Racknitz, Architectural Taste and Orientalism

gri_84_b22138_v5_017

[Image: “Modern Persian Taste” from Racknitz’s Presentation and History (1796-9), hand-coloured engraving. Photo courtesy Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles.]

Part of the German Enlightenment that produced Alexander von Humboldt, was author and arts administrator Joseph Friedrich zu Racknitz (1744-1818). His a treatise Darstellung und Geschichte des Geschmacks der vorzüglichsten Völker in Beziehung auf die innere Auszierung der Zimmer und auf die Baukunst (Presentation and History of the Taste of the Leading Nations) (4 vols., 1796-9) comprises an attempt to survey decorative styles of the great civilisations of the world, past and present. Racknitz’s book is an encyclopaedic study of the decorative arts. It is a rarely cited and little known work that sheds light on the German Enlightenment and the reception of historical and non-European decoration in this era. Simon Swynfen Jervis has translated, annotated and introduced the first complete English-language edition of this obscure publication.

The aristocratic family of Racknitz was a Protestant family which fled Bavaria for Saxony. They were resident in Dresden during Joseph’s lifetime, connected to the court. Racknitz spent early years studying music, geology, mineralogy and natural history. Saxony at this time was a centre of learning, publishing and industry, at the forefront of European ceramics. His first book was Briefe über die Kunst an eine Freundinn (Letters on Art to a Female Friend) (1792). “The summary index describes Racknitz’s exceedingly conventional hierarchy of painting. But this absence of originality renders the book an invaluable compilation of ideés reçues.” In that book he ranked the qualities of French and English landscape gardening, preferring the latter but conceding the former as “more appropriate and practical”.

In the mid-1790s Racknitz advocated the founding of a design school in Dresden and an exposition of art and design in the city to encourage advancement of the arts. He was involved in the planning of decorative and architectural schemes for the court and related bodies throughout the latter half of his life. Design of his own house was a project informed by his extensive knowledge of the arts. Much of his work was obliterated by the bombing of February 1945.

For the most part, Presentation and History of the Taste of the Leading Nations was respectfully received upon publication. The illustrations were highly praised; a few reviewers took exception to aspects of Racknitz’s project. Goethe and Schiller did not think highly of it, but aside from a few mocking epigrams they did not overtly criticise Racknitz. The lack of French or English translations limited international impact of the treatise and it subsequently fell into obscurity. When it was noticed during the subsequent centuries, it was principally for the illustrations.

This book text prints an unexpurgated translation of the full text of the four volumes, including line engraving illustrations, with a section at the end reproducing large hand-coloured engravings from the deluxe volumes held by the Getty Museum. Extensive introductory essays and notes cover Racknitz, his book and the reception of his work.

Peoples or regions Racknitz selected for inclusion are Moors, Jews, Turks, Ancient Egypt, France, Etruscans, Romans, Tahiti, China, Greece, India, Germanic, English, Persia, Mexico (Aztec) and Siberia (which Racknitz conflates with Western European Russia). The quixotic inclusion of primitive interiors of Kamchatka was for the sake of breadth and novelty rather than guidance they could provide designers and architects. Descriptions of unfamiliar cultures are short and are more ethnographic or anthropological in character. Racknitz spends more time on the daily routine of an average Tahitian than on island architecture.

Racknitz_v5_Plate_001_R

[Image: “Egyptian Taste” from Racknitz’s Presentation and History (1796-9), hand-coloured engraving. Photo courtesy Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles.]

Architect Christian Traugott Weinlig (1739-1799) wrote sections that required detailed architectural knowledge and terminology. The engravers were various. Jervis lists 13 different engravers, with the largest contribution to the illustrations being that by Johann Gottfried Schmidt (1764-1803). The vignette illustrations are competent line engravings which generally would generate little comment separated from the book. An exception is the beautifully modulated cave engraving by Christian Friedrich Stoelzel. The full-page end illustrations are engravings with hand colouring are much more striking. Interiors of grand courtly residences are paired with separate illustrations of furniture, tiles, patches of decoration or images of different woods. The bright colours, schematic frontal designs and inclusion of picturesque views outside the interiors remind one of video-game backgrounds from 10 or 15 years ago. Figures are rarely included in the grand views but do appear in the vignettes. One does wonder about the accuracy the scales of the scenes are. There seem more than a few cases of Piranesi-style inflation.

The description of the discovery and recovery of objects from Herculaneum is particularly good, as it draws from recent sources explaining the methods and restrictions of excavation. There is an extensive summary of the Palais du Louvre, which Racknitz considered a paradigm of good design and taste.

The amount of space given to each subject depended upon a) the amount of material available to the author and b) the author’s relative enthusiasm for the subject. The book’s organisation was not logical or clear and the relative length of the volumes was inconsistent; Jervis suggests that this was in part due to the author adapting to the delivery of completed illustrations.

Racknitz is short on citing specific buildings and presenting figures regarding numbers of buildings, the economic imperatives at work and exact measurements of ideal proportions and layouts. He quotes and names sources but his arguments are replete with vague generalities and unsourced assumptions. Today Presentation and Treatise is of interest for its historical significance rather than as a source for anyone researching decoration and taste of the subjects discussed. As such, it functions as an example of the totalising quasi-analytical aspect of the German Enlightenment as it related to the applied arts.

We find typical examples of Enlightenment Orientalism, as Racknitz assesses Oriental modes of architecture and furnishing in a manner that seeks to be discriminating and dispassionate but which also reveal Racknitz to be a man of his era. The common view was applied art and architecture exemplified the outlook of a nation’s character. Here is Racknitz on the modern Persian:

Like other Orientals, the Persians may be compared to a man born in the lap of luxury who has been told from his childhood that he has more than enough, and that it requires no effort but only the exercise of his will and a small part of his treasure to set in motion the activity of other men, to satisfy his needs and fulfil his wishes; flattered and lulled by those notions he shies from any mental exertion, and has no other desire but to dream away his life in idle luxury and sensuality, and rather vegetates than lives in a dependence, unnoticed by him, on those whose knowledge and ability are indispensable to him.

Orientals are for the most part idle and are only inspired to action by the necessity to secure their most essential needs.

In contrast the Moors are a “bold and courageous people combined in an unusual manner a lively, cheerful temperament and manly gravity.” Arabs are “courageous, frugal, tireless, and inured to bear all hardships, fearing neither hunger and thirst nor death”. Turks are a “warlike, cruel, and proud people” restrained by their religion from taking up the advanced culture that they had conquered in Byzantium. Jervis notes that the sensitive and detailed chapter on Aztec design forms an early example of European Meso-American anthropology that would flourish in later decades.

This attractive and thorough scholarly presentation makes a contribution towards our understanding of Racknitz, the German Enlightenment and the origins of academic Orientalism in the German-speaking world.

Joseph Friedrich zu Racknitz, Simon Swynfen Jervis (ed./trans.), A Rare Treatise on Interior Decoration and Architecture. Joseph Friedrich zu Racknitz’s Presentation and History of the Taste of the Leading Nations, Getty Publications, 2020, hardback, 368pp, 59 col./58 mono illus., $85, ISBN 978 1 60606624 9

© 2020 Alexander Adams

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

John Frederick Lewis

John Frederick Lewis, In the Bezestein, El Khan Khalil, Cairo, c. 1860. Watercolour, wash, graphite under drawing. Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery

[Image: John Frederick Lewis, In the Bezestein, El Khan Khalil, Cairo (c. 1860), watercolour, wash, graphite under drawing, Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery.]

For anyone who missed the exhibition John Frederick Lewis: Facing Fame (Watts Gallery, Surrey, 9 July-3 November 2019) Briony Llewellyn’s small but informative catalogue provides an informative consolation. This review of the exhibition is from the catalogue.

John Frederick Lewis (1804-1876) was one the leading British Orientalist painters from the middle of the C19th. He began his career as a watercolourist, painting portraits, animal paintings, hunting and fishing scenes and landscapes around the British Isles. His elaborate but painterly realism was in the English tradition. He trained in the family workshop rather than the academy.

A journey to Spain 1832-3 turned Lewis on to the subject of Orientalism. Spain, with its heritage of Arab occupation and Moorish architecture, was seen as an amalgam of Oriental and Occidental. It provided a safe glimpse of Islamic-influenced culture without the dangers of Islam for European travellers. At that time the bandit (along with the Gypsy) offered artists and writers a chance to embody the rebellious romantic archetype of the outsider living by private tribal loyalty and ancient codes of solidarity in the face of norms of social conventions.

In 1837 Lewis left England for the Mediterranean, travelling through Italy, Greece and Albania to reach Constantinople. He stayed there, painting Ottoman subjects, along with other artists, including David Wilkie. He later moved to Cairo. Llewellyn recounts the success of the watercolour The Hhareem [sic] (1850) when exhibited in London. It played on the fascination with the Arab slave trade, which exerted a powerful moral repugnance mixed with sadistic attraction over European viewers. The subject of the painting was an Ethiopian woman. French author Achille Constant Théodore Émile Prisse d’Avennes reports that Lewis had a friend buy the slave in order to allow him access to her as a model but the model had a strong aversion to Lewis. This may or may not be true but Llewellyn suspects Prisse’s account to be at least biased. In England his reputation was spread by the picturesque anecdotes of William Makepeace Thackery.

John Frederick Lewis, The Bezestein Bazaar of El Khan Khalil, Cairo, 1872. Watercolour and bodycolour on paper, Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery (The Higgins Bedford)

[Image: John Frederick Lewis, The Bezestein Bazaar of El Khan Khalil, Cairo (1872), watercolour and bodycolour on paper. Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery (The Higgins Bedford).]

He returned to England with his new bride Marian in 1851. Thereafter he spent his career creating images of the Near East, especially Egypt, using his sketches, memories and costumes and props in his studio. (Some of his Eastern garments were down through inheritance and survive today.) Upon his return to England, Lewis resigned from the Society of Painters in Water Colours (of which he had been a member since 1829), which is seen as a tactical decision, because no artist was permitted to become elected a member of the Royal Academy whilst also being a member of any other professional association. He was elected ARA in 1859 and elected RA in 1865. Despite his high profile and the many honours bestowed him, he was a private man – even described as reclusive. He disliked his duties and proved a poor teacher during the stipulated attendances as visiting tutor at the academy schools. Lewis preferred to remain in Walton-on-Thames (from 1854 until his death), Surrey rather than spend much time in London not dictated by his duties.

Lewis used himself as a model for Oriental men, his visage and beard looking suitable for the roles. There are photographs of him in Eastern costume. This was partly symbolic and partly a practical consideration. Llewellyn points out that artists modelling themselves as Arabs was commonplace and that sometimes this fact was known to viewers. In Lewis’s case this is unclear and she did not find contemporary references to the artist being recognised by the general viewers within his paintings. Marian posed for some of the European wives within harem scenes. Llewellyn wisely does not become caught up on “cultural appropriation” and other such anachronistic retrospective views and instead talks about the then-current conventions. However, the use of “Orient”, “Oriental”, “Eastern”, “Arab” and so forth in quotation marks nearly throughout in discussions of the Victorian reception of Lewis’s art is an unnecessary concession to political fashion. Readers are informed enough to recognise that the historical conceptualisation of these terms is culturally freighted and thus not necessarily accurate. Such ostentatious authorial signalling is irksome and mars Llewellyn’s informative, clear and otherwise well judged text.

John Frederick Lewis, The Pipe Bearer, 1859. Watercolour, pencil and bodycolour on paper. Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery (The Higgins Bedford)

[Image: John Frederick Lewis, The Pipe Bearer (1859), watercolour, pencil and bodycolour on paper. Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery (The Higgins Bedford).]

Typical scenes included views of bazaars, grand interiors, hareems, wall gardens, schools, courtyards and other recognisably Oriental settings. The figures are prominent and accurately painted, with attention paid to mood and expression. Some paintings are of single figures, with the setting reduced to background details. Other paintings are what could be described as interiors with figures. This exhibition contained pages from Lewis’s early sketchbooks, his pre-travel watercolour scenes of Britain, art made in Egypt and oil paintings executed back in England for exhibition. These are loaned from various collections. Also exhibited but not illustrated or transcribed in the catalogue are letters relating to Lewis. The catalogue makes a good introduction to one of Britain’s most celebrated Orientalists.

 

Briony Llewellyn, John Frederick Lewis: Facing Fame, Watts Gallery Artist Village, 2019, paperback, 55pp, fully illus., ISBN 978 0 9933902 4 1

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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