The Romantic Spirit in German Art, 1790-1990 / Imagining Modern German Culture, 1889-1910

Article excerpt


The Romantic Spirit in German Art, 1790-1990

London: Thames and Hudson, 1994. 504 pp.; 185 color ills., 155 b/w. $75.00 FRANCOISE FORSTER-HAHN, ed.

Imagining Modern German Culture, 1889-1910

Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1996. 312 pp.; 8 color ills., 149 b/w. $55.00

The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 was undoubtedly one of the most important events of the last half-century. Its political effects were in some ways predictable; its intellectual ones much less so. And yet here, too, important changes have taken place. Broadly speaking, until now German art of the post-Renaissance era has been practically ignored by art historians in North America and Britain. Exceptions have mainly been made for early modernist manifestations such as the Blaue Reiter, a few individual artists of the pre- and postwar periods, and the Bauhaus. Naturally, there had also always been those who recognized the potential interest of 19th-century Germany-among them several of the contributors to Francoise ForsterHahn's compilation, and above all the editor herself-but theirs were voices crying in the wilderness of French-oriented Anglo-American art history.

This has begun to change in recent years, perhaps-as Forster-Hahn suggests (p. 301)-as a reflection of the new political order. Certainly, reunification has made research easier and has facilitated access to the great collections of l9th-century art in the former GDR. But there may be a psychological component as well. Germany has finally become "normal"; apparently cured of the ills of both National Socialism and communism, it can now be treated like any other country; dealing with it is no longer taboo. The result has been a spate of Englishlanguage publications,' several important exhibitions in the United Kingdom and the United States-including a major retrospective of the works of Adolph Menzel at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.-and even a few interesting museum purchases.2

The Romantic Spirit in German Art, 17901990 and Imagining Modern German Culture, 1889-1910 represent two very different approaches to German art of the l9th and 20th centuries. The former, a weighty tome masquerading as an exhibition catalogue, was published to accompany an exhibition at the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh and the Hayward Gallery in London in 1994; the latter is an anthology of conference papers, given originally at a symposium at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts in Washington, D.C., also in 1994.

The methods used to analyze the material could not be more at variance. While The Romantic Spirit is essentialist in outlook, the CASVA essays are thoroughly contextualized and grounded in history. The former attempts to create an overarching paradigm for understanding the German art of more than two centuries; the latter, in examining only a brief moment, shows the complexity and variety of ideological forces that shaped modern art in Germany. The Hayward catalogue, with one or two exceptions, is the work of art historians only and focuses almost exclusively on painting, while Forster-Hahn's compendium is interdisciplinary and "multimedial." It is perhaps also important to note that The Romantic Spirit was written primarily by German authors (here translated with varying degrees of success) but designed for a broad, nonGerman audience, while Imagining Modern German Culture is by American and British scholars and is directed at others in their fields.

The circumstances surrounding the organization of the exhibition The Romantic Spirit had a profound influence on both the form and content of the catalogue, making some commentary necessary. The exhibition was first conceived in 1992 to focus on German Romanticism; it was soon discovered, however, that because of prior commitments a number of important loans were unavailable. Rather than postpone their project, the organizers chose to broaden the original concept to include later Romantic and "Romanticinspired" images up to our own time. …