Long Reads

The fall and rise of one of the most beautiful museums in the world

In Essen, a grey and gritty city in the centre of Europe’s biggest rustbelt, Germany’s most beautiful art gallery is celebrating its (slightly belated) centenary. Founded in 1922, Essen’s Folkwang Museum turned 100 last year, but those celebrations were curtailed by Covid-19. This year, it’s an international rendezvous again. Wandering around this serene, sunlit building, you rub shoulders with art lovers from all around the world.

In Berlin or Munich this would be no big deal, but here in Essen? This drab conurbation lies in the heart of the Ruhr, a post-industrial sprawl of derelict coal mines and redundant steel mills, which stretches for over 100km (62 miles) across northwest Germany like a huge unsightly rash. The slag heaps have been grassed over, and new forests now grow where steelworks once stood, but nobody in their right mind would call it pretty. So how did Essen end up with what Paul J Sachs (co-founder of New York’s Museum of Modern Art) called “the most beautiful museum in the world”?

For art buffs, the history of the Folkwang Museum is fascinating – but its significance stretches way beyond the narrow confines of the art world. The Folkwang’s fall and rise isn’t just a story about modern art, it’s a story about the ruination and redemption of modern Germany – from the tyranny of the Third Reich to today’s Bundesrepublik.


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