Stalking Bernd Becher in Düsseldorf

How I accidentally stalked the great photographer, plus five things to see in arty Düsseldorf

What I have always assumed to be the very cool mailbox of Bernd and Hilla Becher, 2005

• I was just filing some old photos when I came across this enigmatic image, souvenir of an embarrassing art moment that, with retrospect, I’m glad I had. I was visiting Düsseldorf, which isn’t as dull as it sounds, being home to numerous well-stocked museums, and the one-time base of genre-busting figures from Stockhausen and Kraftwerk to Paul Klee and Joseph Beuys. So I checked out the Joseph Beuys boulevard (pretty dull, but imagine having a road named after him in your town, especially if you found a dead hare on it), did a mad dash through the art-historical treasures of the Kunsthalle and Kunstsammlung, and drank lots of surprisingly good coffee. And then it was time to seek out the unsurpassable documentary photography of Bernd and Hilla Becher, influential teachers of so many of today’s art photographers: Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth, Thomas Ruff, Candida Höfer, et al. At the time Bernd Becher was still alive, and my companion had an address for what he thought was his public gallery and archive, so off we set through the clean-scrubbed Düsseldorf suburbs to locate it. This proved strangely difficult, but we finally came upon a large warehouse-type building in a quaint leafy quarter which looked the part, especially as one of the mailboxes read “Becher” – which I was enough of a fan-girl to photograph, as you see here. Previous experience had taught us that smaller German galleries aren’t as efficient as national stereotype suggests, and don’t always open at the advertised hours. So we weren’t deterred by the closed doors, and buzzed persistently on the bell. Eventually, a bemused old geezer poked his head out of an upstairs window, and gruffly informed us it was a private house and we’d just woken him up. Internet image searches were more primitive in 2005, so after running away we were unable ascertain if it was Mr Becher himself whose ire we’d unintentionally aroused. But as he seemed about the right age, we reckoned it was; and when in 2007 he sadly died, the obituaries offered photographic proof that it had indeed been the great man. Thus, although I never got to see his “public archive” (which was obviously an urban myth), I did get to see him. And his very cool mailbox.

Andreas Gursky's supra-real landscape photo, "The Rhine II" (1999)

Five non-mailbox things to see in Düsseldorf

There’s lots of other art-related stuff to do in Düsseldorf – here’s a bit of it

Kunsthalle Massive, somewhat brutalist concrete museum in which to contemplate the impressive contemporary collection in relatively punter-free Modernist splendour.

Kunstsammlung Nordrhein Westfalen The art collection of the state of North-Rhine-Westfalia, stuffed with historical gems from Caspar David Friedrich to the Brueghels, and with dedicated 20th and 21st century wings and a sculpture garden.

Rheinturm Aka the Rhine Tower, not as Dr Who as East Berlin’s ball-topped TV tower (immortalised by Tacita Dean in “Fernsehturm”, 2001), but like all such structures a tragi-comic memento of the past’s idealistic future, complete with tacky rotating cafe.

Joseph-Beuys-Ufer A road named after the great hare-slapper. It’s a dull dual carriageway that runs along the Rhine. But, wow, it’s named after Joseph Beuys…

The Rhine Visitors to Tate Modern may be familiar with Andreas Gursky’s $4m photo “Rhein II” (1999), a quintessential northern European view of slime-green grass sandwiching stripes of flat grey river and sky. It looks like a deliberate abstraction but stand on the banks of the Rhine in Düsseldorf and that’s what you see (even if it wasn’t the bit he expressly photographed). Like the best landscape work (eg the Australian deserts of Fred Williams), it’s so supra-realistic it looks like an exaggeration until you’ve experienced the real thing. But then, Gursky was a student of Bernd and Hilla Becher.

Other resources:
• Düsseldorf Tourism – a useful starting list for Düsseldorf art sites, if a bit old.
• Düsseldorf art calendar – has a list of museums and galleries, though it’s in German.
• Becher exhibition – the only one I could find in Europe currently is at the Winterthur photography museum in Switzerland till 12 Feb 2012.

And here's the Becher mailbox again in all its full, nerdy glory

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