The Insel Hombroich Foundation is almost unique in the way it lives from dialogue between art and nature. Close to Neuss and the densely populated areas of the Rhine and Ruhr, this is a refuge conceived as a counterpole to heavily industrialized urban existence. A little English park, enclosed by a branch of the little River Erft, formed the nucleus for what has now grown into an art landscape extending over 250,000 sq. metres.
In 1982 Karl-Heinrich Müller, a Düsseldorf dealer in real estate, bought the park, which had run wild, inclusive of the ‘Rosa Haus’, a villa built in 1816. At that time he was looking for a new way of presenting his art collection, which concentrated on Hans Arp, Jean Fautrier, Yves Klein, and Kurt Schwitters. A separate pavilion was to be devoted to each artist. The collector found support for his plans among people linked with the Düsseldorf Academy of Art: painter Gotthard Graubner and sculptors Anatol Herzfeld and Erwin Heerich. Müller offered Heerich a chance of transposing his minimalist cardboard-box sculptures into architectural spaces; he invited Beuys pupil Anatol Herzfeld to open his studio at Hombroich; and he sought Graubner’s advice about extending the collection, looked after by art historian Kitty Kemr. Landscape architect Bernhard Korte set about restoring the old park and planned the restructuring of neighbouring fields, once used for agriculture, as elemental space.
Ways through Nature to Art
Ingenious dramaturgy in the devising of approaches means that you slowly come closer to the “Island’s” art, directly experiencing an exciting dialogue between landscape, architecture, and art. The route takes the visitor from the higher entrance area down to the water meadow, and from there through the historic park of the Erft island across the elevated terraces back to the starting-point. Heerich did not only plan the buildings as exhibition spaces. They also function as walk-in sculpture which choreograph both the visitor’s movement and direction of gaze. In the first building Heerich thus takes up the idea of a crossroads. Glass doors allow the ‘Tower’ made from pure cubes to be permeated by light and the human gaze from all four sides. When you come close to the raw walls of undressed stone, the overgrown path remains in view, as if through a gateway, while daylight time and again restructures the inner space with its smooth, white-plastered walls.
Confrontation with Contrasting Works of Art
The next building along the route, the ‘Labyrinth’, is seen as the heart of the collection. Hidden behind high hedges is a large square building whose central space can be reached in four different ways. In this maximally ordered but bewildering spatial structure the works of art serve to provide orientation. The collection has become much larger by now. Alongside East Asian, Mexican, African, and Polynesian art are groupings of works by such modernist artists as Paul Cezanne, Lovis Corinth, Medardo Rosso, Constantin Brancusi, Bart van der Leck, Alfred Jensen, and Ellsworth Kelly. Karl-Heinrich Müller never collected systematically but was always directed by his personal preferences. Etchings by Rembrandt and clay vessels dating from early Luristan and Amlash are also to be seen together with works by artists involved in the project, including Norbert Tadeusz since 1990. Neither signs nor captions distract from direct experience of art. The concept developed by Gotthard Graubner, starting out from interactive encounter between artworks as the principle underlying presentation, also allows constantly new and surprising confrontations between differing artistic viewpoints. A studio-house was built for Graubner himself in 1994, and this is due to be transformed into a museum at a later stage.
Architecture as Walk-In Sculpture
By now eleven of the fifteen buildings on Insel Hombroich are by Erwin Heerich. All take as their starting-point simple geometrical primary forms, but each time they redefine the relationship between inner and outer space. Situated in the three different vegetation zones of the island landscape, they initiate a dialogue with the rare trees of the old park in which these buildings were carefully placed, standing as landmarks between the grasses of the marshy area and from the river terrace offering a view into the expansive Lower Rhine landscape. Buildings like the ‘Snail’ pursue another idea when a walkway closed to the outside winds around an inner courtyard with light from above as the only source of illumination for the entire building. These embodiments of space offer an unconventional “living area” for art. The paintings, prints, and sculpture can be seen in a completely new and unspectacular way without air-conditioning or artificial light. A visitor’s perceptions thus vary, depending on the time of day or year, and on the weather.