Two Centuries of Romantic Art

Where Romanticism begins and ends has never been easy to determine.

It was never a movement with a program. It was not made up of a specific group of artists at a particular time who - like the Impressionists or the Abstract Expressionists - earned themselves a simplistic nickname.

Concerned with the emotional rather than the rational, the polarities of Romanticism were nevertheless extreme: from a placid tranquillity and the transcendental to the dramatic, melodramatic, and ferociously expressionistic. The term was never applied exclusively to art; it included poetry, music, and philosophy.

Perhaps, then, the title of a major traveling exhibition is advisedly imprecise when it uses the phrase ``the Romantic spirit.'' The exhibition is currently being shown in Edinburgh, later to be seen in London and Munich. Since it covers two centuries, the comprehensive nature of its title becomes more justifiable.

Yet the organizers of ``The Romantic Spirit in German Art 1790- 1990'' make it clear that they had in mind, as the catalog preface puts it, ``a definite theme and a particular view of German art from the outset.''

By the time the viewer has progressed through the great many galleries (and in Edinburgh the two separate buildings) necessary to display this mammoth selection of works, and by the time he or she may also have explored the 504-page catalog, it is possible - but not inevitable - that some idea of this ``particular view'' may have dawned. But it probably doesn't matter very much.

So much work and so many artists are included that the omission of artists whose work may smack too much of classicism, rationalism, realism, Constructivism, or even impressionism - which seem to be the main kinds of spirit that cannot be called Romantic - is not likely to disturb the overwhelmed visitor.

The overall impression here is of a comprehensive survey of German art of two centuries. It is apparent that an enormous amount of German art has been brought under the banner of the Romantic spirit - even recent artists such as Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, and Georg Baselitz, who might justifiably be called anti-Romantic; the artists of the Bauhaus (on the basis that the teaching of that institution was utopian); and even two or three Nazi pictures to show how the Third Reich shallowly distorted the Romantic spirit to its own ends and brought it a debased name from which it has scarcely recovered.

As to certain artists featured at the beginning of this historical survey, nobody would doubt their Romantic credentials. They are the archetypes: Philipp Otto Runge, Casper David Friedrich, and the artists who became known as the Nazarenes. To anyone unfamiliar with these startlingly original early 19th-century painters, their works will be a revelation.

Runge's conviction of the need to return imaginatively to childhood was not only integral to the Romantic idea of capturing a lost innocence and simplicity, but it also led him to paint children in a way no one has before or since. Two examples are included. Both are unsentimental and realistic. They are far from mere objects in the eye of the artist, but rather have the unnerving looks of small children who seem to know much more about life than adults ever will.

Friedrich, in spite of an overfastidious style that has lent its more obvious features to too many Christmas cards, contrived images of nature that evoke a potent kind of contemplative yearning, medieval and mystical. The otherworldliness of nature's quietest moods is persuasively presented to the viewer. Friedrich, like many Romantic artists - and he above anyone seems to epitomize everything that is Romantic and German - theatricalizes feelings.

Artists with a more classical bent necessarily suspect the way in which the Romantic artist plays to an audience and actually aims to move, or disturb, the feelings of others. There is a weakness in this, and the Nazis sensed its usefulness.

The Romantic spirit in this exhibition embraces both Friedrich (whom the Nazis admired) and the 20th-century expressionist-romantic Emil Nolde, who started by admiring (and joining) the Nazi party, but ended up being among the modernists the Hitlerites labeled degenerate and banned.

This was not simply because Nolde was an artist who painted nature with colors that others couldn't see were there (which was one of the criticisms Hitler threw at the modern artists he despised), but also that the earthy, folk aspect of Nolde's vision involved an erratic primitivism, a lack of restraint, that was too purely instinctive to be controllable, too much an instance of individual freedom to be acceptable to an ideology based on collective will.

The Nazi pictures in the show also purport to be true to the earth and to represent the folk, particularly farmers. But they are ridiculously idealized. If they are in any sense Romantic, it is because they are deliberately out to stir the feelings of the onlooker: They have turned genuine emotion into a chilling propaganda.

The climax - perhaps even the main point - of this exhibition is the work chosen from postwar German art as Romantic. The question addressed is whether Romanticism can possibly have retained any validity after its distortion by the National Socialists.

The artist whose work stands out most as an affirmative answer is Joseph Beuys.

A charismatic figure, Beuys was a sculptor who also became a performance artist, a strategist-cum-politician who believed that art could actually be equated with salvation. Beuys certainly had the maverick individualism and faith in the capacity of art to stir up feelings that would be called Romantic.

His seriousness is saved by an underlying humor. His claims to be a unique artist - that potentially dangerous bundle of egotism -

which were built up even further by his admirers into absurdly cultish dimensions he splendidly deflated with his conviction that everyone is an artist.

This did not make him a popularist, appealing to the lowest common factor. Indeed, his art, for all its unpretentiousness, could be thoroughly ambiguous and esoteric. But his strategies were always expanding the idea of what might surprisingly be seen as art.

Whether or not this strangely potent figure in postwar German art also expanded the idea of Romanticism is a matter for debate. But then debate is not a bad outcome of an exhibition.

* `The Romantic Spirit in German Art 1790-1990' is at the Royal Scottish Academy and the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, until Sept.7. It will be at the Hayward Gallery, South Bank Centre, London, Sept. 29 to Jan. 8 ,1995. And it will be at the Haus der Kunst, Munich, from Feb. 2 to May 1, 1995.

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