For my birthday, friends presented me with 111 Duesseldorfer Orte, die Man Gesehen Haben Muss ('111 Places in Duesseldorf that Must be Seen'), by Peter Eickhoff. The book introduces the reader to peculiar and out-of-the-way crevices of Duesseldorf that you'll never come across in tourist guides: the Stolperstein (g) for the 27-year-old piano Wunderkind murdered by the Nazis for criticizing Hitler, the location of former pitched street battles between Communists and right-wing militias, the "Hunger tower," the Moroccan quarter, the city's only 24-hour Döner place (pictured), art galleries both literally and figuratively underground, the city's strangest and tiniest bars, eeriest parks (Der Lantz'sche, of course), oldest crucifixes, ugliest public square, and liveliest immigrant neighborhoods. Of course, you can always quibble with Eickhoff's selections — how could he include the glisteningly lame "Excellent Business Center" GAP 15 office tower (g), yet leave out the Reichsgasse (g)?
But most of his selections are spot-on and, of course, arguing with the author's choices is half the pleasure of reading a book like this. Eickhoff's commentaries show a firm grasp of local history leavened with a pleasantly ironic wit.
I also learned something new from this gem of a book. in the mid-19th century, Duesseldorf was host to the "Duesseldorf school" of painters, a Romantic/Nazarene tendency who were considered quite avant-garde for their time. Their reputation was such, according to Eickhoff, that the "the first private gallery opened in New York, in 1849, called itself, self-confidently and with an eye toward boosting sales, 'The Dusseldorf Gallery.'" (40). And sure enough, Google Books reveals a "Descriptive Catalogue of the Paintings Now on Exhibition at the Institute of Art, Duesseldorf Gallery" from 1861, featuring dozens of works by artists associated with the Duesseldorf School. The catalog also contains this description of their home city:
It is somewhat strange that Duesseldorf, the capital of the inconsiderable duchy of Berg, in the Rhenish provinces of Prussia— a town of little note, dignified by no historical associations, situated on the monotonous flats of the Rhine, far below the region of its grandeur and enchantment, with nothing to boast in the way of palaces, churches, theatres, or ruins—the great staple of continental cities —should, nevertheless, be the seat of a school of painting, perhaps the most conspicuous on the Continent, and which has aided in giving stability and strength to the most important movements in the history of modern art…. [The Duesseldorf School] seems to have found some congenial influences which are hidden from common observation, and make up for the apparent deficiencies of the place. Perhaps the artists who have congregated in so unromantic a locality have been urged to greater efforts after ideal beauty, by the very presence of the natural barrenness which surrounds them.
Well, it may not have enough gigantic cathedrals for those preening East Coast Bildungsbuerger, but I don't recall Newark ever bringing forth a school of art…