Magazine article The Spectator

Interrogating the German Soul

Magazine article The Spectator

Interrogating the German Soul

Article excerpt

De l'Allemagne 1800-1939: German thought and painting from Friedrich to Beckmann Musee du Louvre, Paris, until 24 June.

Curated by the Louvre as a tribute to mark the 50th anniversary of the Franco-German co-operation treaty signed in January 1963, De l'Allemagne 1800-1939: German thought and painting from Friedrich to Beckmann sounds like a harmless survey of German art. But it is stranger than that, less a measured look at German painting and more a very French attempt to interrogate the German soul, Nietzsche's writings in hand.

The exhibition opens dramatically with eight 12ft-high canvases by Anselm Kiefer.

They were made especially for the show and provide the exhibition's title, in turn taken from Madame de Stael's famous book De l'Allemagne. Collaged with dramatic woodcuts and painted inscriptions - 'Melancholia', 'der Rein', 'Vater, h. Geist, Sohn, Satan', 'Atlantic Wall' - Kiefer's portentous, doomy ensemble gets a room to itself.

So, too, does Tischbein's marvellous portrait of 'Goethe in the Roman Campagna' showing the great man on leave from the Weimar court, delighting in nature and the antique.

Alarm bells begin to ring in the first section of the show where an introductory storyboard argues for two strains in 19th- and early-20th-century German art and culture, the Apollonian (rational and classical) and the Dionysian (dark, illogical, cruel). The first rooms offer Apollo in the form of a fine group of narrative paintings by the Nazarenes and their circle and by later artists such as Johann Anton Ramboux and Adrian Ludwig Richter.

Theirs was a romanticism that drew variously upon Greek temple structures, the pure colours of early Italian art, Durer's precise draughtsmanship, medieval German architecture and folk tales being noted down by the Brothers Grimm. All these paintings have a luminous charm.

The Dionysian section that follows, with paintings such as Franz von Stuck's nastily neo-primitive 'Fight for a Woman' (1905) and Arnold Bocklin's weird, late 'Nereids at Play' (1886), makes a suitably striking contrast. But does such work epitomise a strand of German-ness - the dark side? After all, von Stuck and Bocklin's febrile imagery was hardly specific to German art at that date. One has only to turn to Edvard Munch or to the Polish Jacek Malczewski's surreal confections to realise that Dionysus held sway all over Europe just before and after 1900. …

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