“Born in Germany in the final weeks of World War II, Anselm Kiefer’s childhood left a permanent impression. Surrounded by the ruins of the Black Forest town of Donaüschingen, Kiefer grew up with images of burned buildings, crashed military airplanes, and destroyed machinery from which his neighbors scavenged steel for a pittance. Meanwhile, Friedrich Seidenstücker was photographing Berlin’s Tiergarten park shorn of vegetation, ground pummelled by military vehicles, and the Trümmerfrauen (“rubble women”) who formed chains to salvage bricks from heaps of masonry.
After Kiefer’s early success freed him from financial constraints, he bought a giant former brick factory in Barjac, Gard, in France which he used as his studio to make large installations out of rubble, cast concrete, earth, sheet lead, straw, dried sunflowers and other materials. His art recreated the Germany of his childhood to mediate on how rubble eventually becomes soil in which plants and crops can grow.
Kiefer links wartime debris with German Romanticism. He detected in Hitler – as did Munch and Dalí – an innate form of masochism and desire for failure specific to the German character. The German Romantic worldview is epitomized by the solitary traveler famously depicted in the landscape paintings of Casper David Friedrich contemplating ruins in the wilderness as a symbol of man’s hubris, the cyclical decline of civilizations and the unassuageable power of nature.
One embodiment of that Romantic melancholic yearning for a ruined landscape is found in the idea of the Ruinenwert (“ruin value”) refined and popularised by Albert Speer. The chief architect of the NSDAP after the death of Troost. Speer consulted with Hitler to conceptualize buildings that would appear noble and mighty when ruined….”
Princeton University Press has issued a reprint of a significant work of art history, “The Dehumanization of Art” and four other essays on culture by Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955). The titular essay was first published in 1925; it will be treated last because of its importance. All the essays were written in the late 1920s and p1930s; three of them were published in Partisan Review in translation in 1949-1952.
In “Notes on the Novel”, the author considers the exhaustion of the novel form. “It has become practically impossible to find new subjects.”[i] In the essay considered last, Gasset takes up this theme with regard to painting. Familiarity blunts the originality and value of past novels, he writes. The highest purpose of literature and art is to present a heightened, more intense understanding of the world. Modern novels often fail because they are thinner, sparser, less original, less complete. For Gasset, Don Quixote, the earliest of Spanish novels is the best because it is the richest of novels.
“In Search of Goethe from Within” uses the centenary of Goethe to take the German novelist, playwright, poet and thinker as the complete polymath, taken in contrast with the inadequate figures of Gasset’s day. Goethe is a thinker who stepped out of himself and conceptualised a life as a man’s task – the result of conscious effort. (Does this prefigure Sartre and Camus’s existential man wrestling with the absurd?) Gasset sees Goethe as battling his own nature, “Hence his depressions, his stiffness, his distance from his surroundings, his bitterness. It was a life à rebours. […] But a man’s life is not the operation of the exquisite mechanisms which Providence put inside him. The crucial question is to ask oneself in whose service they operate. Was the man Goethe in the service of his vocation, or was he, rather, a perpetual deserter from his inner destiny?”[ii]“All our ideas are reactions – positive or negative – to the situations with which our destiny confronts us.” Goethe, Gasset decides, is fundamentally at odds with his own nature, hence his restlessness and awkwardness.
“The Self and the Other” functions as a companion piece to the Goethe essay, which explores the nature of working from within (that is, personally) and truth to one’s self. He describes the world in 1939 on the verge of war, when (in the Western world) the private individual is about to be temporarily abolished in favour of the patriotic citizen put in service of the defence of his country. “Almost all the world is in tumult, is beside itself, and when man is beside himself he loses his most essential attribute: the possibility of mediating, or withdrawing into himself to come to terms with himself and define what it is that he believes and what it is that he does not believe; what he truly esteems and what he truly detests. Being beside himself bemuses him, blinds him, forces him to act mechanically in a frenetic somnambulism.”[iii] A prime definitional characteristic of man is his capacity for interiority. Man becomes animalistic when he is faced with threats that demand he always be ready for fight or flight; he loses his capacity for detachment and inwardness. Gasset goes on to define thought as secondary to action in importance. In his evolution-influenced view, abstract thought arises only to support better action for survival and reproduction, although thought lifts man above the beasts.
As with all of these essays, there are persistent concerns between topics. The decline of culture is something that comes up in relation to fine art in the essays reviewed following. Gasset writes of “an overproduction of ideas, of books and works of art, a real cultural inflation. […] And, as occurs in capitalism, the market became saturated and crisis ensued.”[iv] Subsequent decline and stupefaction presage violent turmoil and war, when demagogues hustle men in unthinking action, preventing men from contemplation.
“On Point of View in the Arts” discusses the value and implications of distance and movement in art. Gasset nominates as significant proximate vision and distant vision “of which physiology speaks are not notions that depend chiefly on measurable factors, but are rather two distinct ways of seeing”.[v] At a distance “the structure of our hierarchized elements disappears. The ocular field is homogeneous; we do not see one thing clearly and the rest confusedly, for all are submerged in an optical democracy.”[vi]
Gasset notes that the object seen close up has greater corporeality through volumetric presence and the affect of stereoscopic parallax vision. When this close-up quality is removed through not just through simple distance but the expansion of the optical field through the inclusion of more legible forms. Gasset notes that concavity is the primary quality of proximate vision and convexity of the distant vision. In other words, close-up favours depictions of the solid object as volume; distance favours depictions of the hollow place as space. Gasset contends that Western art has developed from a depiction of the solid object to open space, with an ever-greater democratising flattening distance, notable in the development of the pure landscape. He sees multiple sources of attention but all treated with the same singular devoted fixation. The transition occurs in the Late Renaissance. The dematerialisation of form comes from Venice but first finds perfection in Velázquez and the transition to the triumph of the distance vision is achieved. From now on, the eye will be directed by the painter.
Gasset puts it nicely thus: “Proximate vision dissociates, analyses, distinguishes – it is feudal. Distant vision synthesizes, combines, throws together – it is democratic.” He applies a philosophical view to High Modernism. “Instead of painting objects as they are seen, one paints the experience of seeing. Instead of an object as impression, that is, a mass of sensations. Art, with this, has withdrawn completely from the world and begins to concern itself with the activity of the subject.”[viii] He reduces further. “First things are painted; then, sensations; finally, ideas. This means that in the beginning the artist’s attention was fixed on external reality; then, on the subjective; finally, on the intra-subjective. These three stages are three points on a straight line.”[ix]
“The Dehumanisation of Art”
The essay “The Dehumanization of Art” is an approach to explain why High Modernism was so unpopular in 1925. While time, the canon and the subsequent general acceptance seems to have undercut the hostility towards High Modernism in the arts, Gasset’s points are well observed and worth raising, as they do seem valid and to persist. His argument runs thus: all new styles and schools have a period of lack of acceptance as they arise, challenging, as they do, the established styles and values. (Including, one might add, the vested interests of the dominant school’s practitioners, collectors and critical supporters.) In the case of High Modernism (which he does not describe with that term), Gasset says is different to other movements, for example Romanticism. The opponents of earlier vanguard art works were hostile because they understood the new art and realised how it defied conventions and promoted values inimical to the dominant ones; it consequently went through a phase of lacking popularity before finding a general audience. High Modernism, however, provokes actual hostility. “Modern art, on the other hand, will always have the masses against it. It is essentially unpopular; moreover, it is antipopular. […] It divides the public into two groups: one very small, formed by those who are favourably inclined towards it; another very large – the hostile majority.”[x]
“When a man dislikes a work of art, but understands it, he feels superior to it; and there is no reason for indignation. But when his dislike is due to his failure to understand, he feels vaguely humiliated and this rankling sense of inferiority must be counterbalanced by indignant self-assertion.”[xi] This is the prompt for the blustering rebuttal to an abstract painting in a museum “my child could have painted that”; in other words, he does not even recognise what is in front of him as art. To this we must consider the later complication of the situation of Post-Modernism, after Duchamp’s Readymades. In that, what is not art may be nominated as art. At which point we lose all critical apparatus and become passive subjects to consume, being unable to scrutinise, qualify, rank, reject and offer counter proposals.
He writes of difficult high art being a status marker used by elites. “[T]he new art also helps the elite to recognize themselves and one another in the drab mass of society and to learn their mission which consists in being few and holding their own against the many.”[xii] He sees accepting and conversing about difficult high culture as a mechanism as a way of separating the elite from the mass. It indirectly asserts an outlook that cannot be expressed plainly. We have been conditioned too much by the Enlightenment falsehoods of egalitarianism. “Behind all contemporary life lurks the provoking and profound injustice of the assumption that men are actually equal. Each move among men so obviously reveals the opposite that each move results in a painful clash.”[xiii]
Gasset takes a cyclical view of art, repeating with unique elements arising. Certain forms get exhausted when the permutations and combinations become depleted through use and familiarity. Hence, new movements arise and seem vital, because the old movements have become tired. What did High Modernism mean to Gasset in 1925? “It tends (1) to dehumanize art, (2) to avoid living forms, (3) to see to it that the work of art is nothing but a work of art, (4) to consider art as play and nothing else, (5) to be essentially ironical, (6) to beware of sham and hence to aspire to scrupulous realization, (7) to regard art as a thing of no transcending consequence.”[xiv]
Gasset imputes antagonism to the artist, who is flaunting his distance from tradition and the common man. He detects a pervading irony which leaves the viewer wrongfooted. In a famous passage he identifies the problem of irony, which will poison so much art from the era of Late Modernism onwards.
“Madame Tussaud’s comes to mind and peculiar uneasiness aroused by dummies. The origin of this uneasiness lies in provoking ambiguity with which wax figures defeat any attempt at adopting a clear and consistent attitude toward them. Treat them as living beings, and they will sniggeringly reveal their waxen secret. Take them for dolls, and they seem to breathe in irritated protest. They will not be reduced to mere objects. Looking at them we suddenly feel a misgiving: should it not be they who are looking at us? Till in the end we are sick and tired of those hired corpses.”[xvi]
Organic forms have become repugnant to artists, who instead turn to crystalline mineral forms, flat facets and straight lines. As outlined in the previous essay, Gasset declares that Expressionism, Cubism and so forth are all attempts at painting ideas, detached from emotions and reality of lived experience. Gasset sees as indivisibly bound to the rise of Modernism “this negative mood of mocking aggressiveness”.[xviii] “Baudelaire praises the black Venus precisely because the classical is white. From then on the successive styles contain an ever increasing dose of derision and disparagement until in our day the new art consists almost exclusively of protests against the old.”[xix]
“Reading Unpublished Fragments from the Period of Thus Spake Zarathustra (Spring 1884-Winter 1884/5), the 15th volume in the series The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche published by Stanford University, it comes as a surprise to encounter Nietzsche writing so much on fine art, especially painting, which he never published on.
“Before entering any discussion about these fragments, it needs to be understood that many scholars refuse to consider the Nachlass (German: legacy, estate) papers as legitimate sources on Nietzsche’s thought. As unguarded speculation, irritable jottings and test-outs of thoughts, they are much different from the published writings. Although they might show the path Nietzsche took to reach those books, they also throw up some contradictions and diversions. As such, even carefully transcribed and annotated – as these are – we encounter not only the working material but ideas or observations never intended for anyone but the author. What we take from these papers can be downright misleading.
“That said, what do we find Nietzsche writing on the subject of the fine arts? He had treated Greek drama and modern opera at length, but he did not publish on painting, so it is natural to be curious about what his thoughts on purely visual art.
“Nietzsche sees values as man-made but he is wary of humanism, rationalism and scientism. He is torn between seeing morality and developing from essential human truths, unguided by rationalism, yet is still fascinated by the insights provided by biology, physiology and psychology….”
“People talk about the increased moralism of the Victorian age. What often goes unsaid is that there must have been – and was – quite a lot of decadence and debauchery in the preceding era: the Georgian period. If you want evidence of that depravity, there is no better place to go this winter than the Courtauld Institute, London. Swiss artist Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) spent most of his professional life in London. A figure of controversy – acclaimed a genius, denounced as a madman, dismissed as a technical incompetent – Fuseli was a prominent artist in the Romantic movement.
“Fuseli and the Modern Woman: Fashion, Fantasy, Fetishism (ends 8 January 2023) is the first exhibition of Fuseli’s drawings of women, specifically the modern Georgian-period woman. Fuseli’s women can be depraved but are always elegantly attired. His witches are exquisitely costumed as they participate in unspeakable atrocities that Fuseli never reveals.
“At the heart of the exhibition is Sophia Rawlins (1762/3-1832), the artist’s English wife. When they met, she was already an artist’s model, a shady profession at this time. When they married in 1788, she was 25; he was 47. She continued to pose for him, and it seems they developed a collaborative relationship, with her spending hours on her appearance, at least partly to provide a vision of artificial female beauty for her husband to turn into art.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
[Image: (right) John Craxton, 1997. (c) Matthew Thomas]
The recent biographies of Bacon and Freud return us to the post-war milieu of Soho and Fitzrovia. A significant artist from this period was John Craxton (1922-2009). He was a luminary of the Neo-Romantic movement of the 1930s and early 1940s, which sought to depict not so much the events and characters of heroic myths – and the pastoralism of historical past – as to evoke an atmosphere of a pre-industrial age, at times bucolic and primeval, by using milder forms of pictorial Modernism. Like Freud (with whom he had a close but short friendship), Craxton was another well-connected boy wonder in London’s constricted wartime cultural scene.
According to Ian Collins’s new biography John Craxton: A Life of Gifts (not to be confused with a separate 2011 monograph on Craxton by Collins), Craxton had an unsettled childhood and a patchy education, spending time in Sussex, Dorset and elsewhere. He visited Paris in 1939 in search of contact with modern art and attended the Louvre. He took a few classes at the Académie Julian but was essentially self-taught. He was picked up by a publisher in 1940 and his Neo-Romantic illustrations provided him with an entry into the art world. Influenced by Samuel Palmer, Craxton’s early works are monochrome drawings and graphics on paper with paint in muted colours; they feature figures in densely drawn landscapes.
Craxton was part of the (not exclusively homosexual) circle around millionaire collector Peter Watson in that setting that included Freud, Cyril Connolly, Francis Bacon, Graham Sutherland, John Piper, John Minton and Kenneth Clark. Craxton was homosexual himself and – like many in the Fitzrovia/Soho sets – did not disguise the fact. Craxton fell in with Freud, a contemporary misfit and another enfant terrible of the Fitzrovia set. They met in 1941 and became inseparable until 1947. Both were engaged by pastoral landscapes and the figure, made portraits, admired realism but produced faux naïf art. Collins recounts with élan the pair’s hijinks in bombed London. They worked side by side in their shared Abercorn Place flat, sometimes working on pictures together, sometimes drawing each other. Their styles and subjects overlapped noticeably and it is hard to distinguish a leader and a follower. Later, some of the works in Craxton’s possession were sold as Freuds, much to the latter’s displeasure.
Watson paid for Craxton to attend life-drawing classes at Goldsmiths College. When he taught there unhappily and unsuccessfully, for only a term. The future art forger Tom Keating responded badly to being corrected by him. Craxton and Freud worked alongside Sutherland on the South Wales coast. Craxton’s range was expanding from ink drawing to conté-and-white-chalk on tinted paper (animal still-lifes, very close to Freud’s) and oil paintings. These have slightly less intensity and detail than Freud’s but have better overall composition and cropping and are slightly more pleasing as pictures.
The Greece that Craxton first visited in 1946 had not begun recovering from war, occupation and civil war. There was a civil war between nationalists and communists ongoing at the time, which would eventually see the communists defeated. Craxton had already acquired an affinity for Greek cuisine in Soho and thought that a hot dry climate would help his health. (Unbeknownst to him, he had contracted pulmonary tuberculosis in London, the cause of constant weakness and inability to put on weight.) The sunshine and good food of Greece inspired Craxton the man, restoring him to health. His new surroundings were immediately evident in his paintings of coastal views, still-lifes, landscapes and figures (mainly sailors, objects of attraction). His landscapes are heavily derived from early Miró.
Craxton went to Poros – lauded by Lawrence Durrell, George Seferis and Henry Miller – where Freud joined him in September 1946. “Lucian would remain in Greece for five months during which he produced the most beautiful work of his life. John never really left, in every sense finding himself in Greece.” Freud painted Craxton and himself, largely deprived of portrait subjects, and made still-lifes of fruit. Craxton was painting simplified townscapes, using the smooth surfaces and subtle brushwork the pair liked. They tapped Lady Norton, wife of diplomat Sir Clifford Norton, in order to sustain themselves in necessities.
Planning a joint exhibition of their Greek art, the pair returned to London in time for the severest winter of the century in Britain, exacerbated by a chronic fuel shortage. Craxton went to Crete in autumn 1947 and responded strongly to the mixture of Greek culture and Minoan art and architecture. Craxton mingled with shepherds and lived in the mountains; he also courted danger by seeking out bandits. Crete would become the centre of his imaginative world and he would henceforth live and work in Crete and London.
The London Gallery showed Craxton and Freud together and separately. Craxton sold well and was more prolific than Freud. Craxton’s scenes of Mediterranean life offered the deprived, ration-bound residents of Great Britain a sunny escape. Wyndham Lewis thought his pictures to be lightweight: “a prettily tinted cocktail, that’s good but does not quite kick hard enough.” While Craxton’s Picasso-inflected art of scenes and people of the sunny South struck a chord and found collectors, they came be viewed as increasingly out of step with the age of Existentialism and the Geometry of Fear.
In 1951 Frederick Ashton invited Craxton to design the set for the Covent Garden production of Ravel’s ballet Daphnis and Chloë. Craxton formed a close but short-lived friendship with lead ballerina Margot Fonteyn, who visited Crete, accompanied by Ashton. The production was considered cutting edge for its modern dress and décor, only receiving full appreciation after it had closed.
Craxton settled in Chania, a port on the coast of Crete. In 1955, Craxton’s penchant for sailors caught him out. He was accused of being a spy who had informed on a gun-running operation to Cyprus. As a foreign bohemian who travelled to London frequently, had links to the British Embassy and caroused with Greek naval men, Craxton was an obvious suspect. It was not true but the suspicion lingered even after his death. Craxton came to speak demotic Greek well and became involved in preserving Cretan heritage, which was disregarded by locals, especially when buildings dated to the Muslim occupation. Once he was suspected of harbouring antiquities. Craxton announced, “I have absolutely nothing Greek (ie antiquities) in the house except men and wine.”
Exhibitions at Mayor and Leicester galleries met collector demand. His art developed modestly. The curvilinear style that Picasso and Braque used was also found in Minoan murals. The mixture of Modernism and ancient art turned to decorative ends also incorporated Pop Art. The Butcher (1964-6) shows the influence of Patrick Caulfield, Pop Art and hard-edge abstraction, with its emphatic straight outlines and planes of uninflected strong colour. Breaking up surfaces into parallel lines of alternating colour (such as Two Figures and Setting Sun (1952-67)) the appearance of a tapestry. It is not coincidental that at this time Craxton was examining Byzantine mosaics.
[Image: John Craxton, Two Figures and Setting Sun (1952-67), oil on canvas, 122 x 244 cm. (c) John Craxton Estate.]
His apparently impressive retrospective in 1967 at the Whitechapel Art Gallery confirmed his ability and the pleasure-giving capacity of his art and also his definitive distance from the critical consensus and fashion. During the Greek military junta (1967-74) Craxton went into exile, considered an undesirable by the regime. He wandered the ports of the Mediterranean in search of a substitute utopia. In 1973 a compensation came in the form of Richard Riley, who became his romantic partner for the rest of Craxton’s life.
When a group of drawings by Craxton and Freud surfaced, Freud disputed them, claiming they had been tampered with. He threatened the gallery with a lawsuit but the exhibition went ahead in 1984. The friendship, which had become distant over the years, was now dead. Freud’s capacity for grudge-bearing and feud-starting was legendary. Although the exhibition was a success, Craxton was hurt by Freud’s anger and Freud’s cutting remarks lingered in his mind until he died, according to friends.
However satisfying the art from the 1940s and 1950s is, one might find a lack of development in Craxton’s production disappointing. He was ultimately somewhat conservative in nature and timid. In his Neo-Romantic work, we see Samuel Palmer resuscitated with Miró and Picasso – all of whom laid out the styles and devices Craxton would use. It is true that not all artists must be original to be dazzling or wonderful, but greatness requires an essential forcefulness and daring, which Craxton lacked. Anyone painting in the 2000s as he did in the 1950s is someone who has the temperament of an artisan rather than an artist.
Another travail of old age was the incident when Craxton was drugged and thieves stole art from his house – including a Miró and a Sutherland. The thieves did not take any Craxtons. “Never losing a sense of humour, he claimed to have been not only robbed but insulted.” His final years were spent in London, where he died in 2009. His ashes were taken to Crete. Shortly before his death, he consented to be interviewed by Ian Collins for this biography and a monograph on his art. Collins has done well to search out personal acquaintances and track down photographs of the art, artist and his circle.
Elements of Craxton the painter remain a little elusive. Did Craxton write statements about his art, have a diary or pen useful letters? How productive was he? Did he destroy much? Did he disavow or criticise any of his work? What was his taste in art made by others? Although Collins adds a little near the end about Craxton’s routine and practices, readers may wish for more time inside the artist’s studio and his head. Yes, the art is enjoyable but did Craxton have strong ideas about what art – specifically his art – should do and not do?
These cavils should not deter anyone interested in Craxton and his art from reading this thoroughly researched, attractive and vivid biography.
Ian Collins, John Craxton: A Life of Gifts, Yale University Press, 11 May 2021 (UK)/22 June 2021 (USA), hardback, 384pp, 160 illus., $35/£25, ISBN 9780300255294
“We are familiar with the folly and – from the Baroque period onward – the purposefully constructed ruin used to enhance the pathos of a place, most especially a view of a country estate. This would be a view that could be controlled, protected and secluded, reserved for the delectation of initiates, guests, devotees and – crudely – the owners of the land. For if wildness can be fabricated as easily as order, then ersatz history can also be generated to meet the expectations of the cultivated observer. The frisson of melancholy, the stimulation of imagination and the contentment of viewing destruction from a position of comfort are experiences the ruin can provide. Whether or not that ruin is ‘real’ is a matter of degree. After all, a building as a habitable residence and as a blasted ruin are separated by less than a human lifespan and can be produced through merely absence of funds or care. It can be cultivated by purposeful neglect as well as it can be forged by purposeful intent….”