Magazine article The Spectator

Virtuous Living

Magazine article The Spectator

Virtuous Living

Article excerpt

Exhibitions 3

Virtuous living

A German Dream: Masterpieces of Romanticism from the Nationalgalerie Berlin

National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, until 30 Januaiy 2005

Penguin Classics uses details from the landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich to illustrate the covers of some of its Nietzsche volumes (for instance, 'Riesengebirge', on display here, features on the cover of its Nietzsche Reader). Walking around this exhibition, one gets the same heady, slightly giddy feeling one gets from reading a lot of the philosopher in one sitting. What seems, on later reflection, slightly hysterical in philosophy works much better as visual art.

Heated religiosity, the towering figure of Goethe, nationalist fervour, hatred of Napoleonic domination of Europe, a longing for an imagined mediaeval world of chivalry and heroism - all were part of the cultural mix that led to the German Romantic movement. Rome, not Munich or Berlin, was the key city in this story. Attracted to Catholicism and to a monastic lifestyle dedicated to art, young artists decamped to Italy and grouped together in communal brotherhoods like the Lukasbund and the Nazarenes.

These groups dedicated themselves to virtuous living, believing that the paths to art and holiness were the same. They would also wear Old German or altdeutsch costume, a deliberately mediaevalised form of dress, with flowing robes and hats, proscribed in many German states as a sign of democracy and liberty. These artist-monks lived ascetically, as can be seen in their portraits of each other in their studios.

Wilhelm von Schadow illustrated this religious sense of mission of the early Romantics in his 'Self Portrait with Brother Ridolfo Schadow and Bertel Thorvaldsen'. Thorvaldsen, a Danish sculptor with Classical inclinations, stands between the two brothers as they solemnly shake hands, looking like the grim personification of some stern virtue or other. Indeed, this was the explicit intention of von Schadow - with Thorvaldsen representing the Classical past approving the work of the Nazarene brethren.

There is a wonderful freshness and life to the portrayal of nature and landscape in the best of these paintings - for instance, Carl Blechen's 'Gorge Near Amalfi', with its dramatic, almost chiaroscuro illumination of a rushing woodland brook, all of Friedrich's many works on display, and Karl Friedrich Schinkel's pastoral 'The Rugard on Rügen'. …

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