An Autumn of German Romanticism

By Evans, Richard J. | History Today, October 1994 | Go to article overview

An Autumn of German Romanticism


Evans, Richard J., History Today


It has often been forgotten -- not least in Germany itself -- that Germany was the cradle of Romanticism. When the famous Centenary Exhibition of German Art, covering the years from 1775 to 1875, was held in Berlin in 1906, the work of artists such as Caspar David Friedrich and Philipp Otto Runge, which had been largely forgotten over the previous few decades, came to many Germans as a revelation. Elsewhere in Europe it had to wait even longer for recognition. French artistic trends dominated, from Impressionism onwards, and it was only with the Surrealist rediscovery of the irrational in the 1930s that German Romanticism began to attract a certain amount of attention. Even then, relatively little of it was available in galleries outside Germany, and Modernist fashion continued to decry landscape painters who seemed to have little that was novel or original to offer in the way of technique.

What has transformed this situation is a moment of cultural change similar to that which gave birth to Romanticism itself: the crisis of Modernism in the late twentieth century, echoing the crisis of Enlightenment 200 years before. In both cases, subjectivity and emotion came to the fore as part of a reaction to a kind of intellectuality which seemed to have exhausted its own possibilities. In both cases, too, this has been allied in Germany to a birth, or rebirth, of national sentiment: in the early nineteenth century with the wars against Napoleon, in the late twentieth with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of the two Germanies, East and West.

To mark this moment, a series of exhibitions and cultural events has been organised in London over the summer and autumn, which began with a major show on German Romanticism -- Friedrich to Hodler at the National Gallery in June, accompanied by a display of German Printmaking in the Age of Goethe at the British Library, and which culminates in an exhibition on The Romantic Spirit in German Art 1790-1990 previously at the Royal Scottish Academy and now at the Hayward Gallery until January 1995. All of this has a good deal to offer to anyone interested in German history; and indeed the organisers have gone out of their way to try and link the spirit of Romanticism to wider currents in German society and culture over the last 200 years.

Most obvious among these links is the connection, already alluded to, between Romanticism and nationalism. In the painters of the early nineteenth century this was relatively simple, as in Georg Friedrich Kersting's portrait of fellow-recruits to the Lutzow Volunteer Regiment in 1813, or Caspar David Friedrich's revival of a supposedly glorious German medieval past in his 'Arminius' Grave', dating from the same year. By the last decades of the twentieth century, however, the references to German nationalism in the work of a painter such as Anselm Kiefer have become ironical, critical and self-reflective. What came in between, of course, was the experience of the Third Reich, when Hitler, himself a failed artist, condemned the 'degenerate art' of the Modernists and attempted to create an official art based at least in part on Romantic models, idealising the German landscape and the peasants who worked in it, through the Nazi cult of 'blood and soil'.

The exploitation of Romanticism and the Romantic tradition by the Nazis created a lot of bad art, as well as attempting retrospectively to force the painters of the early nineteenth century into the straightjacket of Nazi racial and political ideology. It is to the credit of the Hayward Gallery exhibition that it does not duck these issues, unlike the large exhibition of 'German Art in the Twentieth Century' held in London a few years back, which left out the art of the Third Reich altogether, as if it was not German at all. One of the five chronological sections in the Hayward exhibition deals with the problematical relationship of Nazi art to the tradition of German Romanticism. …

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