"The Romantic Spirit in German Art: 1790-1990." (Hayward Gallery, London, England)

Article excerpt


Though assembled under the sign of Romanticism, "The Romantic Spirit in German Art: 1790-1990," was not exclusively, or even principally, about the Romantic period in German art and its legacy; it was really about the recent reunification of Germany. Here Romanticism has been transformed into a Masonic cult, a kind of Virtual Romanticism--more an agent of German simplification than unification. This is not to deny that Romanticism figured as a source of expression for artists far afield of the period from the late 18th to the early 19th century, but such an argument is anything but self-evident from the works on view; so you had better buy the catalogue and study it. Those who selected work for this show (Professor William Vaughan, Dr. Keith Hertley, Dr. Peter-Klaus Schuster, and Henry Meyric Hughes) do mention the political context of Romanticism, that is, how some artistic currents took shape alongside the German longing for unification and national identity during the Napoleonic occupation in the early 19th century. Finally, though, there are so many different Romanticisms--Der Blaue Reiter, Neue Sachlichkeit, Max Ernst, Paul Klee, and National Socialist realism--to wade through that its disorienting. By the time you reach 1945, more than the spirit of Romanticism is on the wane.

Given this, you might as well take note of how reunification is implicitly presented from the point of view of West Germany. Scandalously, the East German problem gets curt treatment. Apparently, the Easties included were masters of working "outside" the system, which is to say, they were imaginatively working in the West. Pretty soon, German school children won't even know there was such a thing as the German Democratic Republic. Perhaps Communism will return again some time in the future as an acceptable artistic theme--yet another encoded Romanticism.

Joseph Beuys, of course, is the great hero in all of this, and we would not want to ridicule him. The anodyne account of his reappraisal of the Romantic is scant improvement over what we have come to expect from previous historical amnesia mills. …


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