Jacob Burckhardt and Nineteenth-Century Realist Art

Article excerpt

Although the nineteenth-century Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt (1818-97) is best remembered today for his innovative cultural histories, his reputation during his lifetime derived in large part from his distinguished work in the field of art history. Over the course of half a century of active professional work his art historical oeuvre came to include many important books, as well as numerous essays and lectures, which, when viewed as a whole, form a unified, comprehensive survey of western art from the classical to the modern age.(1) While Burckhardt's assessment of western culture and his theoretical and methodological approach to the study of art are increasingly well-known,(2) his attitude towards the art of his own day, especially realist art, has received less attention. Particularly revealing in this context is a series of articles Burckhardt wrote in 1842 reviewing a major exhibition of contemporary German paintings at the Royal Academy in Berlin.(3) The exhibition sparked considerable debate within the German art community. At stake, it seemed, was the future of German art, which was entering a crucial period of transition as artists and the general public began to turn their backs on the idealism of the romantic movement, with its fatalism and ambiguity, and embrace the realism that would define the cultural language and the growing social optimism of the European bourgeoisie. Burckhardt's lengthy commentary was an important contribution to the on-going discussion, and it touched upon themes which continued to preoccupy artists and critics long after the initial debate had died down. Besides being a valuable contemporary assessment of the state of German art during a period of profound social and cultural change, his review also provides insight into his later understanding of art and its purpose in the modern world. As such, it represents a critical confrontation, not just with contemporary art, but with modernity and modern society.

One of the most fashionable forms of art in the first half of the nineteenth century was realist historical art. The 'historicization' of art - the penetration of History or 'historical mindedness' into the world of artistic creativity - was significant not just because it revealed the extent to which cultural production was governed by a new historical consciousness, but because it paralleled broader social and cultural transformations. At an art-historical level, it reflected the transition from romanticism to historical realism as artists became convinced that concrete events of the past could be resurrected accurately and objectively and that a realistic, essentially unmediated form of representation was possible. At a socio-cultural level, the historicization of art corresponded with the rise of the bourgeoisie and the emergence of an active public discourse in Germany. With the growing influence of educated, wealthy middle-class patrons, art ceased to exist solely as a representational form produced for its traditional, elite clientele - the court, church and aristocracy - but was now produced for a market and was accessible to those with money. Artists, appealing to the concerns of the new public and expressing their own political voice, enthusiastically turned to the past for their choice of themes and motifs, especially events of popular national interest, and abandoned more traditional allegorical or religious themes which had been dependent upon centuries-old cultural codes or systems of symbolism and belief, but which were now losing their relevance in the more secular, market-driven society of the nineteenth century. One result was that artists attempted to reflect in their work the progressive tendencies of the day and became involved in the major political, social and religious controversies of the Vormarz. History, now intertwined with the concept of the nation and nationality, became a pillar of bourgeois cultural identity at a time when this class was struggling for full participation in political life; historical realism consequently was a barometer of the tastes and aesthetic preferences of a maturing and increasingly powerful bourgeois public sphere. …