Paris Day 5: German art at the Louvre


Beyond the first room full of the Nazarenes’ Italian Renaissance style paintings, romanticism returned in full force.  With its immense forests, Gothic architecture and misty northern climate Germany was perfectly situated to produce some of the best romantic landscapes – these very characteristics also giving them a sense of mystery and foreboding… Consequently I couldn’t help experiencing slight deja vu on seeing again these visions that the Musee d’Orsay had so recently presented as paragons of dark romanticism.  Nevertheless, the focus on German folk traditions and a developing ‘national’ identity, forged in response to the Napoleonic threat, demanded a different – more historical and less thematic or literary – angle of interpretation.  Carl Philipp Fohr’s ‘Knight before the Charcoal Burner’s Hut’ (1816) is of definitively northern Renaissance stock, its subject matter harking back to a medieval chivalric heritage and the fairy-tales of the Brothers Grimm.


The work of Ernst Ferdinand Oehme is new to me and, judging by the paintings on display here, rivals that of Friedrich. ‘Procession in the Mist’ (1828), complete with shadowy figures, gothic tower and bleak atmospheric effects, displays the same mixture of sublime natural scenery and an ambiguous, disquieting narrative as, for instance, Friedrich’s ‘Cathedral in the Snow’.  It was this latter element that led Friedrich to be identified as a ‘spiritual’ landscapist in contrast to his contemporaries whose landscapes, still theoretically ‘sublime’, were more concerned with recording geological and meteorological effects.


Oehme’s ‘Cathedral in Winter’ (1821) is even more tense with narrative anticipation.  The scene appears frozen just at the moment when Something Terrible is about to happen of a highly dramatic nature – a battle of the sacred and the profane in which the fate of the lone figure hangs in the balance… The menacing orange glow from the interior of the cathedral, in contrast to the silent frost-bitten night, gives it the appearance less of a haven than of the mouth of hell.

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And I must give space to one more tantalising picture by Oehme – ‘Burg Scharfenberg at Night’ (1827).  Who is that figure galloping up to the forbidding castle in the dead of night upon a white charger?  What is his intention and will he ever escape again?  The silent Rhine – at least I imagine some such majestic river – flows by in the moonlight below the rocky promontory on which stands this impregnable fortress.

All my enthusiasms give a skewed view of the exhibition as a whole.  To clarify, it divides German art from 1800-1939 into three sections: the first, ‘Apollo and Dionysus’, addresses the ideal of Greek Classicism popularised by Winckelmann whose ‘History of Ancient Art’ (1764) influenced German art, literature and philosophy for over a century.  Or rather the reaction against it.  This dichotomy was unclear from the beginning, with the Nazarenes consciously rejecting neoclassicism in favour of the spiritual and Christian values to be found in medieval and renaissance art, followed by the complete contrast of the romantic painters described above.  Neither to my mind appeared remotely Apollonian.  There were a desultory few images of ‘German Romans’, primitive fight scenes and nymphs and the like, by von Maree and Bocklin (disappointing in comparison with the latter’s famous ‘Island of the Dead’ or ‘Villa by the Sea’), which at least gave evidence of a dialogue with classical themes…  And then the final room of this first chapter pronounced the advent of Dionysian Greece in Germany under the aegis of Bismarck, characterised by vitalism and primitive impulses as opposed to elegy.  In actual fact, this was illustrated by a bizarre mixture of vast images portraying ‘powerful women’, mostly unattractive.


And so, puzzled by the historical-philosophical curatorial approach, but charmed by the German landscape, it was a relief to pass to Part Two: ‘The Hypothesis of Nature’, which offered a more empirical discourse on this genre.  It transpires that Goethe was far more than a writer, playing a key role in the development of German art in the early 19th century. Interested in botany and mineralogy, in the patterns and geometries within nature, he devised a theory of colours and promoted an art based on scientific knowledge of the natural landscape, known as ‘morphology’.  This is illustrated by the awe-inspiring vistas of Carl Gustav Carus, such as ‘Haute Montagne’ (above, c.1824); the rock formations and flora of the Alpine landscape are now the primary subject matter – if there is a figure it is there purely to exhibit the relative scale of its surroundings.


Friedrich appears at this juncture – and though I felt he ought to have been displayed alongside Oehme, I had to concede that his work also perfectly complements Carus; ‘Le Watzmann’ (above, 1824-5), for instance, must be ‘morphological’ painting par excellence.  


But then the mists come down, and there are several rooms devoted to the ‘spiritual’ Friedrich of mystical atmospheric effects – as in ‘Morning Mist in the Mountains’ (1808) – and powerful Bronte-esque romantic sentiment…

0f346f9c309781117add4e1a9403eda8b6e16de0…thus the brooding sunsets of the ‘Tree with Crows’ (1822) or the ‘Woman at Sunset’ (below).  It was a delight to see so many hitherto unknown Friedrich paintings – a personal highlight in fact – though dedicating so much space to one painter did produce the effect of a small hiatus in the exhibition’s perplexing narrative.



A few examples of neo-romanticism were thrown in at the end of this segment to bring us summarily up to date; the glowering sky and looming gravestones of Franz Radziwill’s ‘Church and Cemetery en Frise Orientale’ (1930) maintain the mood of ‘gothic horror’, though transposed to the age of surrealism, psychoanalysis and expressionist cinema.  It certainly seems indebted to the techniques of powerful artificial lighting and oppressive, stylised design of early horror films such as Faust, Nosferatu, and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari which dominated the 1920s with tales taken from German legend.



The exhibition then effects a sudden about-turn, an abrupt change in genre, medium, mentality and century – all manifested simultaneously as one enters Part Three in the History of German Painting according to the Louvre: ‘Ecce Homo’.  Now it is all about the human, the ordinary man – but man caught up in the horror of world war, depression, dictatorship and revolution.

Adolph von Menzel’s sketches present an introduction – a prequel – to this desire for a documentation (of sorts) of the human condition.  Menzel was highly regarded in Germany in the 19th Century, known for his historically accurate illustrations of the life of Frederick the Great, and as chronicler of life in Berlin.  ‘Portrait of an Old Man’ (left, 1884) displays the detailed realism and compassion of Durer or Rembrandt, though these are not saints but beggars at the bottom of the newly industrialised, urban world.

At the other end of the gallery, August Sander likewise documents German society – though his are photographic portraits and his society is that of the Weimar Republic.  His portfolio, ‘People of the 20th Century’, classifies his subjects loosely according to their profession, but nonetheless allows each sitter their personal identity, challenging stereotype and conformity – and thus attracting the animosity of the Nazi regime.


The fashionable ‘Secretary at West German Radio in Cologne’ (above right, 1931) is given the same space and attention as the ‘Match-Seller’ (right, 1927) – though differentiated by their clothes and status, both gaze directly at the camera with the same challenging self-possession.  The expression of individuality, also a feature of New Objectivity painters at this time – the odd characters of Christian Schad’s paintings, such as the ‘Pigeon-chested man’, and the caricatures of Georg Grosz – stands in direct contrast to the mass conformity expressed in film clips such as Leni Riefenstahl’s propagandist ‘Olympia’.


And then there are the war prints – aquatints by Otto Dix, such as ‘Assault under Gas’ (above, 1924), Beckmann’s lithographs from the series ‘Hell’ and Kathe Kollwitz’s wood engraved images of grieving mothers and wives (1921-2) – testament to the suffering and endurance of an imperfect humanity in the midst of barbarism.


This direct engagement with the contemporary situation is juxtaposed with equally raw images of Christ’s suffering – perhaps signalling an underlying narrative: having begun with the Nazarene, von Carolsfeld’s, ‘Annunciation’, we end with Christ’s crucifixion.  But what of His resurrection and ascension into heaven? Considered in this way, it is a pessimistic note to end on.  Having travelled visually through the victorious years of German intellectual ascendancy and the achievement of national unity, leaving the story of German art in 1939 on the eve of war seems an unhappy ending.

Given that the exhibition is supposed to celebrate 50 years of Franco-German friendship following the Elysee Treaty of 1963, it is no wonder that the German critics have been less than enthusiastic.  According to the Deutsche Welle website, ‘they feel the Louvre is showing paintings of an abysmal country “rocked by stark somber powers” that, via the Romantic period, was “more or less headed straight for National Socialism.”‘  They feel it is stereotyped and nationalistic, rightly pointing out that the international and democratic Bauhaus art movement is totally ignored.  The curators insist that humanity and identity is the central focus – and 1939 chosen as the endpoint for its importance at a pan-European level.  In a circular sweep, the exhibition finishes where it began – in an entrance hall filled with Anselm Kiefer’s specially commissioned series of ten vast canvases in dramatic monochrome.  These both provide the title for the show in a reference to Mme de Stael’s ‘De L’Allemagne’ of 1813, and a contemporary post-script to the final images of war – though with titles like ‘Melancholia’ Kiefer is not really helping the German cause.

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