The key is inside

Donald Lee on De l'Allemagne, 1800-1939: de Friedrich à Beckmann, Musée du Louvre, until 24 June


Leo von Klenze, View of the Valhalla near Regensburg.

This is an extraordinary exhibition. In the first place, the numbers attending have taken the Louvre by surprise. By the time of writing, it had been seen by more than 50,000 people since opening on 28 March (on average, 4,400 visitors a day), 81% more than anticipated. It is hard to say why this has become a blockbuster, except, perhaps, the novelty of it: here are 200 works of art, almost all of which will be unfamiliar to the general public, French and international.

A Franco-German press war has also erupted in the pages of Le Monde, Die Zeit and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, involving Henri Loyrette, the former director of the Louvre, and Andreas Beyer, the director of the Centre Allemand d'Histoire de l'Art / Deutsches Forum für Kunstgeschichte, Paris, that has collaborated with the museum in designing the show. Allegations have been made and rebutted concerning the history that the exhibition may or may not endorse. Has the exhibition arranged the 200 works of art in such a way as to tell a teleological tale—along the lines of the “Sonderweg” (special way) and “verspätete Nation” (belated nation)—showing an inexorable historical development that runs directly from Idealism and Romanticism to Hitler? Is the show, intended to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Franco-German friendship treaty signed by Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer, Germanophobic? Is the Louvre guilty of “Deutungshoheit” (being high-handed in its interpretation of German art)?

I did not see any of this. To my eye, the art told a different, if not wholly coherent, story. The works—mostly paintings, but also drawings, prints, photographs and a couple of film clips—are arranged chronologically and divided into three broad sections, “Apollo and Dionysius”, “Nature” and “Ecce Homo”.

The first refers to German artists' fascination with the classical world and gestures towards the much later Nietzschean balancing (The Birth of Tragedy, 1872) of rational and ethical aims and chaotic and irrational impulses. Here these works are arranged, in various sub-groups, by such disparate artists as Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Klenze, Thoma, Olivier, Pforr, Moritz von Schwind, C.D. Friedrich for the Apollonians (but no Biedermeier artists) while, for the Dionysian team, we have Feuerbach, von Marées, von Stuck and Max Beckmann.

“Nature” begins with considerations of new 19th-century scientific investigations and understandings of botany, geology, meteorology and so forth. Landscape is the principal genre here and Friedrich takes centre stage in the gallery with Carus, Kolbe and Runge in supporting roles.

The third section is weak. First, it omits major painters (where are Kirchner, Heckel, Schmidt-Rotluff, Marc, Kandinsky, Arp, Ernst, Schwitters? Jugendstil, Die Brücke, Blauer Reiter, Dada?), preferring to show photographs, film and drawings. No explanation is offered for the radical switch of media. Second, the idea seems to be to show how industrialisation, nationalism and imperialism had mainly adverse impacts on late 19th- and early 20th-century Germany, and how everything fell apart after the First World War. Disgust and disillusionment were undoubtedly part of the milieu, but what about the optimism of the Bauhaus? “Ecce Homo” fails because it treats art, inadequately, as a social symptom, not as an end in itself. It is here that ones sees the clip from Leni Riefenstahl's “Olympia”, 1938, that has sparked the press row.

The main problem with presenting art made in Germany (not including the Austrian Empire) between 1800 and 1939 (1933 would have made an historically more meaningful closure) is that it is very hard to create a coherent story that is made of so many disparate, divergent, contradictory, local, regional and confessional segments. It is a struggle to make the sum of the parts add up to a whole.

But two, interrelated considerations round up all these works. First is the fact that over 200 years the German nation produced an incommensurate number (compared to anywhere else) of influential thinkers, especially philosophers of art: Lessing, Kant, Winckelmann, Goethe, Schiller, Hegel, Burckhardt, Riegl and Wöfflin, to name but a few. Second, Germans uniquely cultivated the personal quality of “inwardness”, Innerlichkeit. Thomas Mann, in his address, “Germany and the Germans” at the Library of Congress on the defeat of the Nazis in 1945, called it

...a word that is most difficult to define: tenderness, depth of feeling, unworldly reverie, love of nature, purest sincerity of thought and conscience—in short, all the characteristics of high lyricism are mingled in it, and even today the world cannot forget what it owes the German inwardness: German metaphysics, German, German music, especially the miracle of the German Lied—a nationally unique and incomparable product—these are the fruits of German inwardness.

This high premium placed on thought and feeling is what is German in German art from Friedrich to Beckmann. A confidence in individual moral development, mental refinement, educational improvement – in a word, Bildung, inner growth—is what this exhibition presents us. A timely message for our cacophonous age.

Donald Lee is the Literary Editor of The Art Newspaper

Published Wed, 08 May 2013 13:38:00 GMT

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