Museums in the German Art World: From the End of the Old Regime to the Rise of Modernism

Article excerpt

JAMES J. SHEEHAN

Museums in the German Art World: From the End of the Old Regime to the Rise of Modernism

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. 272 pp.; 34 b/w ills. $35

The public museum of art as cultural institution, familiar to all residents and visitors of major urban centers throughout the modern world, did not develop until the 19th century. Prior to the opening of the Louvre in Paris to the public in the years following the French Revolution, virtually all collections of art, with a few exceptions, were in the hands of royalty and the nobility, usually housed in palaces or private spaces-the exception being religious art contained in churches. Above all, the Napoleonic Wars, when masterworks from all the territories defeated by the French armies were taken to Paris as booty, established a strong awareness of the value of art for the traditions of culture, especially among those who had been defeated and robbed by Napoleon. The concept of the museum in a modern sense thus emerged directly from the upheavals of that time, so that the era of the Restoration brought with it the first systematic attempts to gather the cultural heritage of the community-usually the nation-into a monumental display for the edification and the aesthetic education of the citizenry. The rise of art history as an academic discipline during the 19th century also went hand in hand with the development of the museum of art as institution for public access to the treasures of the culture and its traditions. Nowhere did this development take place with more conviction and commitment than in the German-speaking territories of Western Europe. Often in conjunction with programs for political reform and cultural renewal, supported by elaborate and sophisticated theories concerning the value of art for public life, the new institution of art, the public museum, quickly emerged as a central focus for the open display of the treasures from the past. In many ways the collections of art in Germany were belated and impoverished in comparison with the great private collections of royalty in neighboring countries, such as Italy, France, and England. But nowhere were the idea of the museum and various theories of its functions and values so fully articulated as in the philosophical and pedagogical programs for art that emerged in the aesthetics of Idealism from Kant to Hegel and Schopenhauer and beyond.

James Sheehan, historian of Germany at Stanford University, whose monumental history of Germany from 1770 to 1866 (Oxford, 1989) established him as the leading specialist of this period in the English-speaking world, has devoted a short monograph to the rise of the museum of art in the Germanspeaking realms, tracing the development of this cultural institution (as his subtitle indicates) from the end of the Old Regime to the rise of modernism, that is, from the French Revolution to World War I. It is a remarkable story, which brings together both intellectual history and the philosophy of culture with the political, social, and economic contexts that contributed to the emergence of the art museum as public institution. Much of this story is familiar to specialists in the field, above all through the varied and often exhaustive archival research done in Germany over the years for each of the representative museums. There has also been an increasing awareness in recent memory of the central importance of museum culture for the rise of modern life and thought. Few of the institutions of culture-one thinks, for instance, of the theater or the concert hall-can claim so central a role for establishing the interface between theories of art and the public reception of these theories through the policies and practices of the museum. Sheehan focuses quite rightly on this crucial and complex interface, at the same time that he attempts to survey the remarkable diversity of the various state museums and public collections across more than a century of German culture. …