Reason enough for a visit to Munich is provided by the royal flush of Pinakothek art galleries, each of which is dedicated to a different era in art history. The Alte Pinakothek is among the greatest collections of Old Masters in the world, the Neue Pinakothek is particularly strong on nineteenth-century German art, while the Pinakothek der Moderne has seen record-breaking visitor numbers since its debut in 2002.

The Alte Pinakothek

The scars of war are visible on the broken facade of Leo von Klenze’s Alte Pinakothek, at the time of its construction in 1826 to 1836 the largest art gallery in the world. Even today, it can be an overwhelming experience: the collections, which are based on the royal collection of the Wittelsbach dynasty over five hundred years, are arranged geographically and chronologically, encompassing German, Dutch, Flemish, Spanish, French and Italian art, with a timespan from the Middle Ages to the eighteenth century.

Ground floor

Things kick off on the west side of the ground floor with German painting from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Outstanding works here include Michael Pacher’s Kirchenväteraltar, created for the Augustine abbey of Neustift in the South Tyrol, Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Adam and Eve and the same artist’s Golden Age of 1530, which depicts man’s lost earthly paradise. Also on display on the ground floor is Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s richly comic The Land of Cockayne, which depicts the vices of idleness, gluttony and sloth by showing three prostrate figures evidently sleeping off a good lunch.

First floor

The main exhibition space is upstairs, beginning with more medieval painting: Hans Memling’s The Seven Joys of Mary (1435–40) is an entire narrative in one painting, with the story of the Three Magi as its centrepiece; startlingly modern by comparison is Albrecht Dürer’s innovative Self Portrait with a Fur Trimmed Coat from 1500, which depicts the artist at the age of 28 with flowing locks and aquiline nose – every inch the confident Renaissance man.

Italian art is represented by, among others, Botticelli’s vivid Pietà of 1490 and an intriguing Christ with Mary and Martha by Tintoretto from 1580; but the centrepiece of the Alte Pinakothek’s collection is the Rubenssaal, which was intended as the heart of the museum to reflect the importance of the Wittelsbachs’ collection of works by Peter Paul Rubens. The room is dominated by the six-metre-high Last Judgement of 1617. One of the largest canvases ever painted, it depicts 65 figures, most of them naked, as graves open and the dead are separated into the blessed and the damned. Commissioned for the high altar of the Jesuit church at Neuburg an der Donau, it offended contemporary sensibilities and spent much of its short time at Neuburg draped – though it was the nudity, rather than the depiction of death and damnation, that caused offence. Among Spanish works in the collection, El Greco’s Christ Stripped of his Garments, painted in 1606 to 1608 for Toledo cathedral, is notable for also having caused a scandal. Not only does it depict a scene of humiliation almost never painted in Western art, but it also includes Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary as onlookers, with the implication that they will at any moment witness Christ’s disrobing.

The Neue Pinakothek

Facing the Alte Pinakothek across Theresienstrasse, the Neue Pinakothek picks up where the older museum leaves off, concentrating on art from the nineteenth century to Jugendstil. Like the Alte Pinakothek, it was founded under the auspices of King Ludwig I, but unlike its sister museum its destroyed buildings were not resurrected after World War II. Instead, a modern building was opened to house the collection in 1981.

The tour begins with art from around 1800, prominent among which are a number of canvases by Goya, before progressing to English painting of the era, including Gainsborough’s lovely Portrait of Mrs Thomas Hibbert, Constable’s View of Dedham Vale from East Bergholt of 1815 and Turner’s Ostend of 1844. Much of the rest of the museum is given over to German art, including works by artists active at Ludwig’s court, such as a view of the Acropolis by Leo von Klenze. Another architect, Karl Friedrich Schinkel, is represented by a copy of his fantastical Cathedral Towering Over a Town of 1830. More contemplative in tone are Caspar David Friedrich’s Garden Bower of 1818 and his sensual Summer of 1807. Later works include Adolph von Menzel’s Living Room with the Artist’s Sister of 1847, which shows that the great self-taught Prussian painter was as at home with intimate, domestic scenes as he was with his big, official works.

French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works include a Pissarro view of Norwood, a Portrait of a Young Woman by Renoir and Manet’s Monet Painting on His Studio Boat of 1874, as well as one of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. There are also several canvases by Cézanne and starkly contrasting works by the Austrians Klimt and Schiele.

The Pinakothek der Moderne

The baton of art history is again picked up by the third of the museums, the Pinakothek der Moderne, which gathers its somewhat disparate collections of classic modern and contemporary art, design and architecture around a striking central rotunda. Stephan Braunfels’ clean modern architecture won much praise at the time of the museum’s debut, though the building isn’t perhaps quite as pleasing as the earlier Kunstmuseum in Bonn, and the layout’s complexity means you’ll need to hang on to your floorplan if you’re to navigate the museum successfully.

All the same, it’s a rewarding place to visit. Make a beeline for the Sofie and Emanual Fohn Collection on the first floor, which kicks off the museum’s impressive selection of modern art with works by artists ridiculed as degenerate by the Nazis, including Kokoschka, Franz Marc and Jawlensky. There follows a gallery devoted to the Expressionist collective Die Brücke – where the highlights include Emil Nolde’s gorgeous Nordermühle – and a roomful of works by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Pride of place goes to Munich’s own Expressionists of the Blauer Reiter group, with works by Franz Marc, Kandinsky and others who, even pre-World War I, were strongly advocating abstraction, and there is considerable space devoted to Max Beckmann, including a scowling 1944 self-portrait. Close by there’s a Picasso portrait of a seated Dora Maar from 1940 and a typically big, vivid postwar canvas, The Painter and His Model, from 1963.

Contemporary art

The east wing of the first floor displays the museum’s permanent collection of contemporary art, including room installations by Donald Judd, Dan Flavin and Fred Sandback as well as major works by Andy Warhol, Arnulf Rainer and Blinky Palermo. The museum’s ground floor is devoted to architecture and to a rotating selection of the graphic works of the Staatliche Graphische Sammlung. The basement, meanwhile, is a temple to applied design, with everything from a streamlined 1930s Tatra car to classic modern furniture by Isamo Noguchi, Arne Jacobsen and Verner Panton. The labelling is somewhat hit-and-miss, however, and in the basement’s further reaches there’s a general feeling of a department store on a quiet day.

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