at looking over Menzel’s shoulder, and did so by focussing on his numerous sketchbooks that reveal the genesis of his compositions. Thus, it is the creative process, the succession from a first casual observation towards the laboured composition, which was presented to the visitor. His famous grand historical canvases as well as his printed oeuvre had been consciously omitted, in order to enable a fresh look at this first rate German Realist painter and draughtsman. His quest for form and concept were the real subject of this show.

Menzel’s Subjects

As the title “Radically Real” suggests, it was investigated how Menzel saw reality, and how he directed it by means of his sketches. Five sections were to elucidate this process. First, Menzel’s person and environment were presented; portraits of family and friends characterized his social environment. Then, the obsessive draughtsman was introduced, he who is not held back by banalities of daily life, such as an unmade bed or an abandoned back yard, nor by the unusual, such as a look into a urinal or an opened grave. As indicated by his sketchbooks, travels also played a major role in Menzel’s life. Gathered into one section were his recordings during journeys from Berlin to Bavaria, Salzburg and across the Alps towards Verona. Moreover, in honour of Munich’s 850th birthday, the city received a noble homage as seen through the eyes of the Berlin artist.


In the chapter “Teatrum Mundi” one leafed through Menzel’s world theatre, both sacred and profane. The artist reveals his social environment through festive happenings at opera and ball, but also counts the baroque scenography of church interiors, the intimate prayer or festive processions among his many interests. In the epilogue, the artist himself was once again the focal point, as he also submitted himself to his own radical gaze. Intense self portraits from all phases of his life are as much witness to this as are the highly modernist views of his own body; the studies of his own hands and feet radicalize the meaning of the term “self portrait”.

A new look on Menzel’s oeuvre

Thus, the exhibition offered a phenomenal variety, and by means of numerous works that are little known to the public and scholars alike, it provided a survey of life and work of this truly creative draughtsman and painter who ranks on a European level.

While exclusively shown in Munich, the point of departure for the exhibition was the rich holdings of his work in the print collection (Kupferstichkabinett) of the Berlin State Museums, which served as the main lender and collaborative partner. The show’s concept was developed by its curators, Dr. Bernhard Maaz from the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin and Dr. Christiane Lange, director of the Kunsthalle. At the same time the Hypo-Cultural Foundation supported the digitalization of Menzel’s sketchbooks, necessary for reasons of conservation and scholarly accessibility. On a computer terminal in the exhibition, visitors could”leaf through” some of these digitalized sketchbooks.

Exhibition leaflet

The exhibition was accompanied by a catalogue published by Hirmer Verlag, Munich. All works in the show have been reproduced in colour, and the book contains essays by Sigrid Achenbach, Hélène Hiblot, Claude Keisch, Christiane Lange and Bernhard Maaz.

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