New Light on Vermeer

A new book by Gregor J.M. Weber, Head of Fine and Decorative Arts at the Rijksmuseum, makes new claims about Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675). Only Rembrandt is more acclaimed than Vermeer among Dutch Golden Age painters but very little is known about Vermeer, whose surviving output consists of 37 paintings and no drawings. We know that at least five of paintings were lost before modern times, but, because how slowly Vermeer painted meant that in his 23-year career, he did not have the opportunity to make many more.

No letters, diaries or contracts survive, so indirect circumstantial evidence is often the best we can get for this elusive figure. Every so often research sheds new light – for example, when a historian discovered the exact location for the painting Little Street – but there have been no big discoveries. This book contains no big revelations. It comes ahead of a large retrospective exhibition of Vermeer’s painting at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (10 February-4 June).

Vermeer was born into a Protestant family in Delft and had one sister, who married a picture framer. Vermeer probably converted to Catholicism to marry Catherina Bolnes in 1653. Baptismal records are absent for the period, so confirmation for his conversion is lacking. The couple lived with her mother and a rapidly growing number of children (ten surviving at the time of his death). The one fragment of testimony we have is that the strain of supporting his family following the economic depression of 1672 drove him into “a frenzy” and a sudden death. (Commentators have speculated about alcoholism and depression, associating it with a drop off in quality of the last paintings.) The painter joined the minority community of Catholics around a Jesuit centre in Protestant northern Holland, trading pictures (like his father) but also painting his own. Weber’s case is that the Jesuits played more of a part in Vermeer’s working practice and iconography than hitherto recognised.

The lavishly illustrated book shows the art that Vermeer made, the art he owned and pictures he would have seen and sold as picture merchant. Pictures by contemporaries show how close Vermeer was to his contemporaries. Work by the Utrecht Caravaggisti were a formative influence and one at least appears as a background of a Vermeer picture. Weber cannot confirm whether Vermeer trained with Carel Fabritius (1622-1654), who died in a massive gunpowder explosion that devastated Delft, so it is still unclear who Vermeer’s master was. Art owned by Jesuits may have been accessible to the young Vermeer, who made a copy of an Italian painting of saint.

Weber goes on to give examples of where the Catholic order produced theory and practical devices that explored the power and nature of light. Vermeer worked meticulously, using an optical device called a camera obscura (which uses a lens to project light on to a flat surface) to design his paintings. The author suggests that the artist was introduced to this machine by the Jesuits, perhaps inheriting one in 1656. Weber writes that Vermeer’s painting Allegory of Faith (c. 1670-4) follows Jesuit iconography. Gabriel Metsu (1629-67) – a painter personally known to Vermeer – painted an allegory of faith similar to Vermeer’s, produced a few years earlier. There is a resemblance but the treatment and iconography is quite different.    

More Jesuit influence is detected in paintings of women with jewellery. Again, this is plausible, without being more than a possibility. Vermeer’s art has sufficient depth and ambiguity to leave it open to more lines of interpretation than more obvious paintings by his contemporaries, Gerrit Dou, Metsu, Pieter der Hooch and others. Certainly, Weber’s case should be entertained, though one would need to be very well versed in Dutch theology and iconography to make a decisive case pro or contra.

Gregor J.M. Weber, Johannes Vermeer: Faith, Light and Reflection, Rijksmuseum, 2023, 168pp, fully illus., paperback, €25, ISBN 978 94 6208 758 3

Alpha and Omega of Francis Bacon

Daniel Farson’s The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon (1993) and James Birch’s Bacon in Moscow (2022) together form the Alpha and Omega of Francis Bacon, comprising (respectively) the first and most recent of books posthumously recounting the life and actions of Francis Bacon (1909-1992).

Alpha

Re-reading Farson’s The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon, first published one year after the artist’s death and in preparation during his lifetime, reminds me of my first reading. I was at Goldsmiths College, studying fine art. I bought the first paperback edition as soon as it came out and read it quickly, hungrily searching out new facts about the painter. It is hard for people today to remember how little one knew about Bacon in 1993. His date of birth was vague, he was hard to pin down socially and politically. He had spiked the lengthy explanatory notes in his 1985 Tate retrospective catalogue, leaving the illustrated paintings commandingly inscrutable. All one knew was from The Brutality of Fact, his famous book of interviews with David Sylvester, and newspaper articles. Some of the latter recounted details such as the timing of the deaths of his lovers Peter Lacy and George Dyer, and a 1970 court case when Bacon was prosecuted for possessing cannabis. (Likely left by a visitor or planted by George Dyer, who tipped off the police as an act of revenge against the artist.) Although Bacon’s life and character were fairly well known within his circle and the drinking circuit of Soho, the average person who read books on his art up to his death would have known almost nothing, other than a few dispersed comments in memoirs.

Then, within months of Bacon’s death in April 1992, came Farson’s memoir – a treasure chest of personal first-hand memories and unknown data. It was the first time we encountered Bacon’s celebrated toast “Real pain for your sham friends, Champagne for your real friends!”, his cutting remarks about rival painters, his arrogance and generosity. We learned about his friendship, then later rivalry, with Lucian Freud. For years all one knew was that the pair were close and had painted each other; now one found out about how close they were originally and how estranged they became. We discovered that he owned Bacon’s celebrated painting of wrestlers. A similar fate befell Bacon’s closer working relationship with Graham Sutherland. What came as revelatory in 1993, has now become established points in any biographical sketch of Bacon.

It Farson’s memoir of Bacon, we find confirmation of how strictly he controlled the authorised disclosures about his art and life. The tale of how the painter first consented to collaborate with the author, then later withdrew permission, has been confirmed as a pattern, according to the experiences of other authors. Farson published his private letters for the first time. The biggest revelations came in descriptions of Bacon’s affairs with Lacy, Dyer and Edwards. Farson with either more discreet – or less informed – with regard to José Capelo, Bacon’s last lover.

The tales of Bacon in the 1950s – Farson first met him in 1951 – give us a snapshot of Soho when few but bohemians lived to excess in post-war austerity Britain. “Soho was a revelation, with the discovery of people who behaved outrageously without a twinge of guilt and drank so recklessly that when they met the next morning they asked each other if they needed to apologise for the day before. Friends who had fought the previous night returned to the pub arm in arm. The camaraderie of the morning after has never been better.”

Gilded Gutter Life became a bible for the Young British Artists. Damien Hirst, Marc Quinn, Sarah Lucas, Tracey Emin and many other luminaries in their 20s and 30s lived through the 1990s acting out Bacon’s big-drinking, high-living, fine-dining, partner-swapping, hard-swearing bonhomie, fuelled by easy money during the bubble of Cool Britannia and the attitudes of Loaded. The Colony Room was their unofficial headquarters and became incorporated into their mythos. One could not read an account of bacchanals held at gallery private views or Soho public houses without the shadow of Bacon looming as the paterfamilias of hedonistic excess. Hirst bought Bacon’s classic 1933 Crucifixion and later started painting in Baconian style. On the Way to Work, Hirst’s book of interviews with Gordon Burn, apes The Brutality of Fact.  

How is it as an account? It is extremely lively and the fact that Farson moved in the same circles of Soho and the London homosexual demi-monde imparts a great deal of familiarity and intimacy. It is particularly telling in the description of the immediate post-war period, as death had already claimed many of the painters’ early confreres before his death, curtailing the potential of published memoirs by them that might have revealed more about Bacon. Farson was no painter, so we get few insights into Bacon’s techniques and ideas. We do find out about Bacon’s engagement with others’ art and his subjects. Farson’s exposure of Bacon’s catty barbs (delivered in private) regarding living artists and abstract painting show Bacon’s surprising jealousy and insecurity regarding recent art. Was this the legacy of a self-trained artist, one worried that his absence of art education and his technical unconventionality would be surpassed by the expertise of others? Was Bacon concerned to conceal his debt to abstract painters (such as Rothko) behind blanket dismissals? His library showed how much attention he paid to artists he never acknowledged. Not that Bacon was under an obligation to provide an apologia for his art and his inspirations, however, it is fascinating that he was so active in covering up and dismissing influences and mentors, which does betray – or at least imply – Bacon’s sensitivity towards his debts.   

There seem some questionable judgements. “Though he was personally a masochist, his art had little to do with physical violence or the violence of war as so many assume.” He goes on to say that the violence of life is what Bacon intended to evoke through his vigorous technique. We should remember that Farson did not have access to the photographic material in the studio relating to crime scenes, boxing, mob murders and war journalism. Had he subsequently had such access, Farson may have qualified that observation, if not entirely retracted it. Also the comment about Bacon dying in Madrid when “he had the love of a young Spaniard” seems an incomplete reading of the situation by April 1992. I noticed some slips, such as “James Land” for biographer James Lord, “Manuria” for Hotel Muniria, Tangiers and “Sundlea” for Sundela boards. How many more mundane ones escaped fact checking at the time? Regardless of these quibbles, Gilded Gutter Life stands up as an entertaining and indiscrete memoir of mid-century Soho that vividly and unsparingly captured Bacon’s character.

Omega

James Birch is a gallerist and curator who was the catalyst to one of the most remarkable exhibitions in recent history: the 1988 Bacon exhibition in Moscow. Birch grew up in Wivenhoe, Suffolk, where his family knew local artists Denis Wirth-Miller and Richard Chopping. They were artists who left London in 1940s and were friends with Bacon. Bacon was a frequent visitor to Wivenhoe, even purchasing a small house there, which he rarely used, and so the young James became the honorary godson of the three artists. Birch had established his own gallery by the early 1980s and by the end of the decade was searching for a way to promote his artists. A contact recommended he contact Russian fixer Sergei Klokov, who could arrange to take Birch’s artists to Moscow. No new Western art had been exhibited in the USSR for 40 years. Although the exhibition would not sell, it would cause a sensation. As it turned out, the exhibition would be purely of Bacon’s paintings. Bacon in Moscow is the story of that exhibition.

Birch’s recounts the unending bureaucracy and obscure protocols of Russia in the last years of the Soviet Union. He describes touring galleries where avant-garde was not welcome and artists were unwilling to speak unguardedly in the presence of KGB-informant translators. He writes of the poverty and shabbiness of the people and the streets; his hotel room had a fridge that did not work and a bathtub with no plug. He was aware that everything he said and did was being monitored and reported to the security services. He sees the thawing of the communist cultural ice, as Perestroika led to the first auction of contemporary art in Moscow. Old systems of control were breaking down and the influence of capitalism rapidly changing people made miserable and poor by communism. The Bacon exhibition came to be seen as indicative of that watershed that would usher in a new age.

Although the exhibition has formed part of biographies, Birch is able to give us unexpected information. The Russians had initially wanted an exhibition of Andy Warhol. Birch was unable to get past Warhol’s entourage to put the proposal to the artist. Most fascinating of all is more information on the estrangement that had developed by 1987 between Bacon and Marlborough, his long-standing dealer. Bacon had been approached by a number of galleries looking to tempt him away from Marlborough, the star of which was somewhat faded by this time. Dealings involving paying off the artist’s gambling debts and paying him advances and been balanced by Bacon selling work privately, contrary to verbal agreements with Marlborough. Other transactions may have compromised both artist and gallery, which may have been the deciding factor that kept the two parties together until his death. The Estate of Bacon parted from Marlborough on acrimonious terms not long after Bacon’s death.

Birch explains that the negotiations over the Moscow exhibition nearly foundered because of ill feeling between artist and Marlborough. The exhibition could only proceed with the gallery’s co-operation, as well as the gallery potentially underwriting the cost of insurance and transport – a tidy sum that neither Birch’s gallery nor the Central House of Artists/Union of Artists, Moscow could pay. Eventually, Marlborough paid the costs and the British Council advanced its prestige by claiming more of a part in the planning than was due to it. The introduction of British cultural diplomats was to add further murkiness and complications to the circumstances. Birch found himself manoeuvred out of the credit for an event of which he was the main organiser. He was never sure how much to trust Klokov and wondered about the veracity of everything he was told by Russians. He found himself smitten with Elena Khudiakova, a beautiful model and fashion designer, who accompanied Klokov. He gradually comes to the realisation that Elena was a compulsive liar, someone who was desperate to escape the Soviet system but (when she moved to London) unable to properly live outside it. Birch was later told that Elena was a KGB informant.

The exhibition, which opened in September 1988, was a sensation. Thousands queued to gain entry. The 5,000 catalogues sold briskly and over 400,000 visitors saw the exhibition, which attracted worldwide attention. Soviet artists and art enthusiasts, who had never expected to see Bacon’s art (or any modern Western art) in person, were electrified by the paintings. Bacon never visited the exhibition, despite planning to do so. He wanted to attend the vernissage and then visit the Rembrandts at the Hermitage. Chronic asthma was cited as the reason in the official announcement for his absence. Birch reveals more of the story. It seems that David Sylvester, piqued at having been overlooked to write the catalogue essay, made Bacon so nervous regarding his security that the artist changed his plans. The combination of worries over safety and health decided Bacon’s mind against going, a decision he apparently later regretted.  

Birch is honest about his shortcomings and mistakes, which renders him a sympathetic narrator. We see the story through his eyes, never being quite sure of where he stood with inscrutable Russians, uncommunicative bureaucrats and fickle imperious artist. In that immediacy, Birch’s account is very similar to Farson’s and the comparison is favourable to both accounts. The many photographs taken during the event and preparations give a strong flavour of how Birch experienced Moscow in 1987-8. A valuable service is the inclusion of colour images of the paintings included in the exhibition and some of the comments in the visitors’ book. Bacon in Moscow provides an amusing, revealing and frank account of a historic event and will be welcomed by historians, Bacon fans and casual readers.

Daniel Farson, The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon, Vintage Books, London, 1994 (1993), paperback, mono illus., 279pp + viii, £12.99, ISBN 978 0 099 30781 5

James Birch, Michael Hodges, Bacon in Moscow, Cheerio/Profile, London, 2022, hardback, col. and mono illus., 204pp, £17.99, ISBN 978 1 788 16974 5

(c) 2023 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

Nazi plans for Norway, 1940-5

In April 1934, the newly appointed Chancellor of Germany made a surprise visit. He was on a German battleship which visited the fjords of Norway. It was not an official visit and no one, including naval officials, knew quite why he was there. Perhaps Hitler himself did not know. He seemed approachable and serious, treating ratings and officers equally courteously, admiring the scenery and pleased with the performance of crew and ship. Few could have guessed that six years later, Hitler would be de facto ruler of Norway.

Despina Stratigakos’s book Hitler’s Northern Utopia: Building the New Order in Occupied Norway, recently issued in paperback, explores exactly what the Nazis occupiers did in Norway and what they had planned. In relative terms, much of it was benign compared to what happened to other occupied lands. As with Austria, Norway was seen as Germanic and a natural part of the Reich. The military capitulation of Norway in 1940 was seen by the Nazis not as a nation admitting its military inadequacy and geographic isolation in the face of an overwhelming force, but rather as Norwegian admission of an inevitable unification of the Aryan people. The Nazis saw the future of Norway as part of a Germanic racial destiny, with a number strategic advantages for the German leaders of this group.

[Image: Lebensborn nurses]

One German race expert (Hans Friedrich Karl Günther) estimated “Norwegians possessed more than 70 to 80 percent pure Nordic blood, while Germans themselves retained only 50 to 60 percent in their veins.”[i] So, mingling of German and Norwegian genetics would lead to an over increase in the Nordic character of future generations of Germans. To that end the Lebensborn project was established, to encourage Norwegian women and German soldiers stationed in the country to have children. Hotels around the country were commandeered to house any unwed Norwegian women pregnant by German men. Norwegian orphans possessing distinguished Nordic characteristics were moved to Germany for adoption. This project was semi-secret, not publicly announced and not openly approved of by Norwegian authorities. It continued until the last month of war, even as Soviet and German troops were engaged in scorched-earth warfare in northern Norway.

[Image: German soldiers in occupied Oslo]

Settlement of Norway by Germans, who could connect with their ancestral roots in new rural colonies, were planned but (unlike Eastern Europe) this would not displace the native population and no genocide was not considered. There were plans for an extensive series of barracks and settlements; so grand were the plans that they would have required the importation of wood from Sweden. The author describes the architecture of the few buildings erected and explains the internal wrangles between Albert Speer, the Labour Front (which erected and commissioned the buildings) and Norwegian architects (centrally Sverre Pedersen). Photographs show the National Socialist style sculpture and murals adorning the soldiers’ home (barracks-cum-settlement) in Kristiansand. The subjects of the art are patriotic staples, executed in a rather lifeless monumental manner.

[Image: a mural in the Kristiansand soldiers’ house]

The architecture (Nordic, wood-based) is both traditional, functionally modern and executed with a degree of skill (carved figurines standing on a ceiling-mounted light fitting) – all befitting a pioneering showcase. The communal spaces included canteens, pub-restaurants, reading rooms, craft rooms, a billiard hall, bowling alleys and auditoria. The auditorium of the Narvik soldiers’ home was described in the German press as “the largest hall in northern Norway”. Soldiers’-home designs were typological in approach and therefore were not generally modified to reflect the landscape and were not integrated into the local town. Commenters describe these are non-places: buildings designed to shield and detach residents from their non-German surroundings and their cultural alienness.

More building was planned, as 14,000 buildings has been destroyed during the conquest of Norway – much of it collateral damage due to the burning of wooden houses in town centres. This created an opportunity for Nazis to build entire towns, starting from street layout and reaching as far as the architectural details. This revealed the Nazis inconsistency towards architecture – a reverence for Nordic authenticity but a determination to refine that into a consistent science of National Socialism that would surpass the buildings of the past. As such there was no plan to restore or reconstruct these notably Nordic settlements with similar buildings but to build anew, with modern designs and private motorcar in mind. The English garden-city movement and Le Corbusier’s functionalism influenced calculations regarding the sizes of open spaces, greenery, sunlight, distribution of amenities, distances between dwelling and provision of a road beltway in Pedersen’s plans for rebuilding Molde. The rebuilt church would no longer have such a prominent position, as this was a political issue, Speer deferred decision on this to Reichskommissar Terboven. The Nazis – like the inter-war functionalists – saw little place for houses of worship in their conurbations. Terboven confirmed that Parteihausen (German: (Nazi) party houses) would replace churches in Nazi-designed towns. Reichsbauen (German: state buildings) would act as town halls, post offices and telegraph offices, combining service and communication surveillance and censorship.

[Image: auditorium at Kristiansand soldiers’ home]

New designs would “help lead Norwegians away from the previous era’s “emphatic individualism” toward the new communal ideal.”[ii] The Volksgemeinschaft (German: community of people) reminds us of the socialistic aspects of nationalism, with “a process of social inclusion that was supported by promises of equality, economic prosperity, and symbolic recognition.”[iii] Nationalism has implicit in it a degree of socialism different from traditionalism. National Socialism of Germany is exactly the embodiment of Enlightenment humanism in scientific form, hardly different from the International Socialism of the USSR in the pre-1935 era.

Norway’s reliance on the importation of basic goods and fuel left it politically dependent on other countries and open to foreign influence. Nazis and their supporters argued that the urbanisation of Southern Norway was allowing architectural Modernism to gain a foothold, city-based “Jewish-Marxist” birth-control clinics were reducing the Norwegian birth rate and the anglicisation of the population (especially young female Norwegians) was undermining the essential Nordic character of the country. Young Norwegians were dancing the black American music, following foreign fashions and pursuing all the activities that deracinated the population now that they had escaped tradition and the oversight of their families in small villages. Afflicted by urban anomie, just as had been seen in 1920s Paris and Weimar Germany, Norwegian “swing kids” were succumbing to multi-culturalism, consumerism and hedonism.   

The Germans planned for an entirely new city Nordstern, near Trondheim, which would showcase German architecture and urban planning, with Speer in personal charge of designs. It would provide a deep-water harbour for the German navy, as well as serving as a German colonial settlement, giving the naval base suitable independence from the native inhabitants. Like the ambitious Germania plan, this classified plan was never started in earnest. Demands for resources from the Eastern Front from 1941 onwards and the constant drain presented by the requirement to build coastal defences prevented meaningful implementation of civil construction. The sole exceptions were the building of a coastal autobahn and a railway to link northern settlements to the existing (very limited) railway network of the south. This railway would then be linked via occupied Denmark to Germany. The vision was of a Reich-spanning railway from Austria to the Arctic Circle.

The Germans, needing to build quickly, devised new techniques to build in the cold and dark that startled the Norwegians. The projects were given to the Todtamt, an engineering-architectural bureau charged with high-profile building projects, which also handled many of the defence installations dotted along Norway’s coast. Todtamt used prisoners of war in forced-labour camps. In Norway, most of these came from Poland, the USSR and Yugoslavia. The attrition rate among these workers was very high, due to infectious diseases, exhaustion, malnutrition, dangerous work and the harsh climate. The construction projects therefore made Norway more modern, economically productive and militarily defensible, while at the same time reducing the Slavic and Asiatic population.

Hitler’s plan for a continuous railway from Oslo to the Arctic Circle was partly prestige, partly democratising, but also a backbone for military supplies and troop movements. The motive given to top level German officials was to allow land transport for ore to foundries in Southern Norway or Germany, yet anyone who examined the economics of the project could see that sea transport was more efficient. Even in the last year of the war, as the Allies encroached on multiple fronts, Hitler was fixated on this hugely expensive and demanding project.

Interestingly, aesthetics were an important consideration for Todtamt and their Norwegian colleagues. Although the bridges, roads and railways were to be functional and modern, using steel and concrete, vistas were to be considered. Despite extra cost and danger, the more dramatic views were always preferred when routes were planned. The excitement of travel through a wild landscape was a component of the project and (in some respects) one of its purposes. Hitler spoke of German citizens being able to drive north on autobahns and experience the remarkable scenery. Stratigakos notes that due to military priorities and the late development of the Volkswagen, few ordinary citizens got to experience the pleasure of driving on the German autobahns. In 1935, private car ownership among Germans was 16 per 1,000 persons; in the USA it was at 204 persons.     

Stratigakos’s book draws upon much research and original sources, with over 60 pages of footnotes and bibliography. Plentiful illustrations, many taken from contemporary German-language periodicals covering occupied Norway, help us understand the few concrete achievements of the period. Most of these buildings were lost in the last months of the war and the few surviving have since been demolished or converted. The book provides a thorough and informed appraisal of what was done and what might have been done in occupied Norway and provides a case study in totalitarian town planning and civic aesthetics.

Despina Stratigakos, Hitler’s Northern Utopia: Building the New Order in Occupied Norway, Princeton University Press, 2022, paperback, 313pp + x, mono illus., $19.95, ISBN 9780961234137 

(c) 2023 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

“High treasures of the Low Countries”

“When the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp (Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen, KMSKA) reopened on 24 September 2022, it had been closed for 11 years for a massive renovation that involved every part of the building and grounds. Two of three recent books cover the KMSKA as a museum, and highlights from the museum’s collections; the third covers Flemish and Walloon drawings from the Royal National Library of Belgium, in Brussels.

KMSKA: The Finest Museum is an overview of the renovation, including extensive photographs and plans relating the work done, including photographs of the renovated museum complete with art works. The museum was established in 1810; it expanded over the centuries and moved location from the academy to a purpose-built museum in 1890. It now houses 5,882 works, with prints by and after Rubens amounting to 714 prints…”

Read the full review on The Brazen Head here: https://brazen-head.org/2022/12/30/high-treasures-of-the-low-countries/

Käthe Kollwitz

Käthe Kollwitz née Schmidt (1867-1945) was born in Königsberg and went to study painting in Munich. She aspired to follow the informality and liveliness of Max Liebermann’s Impressionism, combining this with the social-realist trend, current in the 1870s and 1880s. The movement came largely from the elevation of the peasant by Jean-François Millet and Gustave Courbet. This became inflected by the dramatic symbolism of Max Klinger, whose example dominated the German art world in the last decade of the Nineteenth Century. The young artist married physician Dr Karl Kollwitz in 1891 and moved to the Prenzlauer Berg district of Berlin. This brought her into frequent contact with the working-class poor, labourers, the elderly, children and pregnant women.

These types formed the basis of her art works, sometimes illustrating scenes from Charles Dickens, Émile Zola and Gerhart Hauptmann. Narrative is generally eschewed in favour of the impact of the isolation figure or pair of figures. The subjects are often women who are suffering or supplicating. Children (sometimes the artist’s sons) are usually young and poor, sometimes accompanied by mothers. Mother’s grieving over the death of infants is a recurrent subject. This was a staple of not only social realists but of book illustrators and Victorian academic painters. Without a belief in religious redemption and certainty of an afterlife – Kollwitz seems (as a socialist) to have been an areligious materialist – her scenes have a powerful bleakness.

[Image: Käthe Kollwitz, Lise, um 1890, © Käthe Kollwitz Museum Köln]

Kollwitz soon expanded her media to graphics, which became her primary means of working, something that allowed her to exhibit widely, sending her art by post. It also corresponded with her increasingly socialist outlook, which advanced the idea that art should be cheap enough for even labourers to purchase. Her work in woodcut is not as effective, as it loses most of it corporeality. This book includes posters, drawing attention to poverty and opposing war. They were noticed at the time and considered provocative. The artist commented on her dissatisfaction with the lettering done by typographers on the final printing of the posters. Editor Hannelore Fischer selects quotes from the artist’s journals, memoirs and letters that give us Kollwitz’s personal testimony. Comments by contemporaries tell of how her art was received during her lifetime.

She also studied sculpture at the Académie Julian, Paris and visited Rodin. She built respect and won awards for her art over the next decade. In 1914, one of her two sons, Peter was killed in Great War. The despair and anguish of her grief drove Kollwitz to commemorate his death in the statue group Mourning Parents (1932), erected in the Belgian cemetery where her son is buried. The experience turned her into a pacifist. War themes and maternities dominated the late work she made. Kollwitz opposed the Nazi government, using her pacifist work to implicitly criticise the militarism of the regime. She died a few weeks before the end of World War II.

[Image: Käthe Kollwitz, Frauenschicksal (Martyrium der Frau), um 1889, © Käthe Kollwitz Museum Köln]

This book is published under the guidance of Käthe Kollwitz Museum, Cologne, which holds a large collection of the artist’s drawings, prints and sculptures, as well as personal documents, which come primarily come from the artist’s family. The book acts as a generous introduction to the artist’s world and the range of her oeuvre. There are thematic chapters covering the artist’s output, with bibliography, exhibition list, chronology and index. This catalogue publishes 15 newly authenticated drawings by Kollwitz, not included in the 1980 catalogue raisonné. The reproductions are pin sharp and tonally rich. Most of her art is monochrome.  

Kollwitz’s drawings are very close to the prints. Kollwitz started with etching but soon moved to lithographs, often made with transfer sheets. That where, rather than drawing directly on a stone, the artist draws in crayon on a special paper, which is then mechanically transferred to the stone. It requires less involvement from the artist and is more convenient. The drawings are mainly in charcoal, of faces and half-length figures, usually set in a dark, non-descript surrounding. The detachment from specifics of place and time are deliberate; they stress the universality of the situations and amplify the emotions of both the depicted and the viewer. There is no relief, no incidental detail, no anecdotal aside, no attractive colour. There is nothing except the subject of the art and the subject-as-viewer. Kollwitz’s drawing may have been influenced by the realism of Adolph von Menzel’s studies from life and Seurat’s conté drawing on textured paper, which created monochrome analogues to his Pointillist paintings. Her exhibitions with different societies of avant-garde art would have brought her into contact with a great variety of art. Two artists she knew from Paris was Eugène Carrière and Théophile Steinlen. Following his example, she made smoky drawings of women workers. Some of the newly found drawings are of Paris workers, sleeping or in drunken stupors in cellar bars. Social critiques of poverty, alcoholism and working conditions are frequent topics. Kollwitz’s tableaux of mothers with sick or dead children is one that we can find throughout Symbolist and Secession art of the 1890-1918 period.

[Image: Käthe Kollwitz, Stehender Mann und sitzendes Paar, 1909, © Käthe Kollwitz Museum Köln]

The graphics are in no way supplementary to unique works. Kollwitz was ideally suited for prints, especially the lithographs that are drawing facsimiles, and we do not miss oil paintings. It is the absence of such paintings that mean that Kollwitz’s art is not discussed in overall surveys of realist art of the period. In 1910s and later, we find a degree of expressionism; not the Expressionism of Die Brucke or Edvard Munch but that of Daumier or Van Gogh – exaggeration rather pure Expressionism of primitivism and schematic treatment. The fold-out pages allow readers to view the sequence of two print suites: A Weavers Revolt (1893-7), The Peasants’ War (1902/3-8) and Seven Woodcuts on War (1921-2). The account of the 1524-5 Peasant’s Revolt was written Wilhelm Zimmermann, who was a source for Babel and Engels as a template for a workers’ Socialist revolution. Kollwitz included scenes of a raped-and-murdered woman, workers arming themselves and the march of the mob, selecting the most rousing scenes.  

While Kollwitz’s maternities and lamentations are well known; less reproduced are her drawings of lovers embracing. She kept them secret during her lifetime. They are as tender and urgent as scenes of sad emotion. More detached are her drawings of herself. She drew workers and children from life but did not make many portraits made for fee-paying subjects. She had a gift for portraiture, as seen in some character heads. She sometimes wishes that she had described more specific physiognomies and record something of their life experiences. One of the greatest blind spots of socialists is indifference to the individual, in preference to the abstract masses. Kollwitz is relatively free of this failing but too often we encounter the general in her art when the specific would have been more piquant and engaging. She was invited to draw the body of Communist Karl Liebknecht after the failed revolt of 1919. 

It seems that the English edition is currently sold out. Let us hope that a reprint makes this attractive volume available again to Anglophone readers.

Hannelore Fischer (ed.), Käthe Kollwitz: A Survey of her Works, 1888-1942, Hirmer, 2022, hardback, 304pp with 6 fold-out pages, 259 illus., €45, German version available, English version ISBN 978-3-7774-3079-9

(c) 2022 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit: http://www.alexanderadams.art

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Gawkers: Art and Audience in Late Nineteenth-Century France

Alexander Adams

Images and discussions of public spaces in Paris over the nineteenth century are dominated by certain types: the flâneur, the policeman, the child, the prostitute, the beggar, the crowd. Bridget Alsdorf, associate professor of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University, looks at these types through the perspective of fine art, illustration and photography. She notes the badaud (French: gawker) as a common subject for consideration by writers and artists. “Badauds abound in late nineteenth-century art and literature, yet they have received only a minute fraction of the attention devoted to the flâneur. […] The badaud has been largely ignored. There are several reasons for this, but the crucial one is this: badauds’ passivity and collectivity run fundamentally counter to the pervasive model of modern identity exemplified by the flaneur, a free and active agent with a bounded, cultivated sense of self.” 

The author takes as her subject the way the badaud was seen by artists in the 1890s. “More than any other artist, Vallotton seized on badauds as a subject of deep significance to late nineteenth-century urban culture. The social intelligence and graphic significance of his work unlock the badaud’s importance to the art world of his time.” Félix Vallotton (1865-1925), the Swiss painter-printmaker, is taken as the quintessential artist of the Parisian street. His woodcut illustrations (made in the 1890s) of domestic interiors, public spaces and street scenes were popular and artistically influential. British readers may remember his wonderful exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2019. Two related artists which Alsdorf takes as her subjects are Vallotton’s fellow Nabi Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) as artists engaged by badauds, the life of the street and commercial art. All three worked for La Revue blanche, the literary-artistic periodical published 1891-1903.    

Alsdorf mulls Vallotton’s politics. His writings are inscrutable but some have seen the prints as sympathetic to anarchism, due to the inclusion of police violence and the largely good-natured depictions of crowds. This chimes with her own view. She is hostile towards those writers who are critical of crowds, calling it an “irredeemably top-down view”. The chapters are divided by the events that gave rise to the crowd, including crime, accident and entertainment. The crime story – both as fiction and journalism – was all the rage It was also a live scientific subject, with criminology, psychology and phrenology all vying to explain the boom in criminality in modern cities.

Alsdorf is on the look out for responses from Vallotton that are sympathetic towards crowds. She finds it disappointing that he does not reprove bystanders who watch two brawlers being taken off to gaol. Why should bystanders be supportive of these men? She detects implicit disapproval in Vallotton’s public execution, which the artist depicted a number of times, perhaps taking as subjects the guillotining of anarchist assassins. She contrasts Vallotton’s relatively ambiguous attitude to Jean-Léon Gerôme’s paintings, that treat the crowd at public spectacles as cruel and even predatory.

Honoré Daumier’s paintings and prints of theatre audiences are more varied and less negative than other French artists of the time. His images of art connoisseurs in a home and theatre audiences provided a teasing but warm view of the badaud bourgeois. Daumier’s lithographic illustrations in journals allowed him to poke fun at bastions of refined taste. Alsdorf sees later commentators as more critical of the crowd. “Later artists, echoing Maupassant, bristled at this, disturbed by what they saw as the theatricalized relations between art and its viewers. Drawing on Daumier selectively and darkening his humor, they pictured the audience as an intractable problem.”

Oddly, Alsdorf sees Degas as averse to depicting the audience. “He does not focus on the relationship between the audience and the performers but on the lack thereof, and his oblique perspectives make the viewers of his pictures conscious of the angle and quality of their attention. When viewing Degas’s work, we are almost always in a position of nearly looking away.” This seems to overlook the importance of his sketches of observers at horse races – the woman with the binoculars is an explicit reference to the distancing effect of the act of spectating – and the women visitors at the Louvre. If one were being generous with parameters, all those pictures of women watching others trying on hats might fall into the area of the observer observed.

Bonnard’s approach to figures on the street during his Nabi period (the 1890s) was more about body language, shape, movement and colour. The facial expression is both less important and less legible in his colour lithographs and his paintings. His album of colour lithographs Some Aspects of Parisian Life (1895-9) investigates reportage through essential shapes and atmosphere. The author speculates about the possible influence of the Lumière Brothers’ films of crowds, which commenced in 1895. These crowds were soon corralled by assistants of the filmmakers, as they threatened to impede the view of the filmed spectacle due to their curiosity. At this early stage, badauds were subjects, extras and onlookers of documentary filmmaking on the streets – as well as being the audience for the final films.

The book also assesses the modern spectacle of the shop window, newspaper kiosk and street poster, discusses how these new forms (designed to attract the badaud) lent themselves to commentary through fine art. Toulouse-Lautrec made posters for café-concerts, dancehalls and performers, which included views of onlookers. His inclusion of dramatic silhouettes of the crowd and the placing of the viewer on the dance floor changed the way such scenes were treated. The artist painted the exterior of a dancehall, turning it into a giant poster advertising itself. Among the portraits of the audience was one of Oscar Wilde, who was (at the time of painting) on trial in London – coverage of which was front-page news.

Gawkers covers the political subtext of images of onlookers, audiences and crowds, explaining how current events such as the trial of Oscar Wilde, the execution of anarchists and the Dreyfuss Affair became entangled with the reaction of people in public. The author’s research into the sources and histories of the era shed fascinating light on the subtly coded images that pass judgement mingled with observation. Alsdorf acts as a knowledgeable guide to Parisian art of the nineteenth century art, especially the prints of the newly popular Vallotton, linking the artists to influential poets and social critics of the time. Gawkers is recommended for enthusiasts of art of this period, as it effectively supplies a missing link for non-francophones, introducing them to the complex social signals and commentary that is present in the art we so often take for granted.   

Bridget Alsdorf, Gawkers: Art and Audience in Late Nineteenth-Century France, Princeton University Press, 2022, hardback, 296pp, fully illus., £48, ISBN 978 0 691 16638 4

“Paul Modersohn-Becker: A Life in Art”

“One female painter we will hear more of this winter is Paula Modersohn-Becker, about whom Uwe Schneede has written a well-illustrated survey. An exhibition of Modersohn-Becker’s art will open at the Royal Academy (12 November 2022-12 February 2023) alongside art by Käthe Kollwitz, Gabriele Munther and Marianne Werefkin. 

A London training

“Paula Becker was born in Dresden in 1876 to a large middle-class family. Paula’s first intensive art training came in St John’s Wood Art School when she came to London for an extended stay over 1892-3. Her appetite whetted, and she undertook more art courses in Bremen and later in Berlin. 

Moving to the artists’ commune of Worpswede in 1898, Becker became a minor member as a newcomer to an existing group. She learned from fellow painters of similar outlooks and where she met (and painted) poet Rainer Maria Rilke. In 1901 Paula married Otto Modersohn. She did not see marriage as slowing her down. “Just because I am getting married, that is no reason not to become somebody.”…”

Read the full review for free on whynow? website here: https://whynow.co.uk/read/paula-modersohn-becker-a-life-in-art

Aristotle on storytelling

The latest book in Princeton’s Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers is advice from Aristotle to poets and dramatists. Aristotle (384-322 BC) was Plato’s most brilliant student and tutor to Alexander the Great. He is one of the great ancient thinkers, whose ideas have permeated philosophy, science and art for two thousand years, although his ideas come down to us in fragmented and diluted form. This volume takes extracts from the Poetics, an important statement of ancient aesthetics. Aristotle described all literature (and storytelling) as based in mimesis. He set out the importance of appropriate length of a story and that stories must have a beginning, middle and end. Spectacle must be subordinate to plot. Plot takes precedence over character. Conflict between allies and inside family is more compelling than that between strangers. Tragedy comes from a great man undone by weakness.

Translator and editor of this volume, Philip Freeman of Pepperdine University, explains the difficulties with Aristotle’s texts. “The Greek text of the Poetics as Aristotle wrote it consists of unpolished lecture notes, not a finished literary work like the dialogues of his teacher Plato. The text also has missing words and sentences, with other parts annotated, rearranged, and in general jumbled by copyists over the centuries more than most manuscripts from the ancient world. The result is a book that will leave even the best classical scholars at times scratching their heads in confusion.”[i]  

Aristotle’s observations on fiction have been very influential and have become the rules that one must know, even if in order to subvert them. The idea that a story needs good and bad characters, acting to change a situation and a clear conclusion seems to be one thing that scriptwriters and financiers of Marvel and DC movies, and American television series, need to re-learn. The serial nature of high-budget cinematic and televisual drama has destroyed Aristotle’s recommendation and left us with a legacy of stories designed to be unended and ever ready for disappointing (but lucrative) prequels, sequels and reboots. In an age when scriptwriters do not believe in heroes and villains – except when they have politicians to champion or decry on Twitter – the power of essential elements of storytelling need to be reinforced. The terrible comic-book action-hero stories come from writers being ignorant (or defying) the advice to make a tragedy from “a serious error in a noble kind of person”[ii].

American comedy writers need reminding that “Comedy, as we have said, is an imitation of inferior people.”[iii] The most effective comedies explore the pitiful pathos and hubris of inferior people. Curb Your Enthusiasm presents the failings of a fictional Larry David character who cannot control his resentment, selfishness and worst instincts. The writers, directors and actors in that series are clear about the central character’s inferiority without sacrificing his humanity and relatability. In all failed comedies we find an unwillingness to expose weaknesses of character or to allow those characters to ultimately fail or remain disgraced. Aristotle warns us not to go too far. “Comic characters are not cruel or vicious, but laughable […] Being laughable is a shortcoming or disgrace that doesn’t involve serious pain or destruction.”

The comedy requires the incorporation of the morality tale and that means judging and being permitted to condemn flaws and types of person. In a mass-media world that fights shy of mocking oddity and absurdity – and refuses to accept traditional descriptions of sin and flaws as valid – the moral core of comedy becomes compromised or suppressed. It is regrettable that – contrary to his ideas on tragedy – Aristotle’s thoughts on comedy are mostly lost.

The tragedy is best when compact; the epic needs a greater space of time within the story. In some ways, Aristotle goes against the current fashion. Those brought up in an age of method acting will find foreign the observation, “[T]he goal of an actor on the stage is not to imitate character. Character is instead a by-product of action. Action and plot are what a tragedy is about.” We might differ on the need for characters to explicitly state their reasoning. This falls into the trap of exposition – telling not showing. It is often more stimulating and realistic for characters to conceal motivation or reveal it indirectly and against their will contra Aristotle’s assertion “speeches in a play in which the speaker doesn’t choose or make a clear choice do not express character”. The audience reading the subtext and inferring motivation is satisfying because it demands the audience use empathy, life experience and analysis rather than simply passively absorbing.

Other sections discussion language, grammar and speech and the Greek poetic metres. There is advise for writers and critics and comparisons between art and writing. The merits of epics and tragedies are weighed. The notes are thorough and informative. As usual in series, the introduction and notes are in English; the main text is in the original language (Greek) with parallel English translation. How to Tell a Story forms a worthy addition to Princeton’s classics library.

Aristotle, Philip Freeman (trans., introduction), How to Tell a Story, Princeton University Press, 2022, cloth spine hardback, 264pp, English/Greek text, $16.95/£12.99, ISBN 978 0 691 20527 4

(c) Alexander Adams 2022

To find links to my books and writings visit https://linktr.ee/alexanderadamsartist

Magic or explanation in art (Francis Bacon)

A new book about Francis Bacon’s paintings, raises the question “Does explaining art remove its magic?”

During his lifetime, British painter Francis Bacon (1909-1992) kept private the photographs that he used as inspirations for his powerful paintings of the human figure and animals. Preferring not to give precise sources or explain his painting process, Bacon instead offered his paintings without discussion. Even his titles (“Study of a Figure”, “Seated Figure”, “Dog”) revealed little. Since his death, the discovery of thousands of photographs from books, newspapers and other sources have been studied by art historians.

Art historian Katharina Günther goes a good way to proving her opening hypothesis in Francis Bacon: In the Mirror of Photography. Collecting, Preparatory Practice and Painting (De Gruyter, Berlin, 2022, 445pp, fully illus., hardback, £52, ISBN: 978 3110 720 624) that “Bacon’s iconography stems from the pre-existing, mostly lens-based imagery he collected in his studios for this purpose […] [This is] a well-rehearsed, deliberate, and consistent appropriation practice. In fact, it may well be that all his paintings were based on photographic material, a claim which has been made in the past, without, however, underpinning it with any data. Second, the working process can be deciphered by carefully investigating Bacon’s working documents and environments, through comparative analysis of the source item and the finished canvas, and by tracing the appropriation process from one to the other. […] We may then detect and interpret recurring patterns and methodologies, providing us with an in-depth insight into Bacon’s creative process, which will help us better understand his work.”(p. 10)  

Her book examines the source photographs found in Bacon’s studio and links them to specific paintings, providing liberal illustration and discussion. The book (which is pleasurable, thoughtful and a compliment to the reader’s intelligence) definitely broadens and deepens our understanding of the art, but it may not benefit the art or our experience of it as art. Understanding and appreciating are not necessarily synonymous. Consider the magic trick. If we know the mechanical devices, sleights of hand, misdirection, showmanship and other elements deployed to fool us, we certainly know more about the trick, but the magic – what we value in the magic trick – is gone. Experiencing the sensation of wonder is why we love magic – that brief feeling of shock and surprise accompanied by incomprehension that allows us to unlock something childlike and delightful within us. Even if we understand on an essential level that we are being deceived, we briefly believe in powers beyond knowing. Magic startles us from our habitual assumptions about the world and ourselves. Aesthetic philosophers have sometimes compared the transformative experience of encountering art or nature of amazing beauty or novelty as akin to a religious experience. We might be able to determine a particular pattern of synaptic stimulation to the experience of ecstasy, but that does not explain the experience’s significance. Magic, art, sex and religious ecstasy all open our minds to a rare state of pleasure, one that stands to some degree antipathetic to mere knowing.

In the work of Günther and other art historians, there is an obvious struggle. Let us take the study of Bacon’s photographic sources as our example. On the one hand, all historians and critics who have long considered the matter conclude that Bacon was deeply influenced by photographs, not least on the authority of Bacon’s interview statements on the matter. On the other hand, Bacon deprecated photography as an art form and refused to be specific about how he used photography. Historians have also been reluctant to pin down too closely paintings to exact sources, perhaps finding the process reductive and demeaning. So, the paradoxical situation has developed that everyone acknowledges that photography was important to Bacon but few want to commit to writing about exact links, sometimes talking about the atmosphere of the studio and the general stimulation produced by such a working environment. During the artist’s lifetime, his personal disapproval of such discussions (he never allowed anyone to examine the studio material during his lifetime) directed discussion; since his death, this field has been opened but (as Günther notes) few have stepped in and drawn specific links.

Bacon was, quite understandably, protective of his creative process. He must have been concerned that in an age of professional art historians, museum archives, recorded interviews and extensive publication, the story of the making of art would reduce the mysterious power of his paintings. It was the paintings he chose to make his final statements, unqualified by sketches or documentation of preparatory stages. In such circumstances, Bacon’s preference to conceal his exact working methods is understandable and compatible with his intention to allow his paintings to live and die by the amount (and nature) of appreciation they received as art. Despite Günther’s claim, “[T]his is the line of enquiry that should be pursued – not to diminish Bacon’s art but to highlight a highly creative and unique working process”(p. 35), it is difficult to see such scrutiny as other than a dilution. Once informed, we cannot approach a Bacon painting innocent of its origins and open to its startling novelty and raw emotional force. We become conditioned to see the experience of that painting as the culmination of a process of image acquisition, adaptation and translocation. We not so naïve as to consider a painting to be conceived and executed ex nihilo, but to have our experience of the art so altered by considerations outside of the meeting an observing subject and observed object inevitably leads to a lessening of power – even if that power were actually illusory, self-serving and a manifestation of the aesthetics of art as pure, detached, disinterested communion.  

The degree to which artists protect the secrecy of their working methods is a matter of debate. In an age when so much more is recordable and archive culture is more developed (and monetised), the artist has to consider how many traces to leave behind. Does one keep or dispose of sketches and diagrams? Does one number or date working material? Does one keep secret photographs? If these photographs are digital only, how secure is their future without a printed version? Does one keep a list of books consulted or seek to consign to oblivion the reading background of the creator? Would anyone viewing the finished art consider that art finished if that observer had access to all of the sketches, notes and initial stages of that finished art? Such material turns the culminating painting into part of a process – a stage in a narrative.  

I had this discussion with an art historian friend of mine, with me taking the role of an artist keen to preserve the mystery of my finished art, emphasising the argument that expansion of art parameters to include preparatory material was often regrettable. I suggested that (specifically in the case of Bacon’s art) presentation and discussion of source material inevitably diminished the power of the art because of this “narrativizing” effect of contextualisation. His argument was that addition of extra information and material was not diminution (or subtraction) of the status of the art and that it was the duty of historians, collectors and acquaintances of the artist to preserve as much material, documentation and recollections as possible for the benefit of future scholars and biographers. I see his point but I also see mine. Yes, it is a benefit for the historian, biographer and other expositors of art to have as much information and as many sources and stages preserved. But also, yes, if one wants to appreciate the power of art, nothing is needed other than the work itself. Indeed, part of the force (dare I say, magical force?) of cave painting or Cycladic sculpture is that pervasive and impenetrable ignorance we have about the working conditions, motifs and ideas of the original makers and audience of this art.

As both an artist and an art critic/historian, I see this dilemma acutely. What I decide with regard to preserving my own preparatory materials and elucidating the process of making, I have not decided. As an artist, I think that silence can be infinitely more expressive than any word or sign, which limits both listener and speaker. Yet, as a writer of books such as “Degas” (Prestel, 2022) and “Magritte” (Prestel, 2022) and a forthcoming volume, I eagerly consume all the sources I can find about my subjects. There may be no easy answer, perhaps there can be no answer at all, but it seems necessary to consider this dilemma.

Katharina Günther, Francis Bacon: In the Mirror of Photography. Collecting, Preparatory Practice and Painting, De Gruyter, Berlin, 2022, 445pp, fully illus., hardback, £52, ISBN: 978 3110 720 624

(c) 2022 Alexander Adams

To see may art and books visit http://www.alexanderadams.art

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Romanticism and National Character

[Image: Edvard Munch (1863-1944), At the Deathbed, 1895, Oil and tempera on unprimed canvas, 90.2 x 123.3 cm, KODE Bergen Art Museum, The Rasmus Meyer Collection]

Two recent exhibitions and catalogues prompted reflections on the role of geography and national character in the production and reception of Romanticism. This article will be in three parts. The first is a discussion of the exhibitions and catalogues; the second discusses the character of Romanticism, especially in relation to national character; the third explores the idea of national character and northern countries in relation to Romanticism, national myths and nationalism.

Part I: Romanticism and the Nordic Character

The recent exhibition of the paintings of Edvard Munch (1863-1944) showed Munch as a painter of the human essence, dealing with recurrent eternal themes: love, desire, loss, grief, fear, wonder. This is pretty much the standard approach for the artist – not least because of his Frieze of Life project, which conceived of life in such terms – but is no less true or important for us when we stand before Munch’s great art. The Frieze of Life (conceived 1889, exhibited 1902) was a series of paintings which would portray the progress of life for a person, presented in tableaux from different stages, incidents or situations in a life. This included Sphinx (Woman Three Stages)*, At the Deathbed*, Evening on Karl Johan Street*, Jealousy*, Melancholy*, Anxiety, Ashes, Puberty, The Lonely Ones, Despair, The Kiss, The Voice, The Dance of Life, Separation and The Scream (all 1892-1900). The marked paintings were included in the exhibition Edvard Munch: Masterpieces from Bergen (27 May–5 September 2022, Courtauld Gallery, London).

Munch’s Frieze of Life was both universal and personal, being drawn from some of his own experiences of eternally recurring situations. At the Deathbed (1895) was a rendering of the death of his sister Sophie, in 1877, which itself echoed the death of their mother in 1868. Munch’s observations of the complicated and turbulent private lives of associates in bohemian Christiania and Berlin gave him ample material for paintings on the subject of despair and jealousy, including suicide, murder, infidelity. Man and Woman (1898) shows a man slumped in despair under the gaze of a nude woman, positioned above him. In Munch’s world, the woman is supreme, the decider, slayer of men. She can withhold or divert her favours, rendering the male suitor pathetic or redundant. Munch has been seen as a misogynist. If he is so – and there is a case for that reading – he sees women with the power to be fickle and decide the fate of men of the highest calibre. (“Woman, who at one and the same time can be a saint, a whore and unhappily devoted.”) The artist’s own private life provided enough drama for several lifetimes. His affairs and break ups – including an incident where a mistress shot one of his fingers – were proof of the recurrence of suffering due to carnal passion. His Death of Marat (1907, not exhibited) shows Munch lying on a bloodied bed, assassinated by his lover Tulla Larsen who faces us nude, indomitable and proud.

[Image: Edvard Munch (1863-1944), Melancholy, 1894 – 96, Oil on canvas, 80 x 100.5 cm, KODE Bergen Art Museum, The Rasmus
Meyer Collection]

As the catalogue authors point out, Munch’s psychodrama is definitely presented to position the artist in the starkest of situations, exploiting the actual events and weaving in them myth and history to elevate the art. We should not see this exaggeration as egotism but instead as the desire to make art that rises to the heroism of the greatest works in the canon. Munch serves his art, even if that means showing himself as more pitiable and weaker than he was. He is an actor in a stage play of his own life, where he plays himself. In this performance, Munch makes situations clearer than they were, gesturing emphatically and condensing action into symbolic tableaux. This emphatic power – found so distinctively in the heavy outlines, assertive painterliness and simplicity of forms – is one aspect that has contributed to the definition of Munch as a proto-Expressionist, if not the first Expressionist (along with Van Gogh).

In the exhibition and catalogue, Munch grows from realism (defiance of art conventions to get at living reality) to Symbolism, which provided him with an ur-reality, that primordial truth that exists below surfaces. Munch’s aim was to be truthful about the unchanging realities of the lives of men and women, by dispensing with anecdote, qualification and specificity. His dramas of eternal man and eternal woman (not forgetting eternal child) have much in common with Romanticism and that movement’s drive to set aside convention, religion and public morals to uncover truths. Romanticism, the intellectual and artistic forerunner of Symbolism, rejected the recent accretions of social, technological and religious understanding, in order to find hidden things within human nature. This is, of course, as much an extension of Enlightenment science and philosophy as it is a refutation of it. Burke’s examination of the physiological dimensions of our responses to stimuli beautiful or sublime, was an assertion of the value (and application) of biological science and nascent psychological investigation. We shall come back to the nature of Romanticism in Part II.

[Image: Edvard Munch (1863-1944), Woman in Three Stages, 1894, Oil on canvas, KODE Bergen Art Museum, The Rasmus Meyer Collection]

The catalogue (Barnaby Wright (ed.), Edvard Munch: Masterpieces from Bergen, Paul Holberton, 2022) documents closely the actions of collector Rasmus Meyer (1858-1916), who personally knew Munch and bought work directly from his studio, with the express intention of building a permanent collection that would be maintained after the death of collector and artist. We see how patronage established handsome collections of the best art by certain exceptional artists and how this was left as a legacy to inform descendants’ understanding and taste. It is fair to say that Munch’s art has lodged deeply in the mental landscape of Scandinavians and the wider population which responds to the memorable and assertive images that have a hold over us, even if we are not inhabitants of Norway. This is not least due to the commitment of Norwegian collectors, who saw Munch as an exponent of the new modern school and showed that Norway was a serious independent country capable of contributing to the flow of European culture.

Another exhibition which raised issues of the importance of place and people to the Romantic movement and its ideals was Dreams of Freedom: Romanticism in Russia and Germany (22 April-8 August 2021, State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, 2 October 2021-6 June 2022, Staatliche Kunstammlungen Dresden). The exhibition covers art by German, Russian and Scandinavian artists working in the Romantic idiom, mostly with links to Dresden. The period selected is from 1800 to the 1890s. (It is reviewed here from the catalogue.)

At the turn of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, there was a mania for German stories, verse, painting, music and philosophy among Russian intellectuals, social liberals and Romantics. Germany looked to be a model for intellectual refinement and imaginative exploits, with Dresden as the city held in highest esteem. The catalogue has a chronology of the connections between Russians and Germans in Dresden during the Nineteenth Century. This includes military and diplomatic events during the Napoleonic Wars, when Russia defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Kulm. Dresden was a crossroads for Mitteleuropa and functioned as a site for mingling of German and Russian painters. For cultural tourists of the age – not least those on the Grand Tour – went to Dresden for its architecture (as “Florence on the Elbe”) and its picture gallery (which contained Raphael’s Sistine Madonna (1512-3)). Local artists and academy were poorly regarded in first decade of the Nineteenth Century. Matters improved when Caspar David Friedrich was member of the academy in 1816, though the consensus that many of Dresden painters were derivative.   

[Image: Caspar David Friedrich, Two Men Contemplating the Moon, 1819–1820, Albertinum, Dresden State Art Collections]

In the catalogue and exhibition, Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) is the towering presence. He was admired in his time by many. Grand Duke Nikolai Pavlovich (future Tsar Nicholas I) bought paintings from Friedrich’s studio when he visited Dresden and today there are nine paintings by him in the Hermitage. Friedrich’s symbolic landscapes – constructed from nature studies with added figures, buildings and subject to exaggeration and adaptation – are seen as pictorial poetry and as religious allegory. His paintings were seen as examples of the national genius of the German people, especially by nationalists in later eras.

This was at a time – after the violence caesura of the republican and anti-clericalist French Revolution showed that the organising principles of states did not have to be royal or religious – when national identity was becoming increasingly important. Old empires were split into nations and bishoprics and duchies were swallowed into larger states; the old glue of feudal structures and regional trading networks was dissolved as we see the rise of the nation state. Loyalty was no longer a chain of mutual duties in a strict hierarchy culminating in a monarch or prince of the Church; it became a collective project of an ethnic folk organised under the authority of a centralised and unified, with a group cause being self-determination and control of lands settled by kinsmen.   

[Image: Johan Christian Dahl, View of Dresden at Full Moon, 1839, Albertinum, Dresden State Art Collections]

Friedrich and Norwegian landscape painter Johan Christian Dahl (1788-1855) (a friend and colleague of Friedrich’s in Dresden, whose work also features in the exhibition) became more themselves and better embodiments of their nations when separated from their homelands. “In Romanticism, the idea of homeland arises out of a loss. It was not until they were in foreign lands that leading artists discovered how their identity was shaped by their origins. In Dresden, Caspar David Friedrich, who hailed from Pomerania, was seen as northern German – not only in his choice of subjects, such as the Baltic Sea and megalithic tombs, but also on account of his demure and withdrawn demeanour. It was not until he was in Rome that Johan Christian Dahl developed into a painter of harsh Norwegian nature.” National character, like all other assessments, is understood comparatively. The paintings of Friedrich are full of travellers and observers briefly inhabiting unpopulated places. The coasts, cliffs, mountains, forests and ruins are not places where one lives, rather they are places one encounters the dramatic, ineffable and sublime. The tomb of prehistoric man allows modern man to reflect on the human condition of mortality. The theme and iconography are as important as the appearance of the picture.

We will look at the importance of nationalism to Romanticism in parts II and III. Let us examine here the range of the art exhibited in the display and the connections between German and Russian Romanticism. The selection of Friedrich paintings, not least from Russian museums, is excellent and  it is engrossing to see these paintings reproduced so large and clear. Carl Gustav Carus (1789-1869) is a great and devoted disciple of Friedrich. His motifs and approach is similar to Friedrich’s – figures on a boat, wanderers in wild landscapes in moonlight, mountain views – but his handling is much simpler, flatter and less crisp. When he attempts the more dramatic – a stormy sea, closer to the art of Dahl – he fails. It is hard to see him as more than a poor man’s Friedrich, at least on this showing.

Carl Blechen (1898-1840) is more original and intense. Gothic Church Ruins (1826) shows a figure asleep in a church (or cathedral) not so much overtaken by nature but fused with natural terrain. The floor of the building is a rocky brook. Saplings emerge from stone parapets, echoing the slender spandrels of the Gothic windows below, a beautiful piece of visual rhyme. The ruin was a staple of fine art and literature made by the Romantics. The work of nature and of man is fused in the ruin. Man’s architecture is altered by the forces of nature and the passage of time, presenting the observer with a representation which reminds him of the limits of man’s abilities. This confrontation between man, nature and time is at the heart of the Romantic aesthetic, which attributes less to God, assigning the cosmos to forces which are not necessarily divine. Awe is generated by contemplation of the mighty sublime. The Romantic aesthetic also includes the advancement of artistic ideas concerning melancholy, grief, morbidity, dissolution, decay, entropy and disease. Blechen’s dramatic landscapes and building paintings in oil and ink-wash are richly satisfying and he can be classed in the second rank, just below Friedrich and Dahl.

The Nazarene movement is represented by Edward von Steinle (1810-1886), Wilhelm Schadow (1789-1862), Johann Friedrich Overbeck (1789-1869). Their weaknesses in handling and painterly presence are present in the selected examples; notwithstanding the deliberate archaism of the Nazarene movement, these are stiff and flat as paintings. The portraits seem notably weaker than the landscapes. Ferdinand Hartmann (1774-1842) is a curiosity. He is not a natural painter. His modelling of figures and drapery is crude, his lighting is rudimentary, his composition lacks nuance and sophistication and we have no sense of inhabiting the pictorial space. Yet, his two images here – a kneeling woman holding a dish and death as a skeleton stealing children from a sleeping mother’s bed – are impressively memorable and bold, perhaps precisely because they are so direct (even naïve) as paintings. Romantic painter Philipp Otto Runge (1777-1810) is represented by a self-portrait and his Times of Day print series, which has always seemed to me (in previous viewings) rather chilly and meretricious.

Much better are the landscapes and ruin paintings of Ernst Ferdinand Oehme (1797-1855). Cathedral in Winter (1821) is a nocturne of worshippers arriving for an evening service on a snowy night at a Gothic Cathedral; the only warm hues being those of the light within the building, indicating the salvation and comfort afforded by Christian worship. Dahl  was famous for his nocturnes and View of Dresden (1839) is one of his finest. It shows Dresden’s famous skyline, with shredded clouds obscuring a full moon, reflections on the river brighter than the few paltry lights of a fire or lamp. It reminds one of what has been taken from us by the saturation of artificial illumination in not only our cities but suburbs, industrial outskirts and motorways. There is something humbling and inducive of meditative contemplation about observing a landscape by moonlight.  

[Image: Maxim Nikiforovich Vorobiev, The Oak Fractured by Lightning (the Storm), 1842, State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow]

The cover of the catalogue features a detail from Maksim Nikiforovich Vorobyov’s Oak, Shattered by Lightning (Thunderstorm) (1842), which shows a tree cleft in two by a curving lightning bolt. Yet the detail does not do the drama of the picture – or the daring of the painter – its due. The motif takes up barely half the painting and is on the right side. The left side is almost blank – a haze of waves whipped to spume and a distance flicker of lighting from a murky sky. It is extremely audacious. However it would not be accurate to state that the most striking works here are entirely from Russians, but these paintings will be barely known by even connoisseurs of Romantic art in the West. Vorobyov is one of the finds of the exhibition, for a Westerner.  

The painting of Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov is a prominent presence in this exhibition. It is ironic that the most striking piece by him is a half-length seated Portrait of Vittoria Marini (late 1840s) rather than his mythological or religious scenes. The spatial ambiguity of the sitter’s left hand, which seems to rest on the cheek, yet anatomical understanding and absence of shadows from the head suggest is not the case, is quite a curious solution: the hand is both touching the cheek and held forward. It seems quite close in atmosphere, approach, palette and handling to the paintings of the 1920s and 1930s by Lotte Laserstein (1898-1993). Grand claims are made for Aleksei Gavrilovich Venetsianov (1780-1847) but they are not borne out by this selection. Only the very simple and warm-hued Harvesting. Summer (mid-1820s) – showing a seated peasant resting from harvest, light falling on her back – is enchanting and fresh. Portraits of peasants range from the touching to the trite. 

[Image: Alexei Venetsianov, Harvesting. Summer, Mid-1820s, State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow]

Of the Russians we get none of the Peredvizhniki (Передви́жники, Wanderer) movement. Enthusiasts will sorely miss their grandeur and intensity. Ivan Aivazovsky (1817-1900) is very poorly served by one lacklustre marine. He was the greatest of the Russian Empire’s painter of the period. Was he largely omitted because he was a painter of seascapes and also an ethnic Armenian? There is no dearth of wonderful paintings by him in Russian museums. Was he too difficult to integrate into the narrative? This is a shame because Aivazovsky is a painter he should be exhibited and discussed more often, although is better known in Germany than elsewhere on the Continent.  

The exhibition gathered material relating to Dresden’s most famous painting, Raphael’s Sistine Madonna. The painting was bought by Frederick Augustus II in 1754. The catalogue reproduces the many German and Russian copies and illustrates watercolours of stately interiors that housed full-size copies. Both Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy had copies of the painting in their homes, although Tolstoy later became averse to Raphael.  

Overall, both catalogues explain the hold of Romantic subjectivism and humanistic individualism on Norwegians Munch and Dahl and German and Russian painters. Next, we will look more closely at Romanticism before examining how nationalism and Romanticism became intertwined.

To read part II for free visit my Substack account here.

Dreams of Freedom: Romanticism in Russia and Germany (22 April-8 August 2021, State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, 2 October 2021-6 June 2022, Staatliche Kunstammlungen Dresden)

Edvard Munch: Masterpieces from Bergen (27 May – 5 September 2022, Courtauld Gallery, London)

Barnaby Wright (ed.), Edvard Munch: Masterpieces from Bergen, Paul Holberton, London, May 2022, paperback, 136pp, 60 col. Illus., £25, ISBN 978 1 913645 27 4

Staatliche Kunstammlungen Dresden (ed.), Dreams of Freedom: Romanticism in Russia and Germany, Hirmer Verlag, Munich, 2022, hardback, 360pp, 300 col. Illus., £49.95, ISBN 978 3 7774 35831