Thursday, April 11, 2013

De l'Allemagne, 1800-1939. De Friedrich à Beckmann au Louvre

Carl Gustav Carus, The High Mountain, 1824

The blurb for the De L’Allemagne, 1800-1939 exhibition at the Louvre claims to place the great German Romantic and neo-Romantic artists into the context of German thought in its midst. It’s a big claim, especially given the vast German literature and philosophy from the post-Enlightenment period. Not to mention the music of Mozart, Beethoven, and later the Romantic composers of Brahms, all of whom influenced the culture that surrounded the great Romantic art. While the exhibition includes some of Goethe’s sketches and models for his colour theory, a theory that may have influenced painters’ palettes, it was not among his most influential thoughts of the time. He was a lot more influential as a thinker than as a visual artist, but the colour theory is the only philosophy on display here. Perhaps I am expecting too much for an exhibition, but it is curious to see an exhibition which is not consistent with what it claims.

Ernst Ferdinand Oeline, The Cathedral in Winter, 1821
More realistically, the exhibition traces a certain lineage through German 19th century painting, namely that which feeds the narrative of the triumph of the human spirit over scientific rationalism, and particularly, that spirit as it is envisioned and imagined through nature. And of course, the exhibition traces the German search for national identity as it is played out in painting. This trajectory of the exhibition is made perfectly clear by the final rooms in which we see the destruction of all that is believed in  with the advent of war as it is so violently and abrasively depicted in the work of, for example, Otto Dix, Georg Grosz, Lovis Corinth.
Carl Blechen, Cathedral in Ruins, 1826
The uncertainty of what the exhibition is aside, there are some amazing paintings that are so rarely seen together. There is a room devoted entirely to cathedrals. The Gothic cathedral in Germany is of course the home of its painters and writers fascination with light and lighting. And it was in the depiction of cathedrals that German Romantic painters began to explore the possibilities of colour and light as a medium in and of itself. In Carl Blechen’s Cathedral in Ruins, 1826 the structure of the cathedral completely overwhelms the image such that we are inside of it, caught in the sinuous undergrowth that has overtaken the ruins. And yet, when we lift our eyes through the arches, the light of day is promised as a way out of this quagmire. In Ernst Ferdinand Oeline's, The Cathedral in Winter, 1821 we find the ancestor to Lyonel Feininger’s geometrically abstract structures of luminous colour. Inside Oeline’s cathedral, the light is so powerful a fire could be raging, diminishing the human figure who approaches it, lost in the cold reveries of his thoughts. These gothic cathedrals are fully secularized and made metaphorical in German painting of the 19th century. The structure and the light that emanates from it, or inside it comes to capture everything that characterizes the period of post-Enlightenment in Germany. The gothic Cathedral has a breadth and openness, with its elongated windows ensuring that the power of the church opens out onto the world around it. The windows, the light, the invitation to enter these churches is the 19th century articulation of unity between church and the village that surrounds it.
Caspar David Friedrich, Morning Mist in the Mountains, 1808
The greatest joy of the exhibition is a wall of small paintings by Casper David Friedrich, paintings that are rarely shown together, in a room devoted to the Ideology of landscape. Seeing these paintings is a special moment in any lifetime, and seeing them together comes only once in a generation. The paintings are fascinating on so many levels. They are cold, chillingly so, even when the sky is red. Painted always to represent the nebulous moment of night turning into day, or day turning into night, the heat of the day is gone, or not yet arrived. And yet, the paintings themselves are on fire, they are so luminous. Standing on the other side of the room in which they are hung at the Louvre, paintings such as The Tree of Crows c. 1822 or Morning Mist in the Mountains, 1808 could be mistaken as being placed in front of light boxes. These tiny paintings glow with the brightest light. Seeing Friedrich’s work in this context is also enlightening, as I was able to appreciate how exceptional he was as a painter. Friedrich leads us to a place where we stand on the edge of the world, the edge of time, enticing us into what can only be described as a mystical experience where we are completely united with nature. And yet, these landscapes are also at the end of the earth, filled with ruins, shells of buildings, long vacated. The ruins sit in the centre of the painting, the moon illuminating the sky even though it is hidden behind a cloud, creating the most magnificent lighting. And yet, in spite of the shining light, if there is a man made structure in any of Friedrich's paintings it is typically impossible to reach.

Caspar David Friedrich, Tree of Crows, 1822
Indeed, it’s the ambiguity that makes Friedrich's paintings seductive. They are mysterious, nebulous, cold and simultaneously, on fire. There is no sense of directness or clarity to anything Friedrich paints, and yet, everything is held in perfect balance. Even though the ones on view in the exhibition are not the most famous Friedrich paintings, seeing them together leaves absolutely no doubt as to why he has influenced generations of painters, artistic movements, even art of different media, in Germany and elsewhere.

Georg Grosz, The Lovesick Man, 1918
I was curious about the selection of twentieth century works, both in the sense of those artists who were chosen and those who were not. I loved the George Grosz paintings, The Suicide, 1918, or The Lovesick Man, 1918, not only as paintings, but also because they are the exhibition’s telos, they are where Germany ends up as World War I descends. While the past century was spent searching for an identity, everything falls apart in an instant with the outbreak of war. Together Grosz, Beckman, Corinth, Dix demonstrate that Germany is covered in blood. Looking at these works, I am reminded of something I know very well, but can never get over when I see it brought to life, in the flesh. Namely, that these works are being painted at the exact same time as Piet Mondrian is painting his abstract compositions not that far away, in the Netherlands. And I am reminded of the German responsibility, even imperative, to represent politics in the search for its expressions of modernism. The word modernist is nowhere mentioned in this final room, but what makes German painting of this period so extraordinary is that it not only captures the destruction and self-violation of Germany both as it was in World War I and as it will arrive in World War II. But these painters simultaneously took on the responsibility of representing their world, and made major contributions to the development of an international modernism. This is just one instance of the multi-dimensionality of German art that is left out of De l'Allemagne, 1800-1939.

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