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by Fred Stern
  Milwaukee once had a certain sleepy "gemütlichkeit" character, this city of 700,000 souls, with its row of industrialists’ estates along Lake Drive and the Pabst and Schlitz breweries like massive midwest castles.

That’s all changed now. Santiago Calatrava’s new addition for the Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM), which opened in 2001, has given the city a new world-class structure, and catapulted the museum to national prominence.

And practically bankrupted the place, too, if you believe the press reports, though the museum said it wasn’t worried. Among the local donors to the $121 million project were Betty Quadracci (for whom the expansion -- the Quadracci Pavilion -- is named) and baseball commissioner Bud Selig.

After the wunderkind Calatrava was selected as architect, back in 1992, he successfully tapped into local pride, calling Milwaukee a "young city with huge potential" and proclaiming that his design was "a chance not only to create a building, but to articulate the dynamic potential of this city."

The structure’s site on Lake Michigan was the key. "I wanted to infuse the building with a certain sensitivity for the culture of the lake -- the boats, the sails and the always changing landscape."

Indeed, the lakefront museum is surrounded by water on three sides, and feels something like a futuristic ship. The cathedral-like main reception hall is surmounted by a 200-foot angled mast and a Brise Soleil, the moveable, wing-like sunscreen that is MAM’s defining feature. Each day at 10 am, people stand and watch the fins open, a process that can take on a ritual symbolism. The fins move again at noon, closing in the evening or for inclement weather.

The museum is reached by a 250-foot-long pedestrian suspension bridge, a dramatic link between downtown Milwaukee and the museum. Approaching the building, one can’t help but be moved by the wing-like design of the fins, which give the impression of a huge plane or a bird. The upward sweep of the wings is optimistic and gratifying.

These reflections were occasioned by my visit to "Biedermeier: The Invention of Simplicity," Sept. 15, 2006-Jan. 1, 2007, the first exhibition in the U.S. solely devoted to this 18th-century style. Contemplating the almost 300 examples of German, Austrian and Czechoslovakian furniture, wallpaper, glass and ceramics, the metaphor of the waltz is not farfetched. The Biedermeier style has that kind of lightness. Its characteristic colors -- gray and green -- carry this feeling from object to object, even to the paintings its artists produced.

Though it is almost 200 years old, Biedermeier has a simplicity that can seem surprisingly modern. The word Biedermeier roughly translates as "everyman," and the style reflects a general impulse in 19th-century Germany and Austria towards a simplicity of design -- a stripping away of ornate decoration in favor of something more comfortable.

The show devotes almost 80 percent of its floor space to furniture, which shows the emphasis on craftsmanship and natural materials -- blond woods with fabulous veneers, chairs with gracefully curved legs. The period reached its zenith between 1815 and 1830. At first it was costly and acquired only by the well to do, but by mid-century the furniture was being manufactured for a broader population, often accompanied by a decline in workmanship.

The great German playwright, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, was responsible for the Biedermeier color scheme of gray and green. Gray was to represent the inside of the home, green was for the world at the open window. Hand-painted dishes, cups and vases were the order of the day, often in white and green porcelain with gold rims. Natural themes were incorporated into household objects. Plates had flower designs and Bohemian glass beakers and tumblers were engraved with butterflies or delicate images of fauna. The silver objects of the period looked ahead to modernism as well, and the great Wiener Werkstätte nearly a century later.

Biedermeier-era painters -- including Caspar David Friedrich and the great Danish painter Christen Købke, whose renditions of Frederiksborg Castle are unforgettable -- would contrast the indoors and the outdoors, showing studios with windows open to mountain scenery.

At MAM, "Biedermeier: The Invention of Simplicity" also features a Viennese café, with specialties like Bratwurst and Flammenkuchen (a German answer to pizza), and live chamber music is provided on weekends.

The exhibition is organized in Milwaukee by Laurie Winters, MAM’s curator of earlier European art. It subsequently appears at the Albertina in Vienna and the Deutsche Historical Museum in Berlin before concluding its run at the Louvre.

MAM has ambitious plans for the upcoming year as well. "Francis Bacon in the 1950s" goes on view Jan. 27-Apr. 15, 2007, and other special exhibitions include a show of works by Camille Pissarro and a survey of 19th-century French prints from Gericault to Toulouse-Lautrec.

FRED STERN writes on art and antiques.