The following article is from our January 2010 issue.

Breaking the waves A new gallery on the North Sea island of Föhr shows the power and wonder of the sea - By Christian Risch

The yearning for distant horizons, the hard work of fishermen, the carefree delight of summer bathers - the works in the new Museum Kunst der Westküste reflect the life on the sea.

An icy wind blows from the northwest. Seagulls cry and white foam flies from the tops of the waves. Anyone who gets on the ferry in the small harbor town of Dagebüll is immediately under the spell of the sea. The tides set the rhythm here on the North Sea coast. Clear skies, the captivating mood of calm and the distant horizons do not only attract tourists. The raw beauty of this landscape has always fascinated artists, who are inspired by the endless interplay of natural forces.

The ferry is headed for Föhr, 93 miles northwest of Hamburg, in the Wattenmeer National Park. In earlier times, the island was home to whalers and fishermen. In the 19th century, many of its inhabitants left their life of poverty there for America. One in three families, they say, has relatives in the US.

Today, Föhr has about 8,600 inhabitants and is a popular tourist destination. In the past few months, the island has been visited by an increasing number of art lovers. The Museum Kunst der Westküste, in the small village of Alkersum, is showcasing nearly 500 works by painters who have risen to the artistic challenge of the sea. They include famous names like Max Liebermann, Emil Nolde and Edvard Munch. The motifs range from fashionable Dutch seaside resorts to the lonely fjords of Norway.

Liebermann sketched out carefree beach life. In "Badende Knaben" (Boys Bathing), a group of boys are running happily into the waves - a bright, colorful scene that he observed at a Dutch beach in 1902. In "Tennisspieler am Meer," two ladies in long dresses and summer hats are playing doubles against two men; several observers are standing nearby, while others sit, relaxed, in their basket chairs, taking a breather on a seemingly endless summer day.

Other works are firmly rooted in everyday life. In "Wäsche trocknen-Bleiche" (drying clothes), Liebermann has brightly colored clothes flapping in the North Sea wind. One can almost smell the salty sea air. In "The Return of the Fishing Fleet" by Philip Sadeé, women and children gaze yearningly out to sea from the dunes. The fear and hope is plain in their faces as they search the sea for the boat carrying their husbands and fathers.

Hans Olde's "Heimatstrand" goes further north, to the Danish coast, and shows a married couple in the flickering light, right at the water's edge. The woman is wearing the traditional costume of the island of Fano and is knitting as she walks. The man is beside her with a walking stick. They appear to be deep in conversation - in harmony with the quiet mood on the water.

In contrast, Norwegian painter Johan Christian Dahl displays the power of the sea. In "Shipwreck on the Coast of Norway," a ship destroyed by a storm drifts, lost, in the turbulent waters. A dark mountain range rises in the background and the lifeboat carrying the survivors could easily be dashed to pieces on its rocks by the relentless, merciless force of the waves.

"The sea and the coast are places of work, relaxation but also of danger," said Thorsten Sadowsky, director of the museum. "That very ambivalence is what makes it so fascinating."

Even Denmark's Queen Margrethe II was drawn to the museum's launch in August 2009: many Danish painters are represented here in Föhr, including Peder Severin Kroyer. His work, "Three Fisherman Pulling a Boat" is among the collection's most outstanding pieces. The scene is captured so vividly that the observer can almost feel the fishermen's burden on his own shoulders. The two fishermen in Oskar Björk's "Pfeiferauchende Skagenfischer" (fishermen smoking their pipes) are sitting exhausted from their hard work, still wearing all their gear. Above their heads is a sign calling on people to emigrate to New York.

The museum is situated amid flat, thatched fishermen's cottages at the heart of the island. It is a white, modern ensemble that has arisen from an old farm. The barn and inn, "Grethjens Gasthof," where painters used to stay, were rebuilt according to old plans - and several new halls were added.

The idea came to Frederik Paulsen 10 years ago. His feeling of belonging to the place where his family came from led the businessman to finance this "cultural lighthouse" with a collection that illustrates life on the coast. Paulsen's grandparents lived on the island and knew the hard life of the fishermen and farmers firsthand. Paulsen's father left Nazi Germany for Sweden, where he founded the Ferring pharmaceuticals company. Today, Paulsen lives in Switzerland but even at that distance, he keeps in close contact with those who run the museum.

The collection primarily comprises works from the period 1830 to 1930. One of its focal points is North Friesian painting - which is a favorite among cultural historians. What did the old farmhouses look like, the costumes of the fishermen's wives? Föhr's best-known painter, Otto Heinrich Engel, is the best artist to study for such things - for instance, the parlor depicted in his light-flooded "Friesische Stube."

"Many Americans who have come to us have been looking for their family roots and in these pictures, they can get an idea of how their ancestors lived," said Sadowsky. "The important thing about our museum is that the visitors have plenty of time. They have gotten into the mood on the ferry ride. They are removed from everyday, hectic life. That is a huge advantage."

The numbers speak for themselves. Just three months after its opening, the museum had had more than 30,000 visitors - and the year's target was met much faster than expected. Sadowsky says most of the visitors wanted to come again because the sea has cast its spell on them - as have the paintings which seek to capture the mysterious essence of the power of nature.


Kunst der Westküste
in Alkersum, Föhr

open from March 1,
Tue. to Sun. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.,
Thu. 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
(closed until Feb. 28 for renovation),
admission ?6;