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February 03, 2005

A German Dream: German Romantic Art in Dublin

Posted by Christie Davies

A German Dream: masterpieces from the Nationalgalerie Berlin
National Gallery of Ireland
Merriam Square West, Dublin 2
16th October 2004 - 6th February 2005
Monday - Saturday 9.30am - 5.30pm (Thursday to 8.30pm)
Sunday 12pm - 5.30pm

Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin
Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

German Romantic art is an expression of the German dream of being free from French oppression. It is appropriate that there should be a major exhibition of these German works of art from the Nationalgalerie Berlin in Dublin at a time when all the EU countries are compelled to do what the French want. What the French failed to achieve by force under Napoleon they have gained by bureaucratic trickery in our own times.

We can all identify with Georg Friedrich Kersting's Theodore Körner, Friedrich Friessen and Heinrich Hartmann on Output Duty, 1815, a diptych with The Wreath Maker, 1815. The larger picture shows three of the artist's friends who had died in the German War of Liberation against the French that ended the French occupation of Germany under Napoloeon and Germany's time of deepest humiliation. The uniformed young men we see in Kersting's picture were all volunteers for the Lutzow Freikorps which fought at Waterloo and saved Britain as well as their own country from the French. In Britain we are apt to see Waterloo 1815 as a British victory leading to that splendid railway station south of the Thames at which French visitors to London are forced to arrive. I have often thought that Heathrow ought to be re-named Wellington, but let that pass. We forget that had it not been for the arrival of the Germans under Blűcher we would have lost. It was a close run thing. The EU could have hit us a century and a half early.

Kersting's picture is a curious composition with Friessen and Kőrner in the shade of the trees and only seen in profile. Their features are unclear and their expressions sad, as if they already knew they were about to enter permanently the land of the shades, that dim place where all is blurred. Yet in the foreground Hartmann lies calmly in the bright sun looking straight at us, his rifle at his side, enjoying a tasselled pipe with a long curved stem and an elaborate cylinder of a bowl – the very picture of a contented German law student looking forward to a prosperous career. Yet Hartmann already wears the Iron Cross, designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel in 1813 to be the symbol of German courage and sacrifice in the War of Liberation. In the other painting of the diptych a woman makes wreaths for these heroes of the Fatherland who died for Europe's freedom.

We should remember how much these rebellious Germans had to resent. From 1806-1813 the French either occupied or dominated the many states that made up a very disunified Germany. They imposed a huge indemnity on Prussia and had even forced Germans to fight for them during their disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812. After his retreat from Moscow with his grand army destroyed, Napoloeon was asked whether he regarded its destruction as a military disaster. He replied:

"It doesn't matter, most of them were Germans".
During the Napoleonic wars as large a proportion of the European population was killed as during World War I.

The Germans had much to resent but at first they were powerless to do anything but dream and to turn their dreams into art. Their artists dreamed of a free and united Germany. They retreated into a Romantic medieval past. They painted untamed northern landscapes and Gothic cathedrals. Their work was an assertion of a proud but unfulfilled national identity rooted in a time long before the French predator had pounced. They created an art and a style that was in all senses to outlive Napoleon.

Sometimes the results are sublime, and sometimes crass. They range from Schinkel to schinken.

Karl Friedrich Schinkel's dreaming spires, notably his Gothic Cathedral by the Water, 1823, with the light pouring through the gaps in its tower and Medieval City on a River 1815 still inspire. In the latter a cathedral is being built and is nearly complete with its great towers standing against a dark rainbowed sky. To the side is a tightly packed and Gothic-spired medieval town from which the people rush to cheer their canopied prince as he makes his ceremonial entrance with his army. It is 1815. Frederick William of Prussia has returned from the war against Napoleon and one day the German edifice will be complete. When it was complete, it had at its centre in Berlin the very neo-Classical buildings from which these present masterpieces come, buildings created by Karl Friedrich Schinkel, the designer of the Iron Cross. Romanticism has many mansions.

From Schinkel we descend to schinken as Carl Philip Fohr hams it up in Knights in front of a charcoal burner's hut, 1816. It is a theme that was parodied by the British cartoonist Bill Tidy in the 1980s. In Tidy's cartoon a knight knocks on the door of a cottage in the forest at night and says (as best I can recall):

"Greetings, humble charcoal burner".
The owner of the hut slams the door in the knight's face. The hut owner's wife asks:
"Who was that?".
The hut owner replies:
"Some fool selling charcoal".

Fohr's picture certainly contains enough Romantic clichės to justify a Bill Tidy parody. A full moon shines through a hole in the clouds as knights move through a gnarled forest containing a dark hut with one brightly lit window. The picture is perhaps best viewed from an unintended distance of 5 yards when you can no longer see the detail. Now all is dark except for the moon, figures caught in the moonlight and the lone window; this version needs a new nocturnal title chosen by Whistler that makes no mention of the Ritterzeit, that age of chivalric adventures based on feudal relations of production.

Even at the time satire and parody were at hand in Carl Bleichen's Ruin of a Tower with a Dragon, 1827. The dragon sits snug on top of the ultimate in romantic ruins. In the distance coming over the hill like a cross between a cowboy in a B-feature Western and Don Quizote is a tiny St. George. My money is on the dragon to win.

If you think the knights are absurd, you should see the artists themselves dressed in their patriotic altdeutsche costumes. Few costumes look more absurd than the quasi-medieval tunics, long hair and floppy hats of German artists trying to look German and trying to look artistic. Perhaps the ideal-type of these is to be seen in Friedrich Overbeck's Portrait of the Painter Franz Pforr, 1810. It was painted in Sant 'Isidoro; Pforr is seen through a Gothic window arch. On one side his loyal cat rubs against his arm and on the other and behind him is his dutiful wife, her hair pulled tight across the side of her head. Through the window behind her we can see a Gothic church and Germanic houses and fortified gates placed against a Mediterranean shore with cliffs. Pforr's plum-coloured tunic, open-necked shirt and long loose hair are supposed to show sensitivity but merely make him look effete, particularly in contrast to his busy overshadowed wife. Both artist and subject belonged to the Lukasbund, the Confraternity of St Luke, a kind of guild. They believed in brotherhood, which is always a bad sign. Think of our own medievaling PRB.

It is a relief to turn to Friedrich Georg Weitsch's famous Portrait of Alexander von Humboldt, 1806, with the explorer-scientist sitting in the shade of huge tropical leaves examining his botanical specimens on a plant press on his knee. His hair falls carelessly onto his high sweatless brow, his white shirt and russet waistcoat are remarkably clean for the middle of the Venezuelan forest and his sturdy barometer has lost nothing of its sheen. How pleasant to be a heroic Romantic scientist on the banks of the great, grey, green, greasy Orinoco! It is even more pleasing to look at the Portrait of Heinrike Dannecker, 1802, by Christian Gottlieb Schick, another big bold figure nearly filling the frame. Her blonde curls poke out from the cloth that fails to hold them in at the top, at the back and over her forehead. A long vividly dark blue skirt hides her massive shapely limbs and sits well against a pale blue sky and a soft green landscape.

German Romantic art is seen at its best in the melancholy, mystic landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich, such as Greifswald Harbour, 1818-1820, where the masts and rigging of the ships stand out against a dim sky at sunset with a tiny moon visible. Behind is the university town across the harbour and in front are half-seen figures on the shore. Also in the Dublin exhibition is Riesengebirge, 1830-1833, painted from a sketch he made in 1810 in the foothills of the Sudeten mountains in the early morning, with ridge after misty ridge stretching away to the peak. Both pictures are consciously romantic yet precisely calculated. Perhaps the best known of his pictures exhibited here is Man and Woman contemplating the Moon, c. 1818-1824. They stand among grey rocks where trees struggle to take root, their bare, tangled, grasping branches clutching at the couple. It is a Romantic's version of Kenneth Grahame's Wild Wood in winter. The wintryness is sharper in Friedrich's Snow covered hut, 1827, a broken decayed hut, half sunk in the ground, covered in a pall of snow and threatened by dead branches. A tired wanderer could creep in here to rest but then die alone in the cold. A refuge can become a tomb.

It is these German landscapes that remain vivid in one's memory after leaving the exhibitions. Who would not wish to hike in the hills of Casper Friedrich's Sudetenland or on the shores of Schinkel's Rügen. Probably if one went to explore these places one would be disappointed. Yet this very disappointment would be a measure of the skill of the German artist. Perhaps too, we islanders, we Inselaffen, are too prosaic and matter of fact ever to share the mystical feelings about nature of the German Romantics.

"Forest joys and nature's pleasures none but Teuton children know" [tune Haydn, Austrian hymn 1797].
We lack the German sense of the eternal in the present that enables them to become as one with hills and trees. Go then to these paintings in Dublin, or if you can't afford Dublin go to the other island, the Museuminsel in Berlin, and find ewigkeit through German eyes and palettes.

Professor Dr Christie Davies is the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain, Transaction 2004.

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Waterloo is not the first time the Germans have saved us from being dragged into a European Union. In 9 AD, Arminius / Hermann defeated the legions of the corrupt Roman governor Varus. Having been educated in Rome, and something of a "Romanophile", Arminius saw the vile deeds of Varus, became an instant "Romanosceptic" and roused the Teutonic tribes to a successful resistance. The Germanic people thus rescued from assimilation into the EU of the Rotten Romans may well have included the ancestors of the Anglo-Saxons and today's English. With apologies to Michael Flanders: "Don't be nasty to the Germans – if it wasn't for them, we'd all be French!"

I'm not so sure, though, about the Romantic movement. Isn't it the ancestor of the "me" generation and postmodernism? Nature may give us a longing for eternity, but to find eternity in Nature? Martin Luther would have had kittens at the idea!

Jedenfalls bin ich glücklich, ein Inselaffe zu sein. Why be Junge Werther and commit romantic suicide? Much better to be his cousin, and come over to this country and start a sweetshop from which we get the much-loved "Werthers Originals".

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at February 3, 2005 06:37 PM

I have an ancestor named Kersting, who was a surgeon-major at Waterloo - could it be that he was a painter too?

Posted by: Mike Parsley at April 3, 2007 05:50 PM
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