Düsseldorf: Sculpting an Artistic Tradition

Art Academy Dusseldorf

Düsseldorf sits at the entrance of the Ruhr valley, an industrial region that takes pride in its blue-collar tradition. But amidst the mining towns and vast factory sites, Düsseldorf holds an unexpected cache of accomplished artists.

The Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, the Arts Academy, boasts an impressive row of alumni including abstract painter Gerhard Richter, Nobel Prize Laureate Günther Grass, and photographer Andreas Gursky. Outside of the academy, many other talented individuals have called Düsseldorf home: three-time Academy Award nominee Wim Wenders and composer Robert Schumann.

Considering the city’s small population of 600,000 people, the amount of artistic talent seems strangely unproportional. Stranger yet is the city’s fascinating journey to its current place in the arts community. Düsseldorf’s rich cultural history is defined by cinema-worthy moments of miraculous transformations, utter decimation, and a rebirth from the ashes.

The story begins ‘once upon a time’ during the medieval period. When Duke Wilhelm II chose Düsseldorf as his residence in the late 13th century, he brought his elaborate royal household to the sleepy town. There he built a palace, redesigned streets into grand boulevards, enlarged churches into cathedrals, and turned Düsseldorf into a grand city.

To cater to the new royal patrons, the city drew in artisans and craftspeople from the surrounding regions. Thus, Düsseldorf became famous for its distinguished goldsmiths and jewelry makers. The unique and often elaborate pieces from this period are well documented and preserved in institutions like the Kunstpalast or Stadtmuseum.

The Arts Academy was founded in 1762, and less than a century later, artists from all over the world flocked to the city to learn the style known as the ‘Düsseldorf School.’ The industrial city enjoyed a period of revival during the Industrial Revolution, but the success was short-lived, as it became a center for general strike in WWI and heavy bombings in WWII.

Like its sister cities, Düsseldorf endured the decimation by letting art lead the way. The rubble opened up spaces and inspiration for modern artists to explore throughout the 1950s and ’60s. Alongside the famous Bauhaus movement were photographers, architects, sculptors, and other artisans who drew inspiration from the famed minimalist lines and geometrical qualities.

As a young apprentice, veteran goldsmith Georg Hornemann encountered Bauhaus in his native town of Dessau. After moving to Düsseldorf he experimented with new shapes and discovered Op-Art, a style that draws from optical illusions, to create his famous avant-garde jewelry. Constantly drawing from his surroundings, he later created sculptural rings, inspired by modern and post-modern architecture and contemporary art. His more recent collections evoke opulent Victorian jewelry but not without a Hornemann twist, adding a modern influence with his crisp detailing.

Today, jewelry from Düsseldorf is often closely associated with goldsmith, designer, and innovator Friedrich Becker. His classic production methods combined with modern forms seem to pay homage to the famous Bauhaus.

Becker’s artistic fascination is movement. Originally trained as an engine fitter, he was constantly inspired by unique designs. Harkening to the legacy of the Düsseldorf Arts Academy, Becker perfected and propagated his ideas in his teaching roles.

His most prominent public works include Geteilte Kugel, the Split Sphere, in Ludwigshafen or the Ratschlagender Würfel, the Cartwheeling Cube, in Düsseldorf.

He plays with shapes and balance to create kinetic art.

Becker approaches jewelry as a sculptor with the same graphical shapes, clear structures, and almost seamless surfaces. To him, a ring is not simply an accessory; it is a work of art in its own right, designed to extend the movement of the body. He installs tiny, sophisticated ball bearings in his pieces to allow the jewelry to move with the wearer. A simple wave of the hand is reverberated by the movement of the ring. Deliberate angular or off-center swivels increase the effect, resulting in unexpected oscillations.

Becker made his mark on his hometown, and kinetic jewelry is now seen as a local specialty. Every September, goldsmiths and designers showcase their abilities in a jewelry fair bearing the name of the late Friedrich Becker.

While many local goldsmiths continue making kinetic jewelry, others follow Becker’s lead by departing from his style completely in a quest to explore their own designs. As such, they continue the legacy of Düsseldorf as the unlikely, but monumental, center of modern German art.

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