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Beyond Museums: European Artworks Hiding in Living, Breathing Spaces

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A continent imbued with unfathomable layers of history, Europe draws visitors from every corner of the globe. Its artworks offer a unique glimpse into the lives, attitudes and social mores of cultures that came before, whilst also revealing contemporary truths. Museums are the first place we look for such immersive insight, but there are many masterpieces hiding in plain sight.

From hotel lobbies to shopping malls to government buildings, unexpected locations play host to influential artworks inextricably linked to local narratives past and present. Seeking them out can expand our understanding of a place and its stories with a more nuanced perspective than crowded galleries alone can offer.

Rebelling horse in Lucerna Pasaz, Prague

Often called the City of a Thousand Spires, Prague is truly ancient, its history so visible and tangible as to feel at times disconcerting. The public sculptures of David Cerny offer an entry point for exploring the city’s many modern narratives. Born in Prague in 1967, Cerny rose to notoriety in the early nineties with public art interventions critiquing the government. Today, his provocative and often darkly humorous sculptures can be spotted across the city, from a set of giant babies crawling up the side of the Zizkov TV Tower to the ‘Piss’ sculpture outside the Kafka Museum.

One of the artist’s most striking works is concealed inside a turn-of-the-century shopping arcade. Unremarkable from the outside, Lucerna Pasaz (Lucerne Passage) is not particularly hard to find. Just off bustling Wenceslas Square in New Town, the passage is one of a number of walkways beneath the Lucerna Palace, an Art Nouveau gem dating back to 1920. At the turn of the 20th century, Prague, like many European cities, began blossoming with a new aesthetic that reflected the optimism of the age. The Lucerne Passage still sports the opulent design and decor of the time, its dusty atmosphere enhancing the sense of nostalgia.

Dangling from a golden dome in the ceiling is Cerny’s ‘Horse’, a comical inversion of the statue of Saint Wenceslas found in the eponymous square outside. The titular horse hangs upside down, strung from its feet and seemingly dead. Mounted on its stomach is a a version of Wenceslas wielding a flag. The contradiction between the tone of the sculpture and its setting speaks volumes, reflecting the hodgepodge histories that live side-by-side in Prague. And though Cerny refuses to comment on the meaning of his piece, it has often been interpreted as a mocking denunciation of former Czech President Václav Klaus, whose rule ended in 2013 with impeachment amid accusations of corruption.

Cubist gem at InterContinental Paris – Avenue Marceau

Hotel lobbies are designed to make an impression, whether through soaring ceilings, opulent chandeliers or statement staircases. The atrium of InterContinental Paris – Avenue Marceau does so with the works of two acclaimed modern artists. Georges Braque’s painting was strongly influenced by Matisse, with whom he developed Fauvism, a style focused on painterly approaches and colour over realism. Known for his crucial role in the founding of Cubism and a close relationship with Picasso, Braque turned to sculpture in the 1950s, basing much of his work on earlier lithographies. Standing in the hotel’s lobby, The Blue Birds is considered his most emblematic sculpture, and continues to surprise and enchant guests and passers by, who are even able to touch the masterpiece.

The theme of movement and vitality is also found in a large painting by French artist Raymond Moretti. Hanging in the hotel’s access hall, The Bull comprises repeating lines reminiscent of Picasso, greeting and questioning visitors as they enter and shaping the ambiance of the hotel with its powerful presence. “Many guests and visitors are surprised to discover these artworks, and become especially captivated when they find out they’re original,” says Alexandra Bansard, the hotel’s communication director.

Contemporary galleries at The Reichstag, Berlin

Berlin’s Reichtag hides a collection of contemporary art pieces – image courtesy of Foster + Partners

Many visit Berlin’s Reichstag for its famous dome, designed by renowned architecture studio Foster + Partners and installed in 1999. The glass cupola offers panoramic views of the city, and represents a commitment to governmental transparency and an embrace of enlightenment. Beneath the dome is a moving collection of contemporary art, much of it in dialogue with the building’s troubled 20th century history, from the Reichstag fire that helped establish Hitler’s rule to the Cold War, when the building remained in ruins a stone’s throw from the Wall.

The Reichstag’s collection includes works from artists from each of the four countries involved in its liberation and the city’s division: Britain, France, the US, and Russia. Particularly compelling is the installation by french artist Christian Boltanski, whose eerie corridor of metal despatch boxes documents the names of every elected member of German parliament from 1919 to 1999. The box for Hitler is regularly defaced. Revisiting the divided city theme, American artist Ellsworth Kelly’s contribution to the collection is called Berlin Panels. Comprised of four separate panels that, although separate, speak to each other subtly, the installation mirrors a metropolis split into quarters, each distinct yet clearly belonging to the whole.

Artist wall at InterContinental Dusseldorf

InterContinental Dusseldorf opened its doors in 2005, and since then has welcomed guests and visitors locals with the unique Artist Wall that dominates the atrium. The atrium itself makes an impression, with modernist lines and classical columns creating a sense of continuity between past and present.

In recognition of the many creative figures who made Dusseldorf what it is today, the atrium features a huge Artist Wall depicting personalities connected to the city throughout history. “Art and culture play a huge role in our hotel,” says Oliver Büscher, the hotel’s Director of Sales & Marketing. “The Wall itself is unique and part of our DNA.”

One of the most famous and influential artists featured on the Artist Wall is Joseph Beuys. A professor at the Dusseldorf Academy of Art, Beuys repeatedly rebelled against the institution’s entry requirements for students who wanted to join his class until he was spectacularly dismissed in 1972. He went on to become a legend in contemporary art, an enigmatic non-conformist whose works made difficult demands of individuals and society, pushing boundaries of acceptability and paving the way for dissenters and outsiders in the art world and beyond.

Dusseldorf’s Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen holds around 80 installations, drawings, and collages created by Beuys between 1944 and 1985. Among the most striking is a piece from 1972 entitled ‘fat up to this level I.’ An arranged environment of three vertical panels and an extending iron rod, the work is emblematic of Beuys’s approach, daring viewers to mentally complete the sculpture while simultaneously questioning our right to do so. The Intercontinental also holds an annual exhibition. Each year, modern photographic works grace the walls of the 11 lift landings, provoking both fascination and inspiration in guests, visitors and staff.

In all these cases, it’s that unexpected connection with the viewer’s private gaze that holds the power. Art in public, unbound from the safe and roped-off environments of museums and galleries, is more vulnerable, more surprising, more liable to be controversial and more readily critiqued. Art beyond museums takes on a precarious role in relating the ideas and stories of the living, breathing spaces in which it dwells, and perhaps because of that, a more intense one.

To unveil more lesser known art pieces to be seen in living spaces, contact the Concierge teams of some of the newest InterContinental destinations.

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