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Top 10: German artists and their masterpieces

Updated: Jan 20, 2021

Germany is internationally recognised for its extensive and distinguished art history. Producing defining contributions for centuries, spanning movements such as the Renaissance, the birth of Romanticism, the rise of Expressionism and also playing a vital role in the contemporary art scene, German artists have long shaped the world of art. Whether you’re interested in the traditional or the more modern, you’ll find 10 of the most renown German artists and their notable works below.

1. Caspar David Friedrich

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, ca. 1817, Oil on canvas. Photo: WikiImages via Pixabay

Caspar David Friedrich was a 19th century landscape painter of German Romanticism. Influenced by the relationship between man and nature, Friedrich famously stated, “The artist should not only paint what he sees before him, but also what he sees within him”, and his works often feature barren trees or pensive figures silhouetted against misty, expansive vistas. Fostered by the Sturm und Drang poetry of Goethe and Schiller, such figures in Friedrich’s works embody the German Romantic trope of wandering, which came to represent life’s journey. The Caspar-David-Friedrich centre in Greifswald, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, houses a permanent exhibition of his works.


2. Otto Dix

Metropolis, 1928, Oil and tempera on wood. Photo: Mbengisu via Wikimedia Commons

Considered one of the most prominent artists of Neue Sachlichkeit, or New Objectivity, Otto Dix’s paintings and prints have earned international acclaim. Having served in the army himself, Dix’s nightmarish and satirical depictions of his experience of war and Weimar society led the Nazis to fire him from his professorship at the Dresden Academy, briefly arresting him in 1939 for plotting against Adolf Hitler, and confiscating hundreds of Dix’s works for the state-sponsored 1937-8 exhibition of Entartete Kusnt, degenerate art, in Munich. The Otto-Dix-Haus-Museum in Gera is home to 400 of his works, including 48 of the postcards he sent during his military service in World War I.


3. Käthe Kollwitz

Woman with Dead Child, 1903, Etching. Source: via Wikimedia Commons

The first woman elected to the Prussian Academy of Arts in 1920 and now internationally renowned, Käthe Kollwitz is undoubtedly one of Germany’s greatest artists. Kollwitz’s versatile body of work is centred on the experiences of women and the working class, and, following the loss of her son in World War I and her grandson in World War II, offers a harrowing portrayal of the suffering of war. There are museums in Berlin, Cologne and Moritzburg dedicated to her life and paintings, etchings, prints and sculptures, which poignantly depict the universal human experiences of pain and tragedy. Kollwitzplatz in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, is now home to a bronze statue of the artist by German sculptor Gustav Seitz.


4. Paula Modersohn-Becker

Self-portrait with green background and blue irises, ca. 1905, Oil on canvas. Photo: Alinea via Wikimedia Commons

Best known for her portraits of women, Paula Modersohn-Becker was a leading representative of early expressionism. The first female to have painted a naked self-portrait, she sought to turn the depiction of women in Western art history on its head by rejecting overly-eroticised representations in favour of more frank, natural portrayals of the female form. She produced over 700 paintings and 1,000 drawings and prints despite living a very short life, dying from a postpartum embolism at the age of just 31. Rainer Maria Rilke, poet and fellow-resident of Worpswede in Lower Saxony, wrote of Modersohn-Becker in his poem, Requiem for a Friend:

“Women too, you saw, were fruits; and children, moulded
from inside, into the shapes of their existence.
And at last, you saw yourself as a fruit, you stepped
out of your clothes and brought your naked body
before the mirror, you let yourself inside
down to your gaze; which stayed in front, immense,
and didn’t say, I am that; no: This is.”

5. Albrecht Dürer

Self-Portrait at the Age of Twenty Eight, 1500, Oil on panel. Photo: Maksim via Wikimedia Commons

Albrecht Dürer was a leading artist and theorist of the German Renaissance, whose paintings, drawings and prints established his reputation across Europe. Dürer’s exquisite woodcuts revolutionised the medium of carving, elevating the medium to an art form in its own right, while his watercolour paintings signify him as one of the first European landscape artists. He was made the official court artist to the Holy Roman Emperors Maximilian I and his successor Charles V, and painted the portraits of several distinguished scholars as well as producing several self-portraits. His other famous works include Adam and Eve (1504), Praying Hands (1508), and Madonna and Child (c. 1496/9). He also painted the The Four Apostles for the town hall of his birthplace, Nuremberg, though it is now on display at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich.


6. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Self-Portrait as a Soldier, 1915, Oil on canvas. Photo: Mefusbren69 via Wikimedia Commons

Born in Aschaffenburg, Bavaria, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was an expressionist painter and printmaker and one of the founding members of the artists’ group Die Brücke (The Bridge), which played a major role in the emergence of 20th century Expressionism. Kirchner volunteered for military service in World War I, but was soon discharged after suffering a nervous breakdown. In 1918, he moved to Switzerland for treatment, where his health improved and he continued to paint. In 1933, his work was branded “degenerate” by the Nazis, and 600 of his works were later sold or destroyed. Those that were recovered or collected prior to Nazi rule are displayed in the Kirchner Museum Davos, the National Galleries of Scotland and the Städel Museum in Frankfurt, as well as in several other museums and galleries around the world.


7. Hannah Höch

Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany, 1919, Collage. Photo: Juliana via Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

Hannah Höch, the only female Berlin Dadaist, helped found the Dada movement along with fellow artists such as Raoul Housmann and George Grosz. The internationally recognised group established new, experimental art forms in reaction to the horrors of World War I. Höch became known for her photo collages, of which she is considered a pioneer. She appropriated images and text from mass media, recontextualising them to satirise and critique popular culture, the shortcomings of the Weimar Republic, as well as socially constructed roles of women. Although the Berlin Dada group dissolved in the early 1920s, Höch was still active as an artist throughout the Second World War, contributing significantly to the Germanavant-garde. However, she was banned from exhibiting under the Nazi regime, and so withdrew to a house in north-west Berlin, where she lived and continued to create art until her death in 1978. The Hannah Höch House is now a listed heritage site which offers guided tours.


8. Max Ernst

The Elephant Celebes, 1921, Oil on canvas. Photo: via Bing Images

Max Ernst was a German painter, sculptor, graphic artist, and poet. He was a major leading figure of both the Dada movement and surrealism. Having served in World War I, Ernst’s subsequent trauma and critical view of the modern world as irrational characterise his work. Despite having no formal artistic training, Ernst developed the innovative techniques of frottage, taking pencil rubbings of a textured surface, and grattage, applying a similar technique to painting, whereby the scraping of paint across the canvas uncovers an impression of the surface beneath.


9. Gabriele Münter

Jawlensky and Werefkin, 1908, Oil on card. Photo: jean louis mazieres via Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

Gabriele Münter was a Munich-born Expressionist painter who was a founding member of the influential artists’ group Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) alongside Wassily Kandinsky, with whom she lived and studied. She attended the Phalanx School in Munich, where she studied sculpture and woodcutting under Kandinsky’s mentorship. Münter and Kandinsky often travelled south to paint Bavarian landscapes, experimenting with non-traditional use of colour and drawing inspirations from the folk art of towns such as Murnau. Münter drew on this inspiration to also paint many still lives as well as several portraits. She risked imprisonment during World War II by hiding hundreds of her paintings and drawings, deemed degenerate art, in her home. On her eightieth birthday, she donated the collection to the Lenbach House in Munich. Her works are also housed by the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington D.C. and The Museum of Modern Art in New York, among others.


10. Gerhard Richter

Abstract Painting [635], 1987, Oil on canvas.

Photo: Pedro Ribeiro Simões via Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

With a career spanning six decades, visual artist Gerhard Richter is widely appreciated as one of Germany’s most important contemporary artists. Richter has experimented both with abstraction and photorealism, working also with photography and glass. In the early stages of his career, Richter began depicting straightforward, everyday images in black and white, then, in the later years, playing with intense colour to create dynamic and energetic artworks. In 2012, Richter set a record auction price for a painting sold by a living artist: his 1994 Abstraktes Bild (Abstract painting) sold for 34.2 million dollars. He then broke this record twice more, with Domplatz, Mailand (Cathedral Square, Milan, 1968) selling for 37.1 million dollars, and again with the 2015 sale of Abstraktes Bild, 1986, for 44.5 million dollars. Today, his works are displayed across the world, namely at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Tate Modern in London, and the Albertina in Vienna.


Feeling inspired? Last month, we compiled a list of virtual tours of Germany’s cultural institutions so that you can still get your gallery and museum fix from the comfort of your own home.

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