Germany, a Companion to German Studies

By Jethro Bithell | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XIII
GERMAN PAINTING

WE frequently encounter, when reading criticisms of German art by non-German writers, a tendency to decry it as formless, or to deplore its insistence on illustrative rather than æsthetic elements. Such criticism is in reality based upon a comparison which requires the art of Central Europe to conform to certain æsthetic principles, the outcome of a Weltanschauung very different from the German. The pagan sensuousness of the Italians, the logical genius of the French enable these peoples to create an art of serene harmony, of exquisite lucidity. They find it easier to reconcile imaginative emotion and reality than the German, whose very consciousness of this conflict seems often the primary urge to artistic creation, manifesting itself in violent contrasts of unrestrained fancy and ruthless realism. A passion for psychological penetration may sometimes result in a lack of subtlety, but with its suggestion of superficial description the term 'illustration' ignores the greatest quality of German art -- its extraordinary force of expression. Moreover, the accusation 'formlessness', with its insinuation of literal transcription, fails to recognize the German artist's power to compel the object to his will, according to no fixed standard of beauty but to the necessity of individual truth.

Yet to recognize in the art of Central Europe only a tendency towards boundless subjective expression is to ignore forces that constitute as important a part of its genius as this predilection towards the 'Gothic' and Romantic. For from time to time, in the conflict between spirit and matter, a sudden longing for clarification and harmony awakens in the German that 'yearning for the south' of which Georg Dehio with his great insight into the art of his country speaks. But northern classicism thus born is, through its very function of discipline and restraint, far removed from that of the Apolline south, and a true understanding of either can only be won through the realization of their divergent ideals. When, with the foundation of the Holy Roman Empire, art was incorporated in the machinery of the State as a symbol of imperial and theocratic authority, Central Europe turned to the south. For neither the involved linearity characteristic of Germanic decorative art and the manuscripts

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