Germany’s meticulously creative population has made major contributions to international culture, particularly during the 18th century when the Saxon courts at Weimar and Dresden attracted some of the greatest minds of Europe. With such rich traditions to fall back on, inspiration has seldom been in short supply for the new generations of German artists, despite the upheavals of the country’s recent history.
The scope of German architecture is so extraordinary you could make an entire trip based solely on the subject. The first great wave of buildings came with the Romanesque period (800–1200), examples of which include Trier Cathedral, the churches of Cologne and the chapel of Charlemagne’s palace in Aachen.
The Gothic style (1200–1500) is best viewed at Freiburg’s Münster cathedral, Cologne’s Dom (cathedral) and the Marienkirche in Lübeck. Red-brick Gothic structures are common in the north of Germany, with buildings such as Schwerin’s Dom and Stralsund’s Nikolaikirche.
For classic baroque, Balthasar Neumann’s superb Residenz in Würzburg, the magnificent cathedral in Passau and the many classics of Dresden’s old centre are must-sees. The neoclassical period of the 19th century was led by Karl Friedrich Schinkel, whose name crops up all over Germany.
In 1919, Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus movement in an attempt to meld theoretical concerns of architecture with the practical problems faced by artists and craftspeople. The Bauhaus flourished in Dessau-Rosslau, but with the ascent of the Nazis, Gropius left Germany for Harvard University.
Albert Speer was Hitler’s favourite architect, known for his pompous neoclassical buildings and grand plans to change the face of Berlin. Most of his epic works ended up not being built or were flattened by WWII.
Frankfurt shows Germany’s take on the modern high-rise. For a glimpse of the future of German architecture, head to Potsdamer Platz, Leipziger Platz and the government area north of the Reichstag in Berlin, which are all glitzy swathes of glass, concrete and chrome.
The Renaissance came late to Germany and its artists, but flourished once it took hold, replacing the predominant Gothic style. The draughtsman Albrecht Dürer of Nuremberg was one of the world’s finest portraitists, as was the prolific Lucas Cranach the Elder, who worked in Wittenberg for more than 45 years.
The baroque period brought great sculpture, including works by Andreas Schlüter in Berlin; while romanticism produced some of Germany’s most famous paintings, best exemplified by Caspar David Friedrich and Otto Runge.
At the turn of the 20th century, expressionism established itself with great names such as Swiss-born Paul Klee and the Russian-born painter Wassily Kandinsky, who were also associated with the Bauhaus design school.
By the 1920s, art had become more radical and political, with artists such as George Grosz, Otto Dix and Max Ernst exploring the new concepts of Dada and surrealism. Käthe Kollwitz is one of the era’s few major female artists, known for her social-realist drawings.
The only works encouraged by the Nazis were the epic style of propaganda by artists such as Mjölnir; nonconforming artists such as sculptor Ernst Barlach and painter Emil Nolde were declared 'degenerate' and their pieces destroyed or appropriated for secret private collections.