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July 2003

Air Brush

The abiding charm of Bavarian alfresco painting

It is pleasant to imagine that when the German playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) composed the line “Life is ours by colorful refraction” (Am farbigen Abglanz haben wir das Leben), he had in his mind’s eye the Pilatushaus (Pilate House) in Oberammergau. Yet, there is no evidence that Goethe ever saw the beautiful alfresco paintings created by his contemporary, the painter Franz Seraph Zwinck (1748–1792) in 1784, though there can hardly be a more fitting epithet for the vibrant trompe-l’œil effects and glowing biblical depictions on the exterior of this house. (On the south-facing facade Zwinck painted the Condemnation of Christ by Pontius Pilate, from which the house derives its name). Visitors to Oberammergau, Mittenwald or Garmisch-Partenkirchen may have noticed in passing the richly decorated facades of many of the local buildings. Perhaps it is the abundance of commercial images that crowd modern townscapes, perhaps the profusion of souvenirs for sale in these particular towns, but it seems that the local tradition of mural painting, known in German as “Lüftlmalerei,” has not been given the attention it deserves.

Mural painting is, of course, a centuries-old tradition, going back at least as far as the Romans and probably a lot further—there are some fine examples from Pompeii on display at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples, for example—and the origins of Lüftlmalerei can probably be traced back to alfresco painting in Italy. Though it is not clear who first coined the German term, it is thought that “Lüftl” may derive from Luft (air), denoting a type of painting that was done in the open.

Mittenwald, Garmisch-Partenkirchen and Oberammergau all have a rich heritage of alfresco painting, though over the centuries many murals have been painted over or destroyed. Lüftlmalerei was commissioned by individuals or businesses, mostly likely for one of three reasons. Firstly religious motifs on exterior walls were thought to procure good fortune. Secondly, paintings depicting the profession of the owner were a useful form of advertising, but above all alfresco painting increased the status of a building and its owner—many of the details on the Pilatushaus are trompe-l’œil pillars, balustrades and stonework, rendering the flat facade considerably more imposing than it actually is. Ironically, it was exactly this craving for status that resulted in the loss of many Lüftlmalereien in Oberammergau. By the early 19th century the art form had become so popular that the town council decided to crack down on arriviste house-owners and levied a tax on mural paintings, forcing many less affluent locals to paint over their wall decorations. A number of painted facades from this time have been discovered in recent years during routine renovation work and are now being meticulously restored.

Lüftlmalerei was never cheap. The process of applying images to exterior walls was both laborious and time-consuming. Though the technique may have varied a little from town to town, it generally involved the following steps: after the motif had been chosen, the artist would begin executing the painting section by section. He was hampered by the fact that the colors could be applied only to damp plaster, otherwise the design would fade or be washed away, so work needed to progress quickly and accurately. Each day a 1:1 scale drawing of the section to be worked on would be created. The contours of the drawing were perforated with a pointed instrument, producing a simple stencil. This paper was then held up to the wall and charcoal dust was blown or painted over the perforations in order to re-create the image on the plaster. Then, before the surface became too dry colors and details were added.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this art form is the longevity of the finished product, a fact that visitors to the Pilatushaus will verify. The original structure of this house dates from around 1750 and Zwinck began decorating the south- and east-facing walls in 1784. Over the next almost 200 years the building suffered every kind of abuse and neglect: it was remodeled, throwing all the original proportions off kilter, damp crept up the outside walls and the interior was gradually allowed to fall into almost complete disrepair. Then, finally, in 1981, it was decided to pull down the structure altogether. In the nick of time residents of Oberammergau came together to form “Freundeskreis Pilatushaus” (Friends of the Pilate House) and the building was not only saved but restored as exactly as possible to its original shape and style. Unfortunately, at ground level Zwinck’s designs could not be rescued, but from about 1.5 m upwards what the visitor sees is his original work, albeit touched up a little here and there. Amazingly the colors are nothing less than luminous, allowing the visitor to appreciate the picture’s imaginative and skillful execution. High above the main entrance Zwinck painted the Resurrection—what better subject matter for the hometown of the Passion Play? Christ emerging from a golden shell looks heavenward while his two terrified guards attempt to escape this unearthly apparition over a pink marble and stone trompe-l ‘œil balustrade. Such a playful approach is characteristic of the house’s exterior and visitors can spend many neck-cricking hours discovering delightful and unexpected details. It is also possible to look around the interior of the house that now serves as an exhibition space for every type of painting and has a “living workshop” on the ground floor, where visitors can watch local craftsmen at work.

Anyone who develops a soft spot for Lüftlmalerei will find plenty of other examples in the area. The Rotkäppchen-Haus (Little Red Riding Hood House) and the Hänsel- und Gretel-Haus (Hansel and Gretel House), on the outskirts of Oberammergau, are popular stopping-off points for tourists, and in Mittenwald (see this month’s travel feature) and Garmisch-Partenkirchen there are painted facades on almost every street. Frustratingly, for those who wish to know more about the history of this art form and about individual artists, there is very little literature on the subject, perhaps because Lüftlmalerei was and is often regarded as the provincial sibling of other, more elevated genres of painting. The historical society of Oberammergau is planning to publish a detailed guide to the town, in which Lüftlmalerei will be given a prominent position, however the guide will be in German, at least to begin with. A definitive book on the subject has yet to be written.

The call for alfresco painting in the Werdenfelser Land today is much diminished. Though the method of applying images has changed and is less painstaking than it was 50 years ago, a facade painting will still cost hundreds, even thousands of euros, depending on the size of the image. In addition, the number of artists who are willing and able to carry out a piece of sophisticated Lüftlmalerei or renovate existing murals are relatively few in number. One exception is Michele Nardiello (see this month’s cover image), an Italian mural and trompe-l’œil painter living in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Hailing from Apulia, Nardiello came to Bavaria 11 years ago, where he has created a number of stunning alfresco murals. These days, when a person’s status is more likely to be expressed by their car than a wall painting and when religious motifs are no longer necessarily believed to bring good fortune, Nardiello’s commissions tend to fall into the category of trade description. He has designed, for example, the exterior of the Rehaklinik in Oberammergau and a restaurant, Gasthof Höhenrain, in the village of Grainau. Looking at the figures that adorn the front of Gasthof Höhenrain it is hard to believe that it was not a native who created such a typically Bavarian scene: from the green-checked Loferl (foot-free socks) to the tightly corseted Dirndl in typical local fabrics. Like Zwinck, Nardiello likes to bring small, humorous touches to his designs, so on the side of the Gasthof Höhenrain you can find a little faux vine growing up the wall and a trompe-l’œil wooden sign complete with nail, giving the artist’s name and the date of execution. Anyone who wishes to see more of his work, or would like to commission a piece—he does both interior and exterior walls—should visit his shop at Ludwigstrasse 14 in Garmisch-Partenkirchen or go to, which has information in English.

Most modern Lüftlmaler use acrylic paints, which can be applied to a dry surface, allowing the artist to work at a more leisurely pace. The work is then often covered with a UV-filter and a layer of varnish, but despite this the colors will fade over time and need to be retouched. Connoisseurs of traditional Bavarian alfresco painting may sigh at the sight of gaudy house fronts and point out that a pseudo-Baroque window decoration does not constitute a Lüftl painting. Admittedly, there is plenty of mediocre artwork on buildings in the area. But those like Nardiello who have good training, an excellent knowledge of the subject matter and the requisite imaginative powers are, thankfully, keeping this singular tradition alive.

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