A close look at some emphatically German artists

It is high time Americans became better acquainted with 19th-century German art. For Together too long it's been assumed the only 19th-century art of any significance came from France.

Even those countries which produced one or two great painters during that century (Norway -- Munich; Holland -- Van Gogh; Spain -- Goya; England -- Turner and Blake, etc.) were otherwise considered lacking in artistic importance.

And Germany, although it had produced at least a dozen fascinating painters during that period, was seen as a particularly bleak wasteland as far as art was concerned.

One hopes this misconception will soon be remedied, and if it is, the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum here, "German Masters of the 19th Century: Paintings and Drawings from the Federal Republic of Germany" will have had a great deal to do with it. In scope, size, and quality of work included, this is by far the most important exhibition of German art of that period to be seen in this country.

It is not, however, a comprehensive art-historical survey -- that would have created a problem of shipping and space -- but rather a grouping of 150 of the best paintings and drawings by 30 of the major German artists of the 19th century.

The exhibition has been divided into five general categories: Romanticism, the Nazarenes, Idealism, Realism, and Impressionism. It includes works by the most important figures of each category. Outstanding among these are Casper David Friedrich, Philipp Otto Runge, and Max Liebermann. (One of Germany's most significant 19th-century artists, Karl Friedrich Schinkel, is not included because the current Schinkel retrospective in Germany has pre-empted all loans of his works.)

It adds up to a very impressive show, one I've been most anxious to see ever since I heard that a good two dozen paintings I had previously only enjoyed in reproduction would be included in it. I was not in the least disappointed in the originals, and was, as a matter of fact, also pleased that several other artists represented -- especially von Menzel, Hans Thoma, and Max Slevogt -- were even better than I had anticipated.

My first impression of this exhibition was of its diversity of styles -- largely the result of the fact that what is now Germany was, until 1871, a loose collection of states. In 1789 there had been literally hundreds of them -- as well as the larger cities such as Munich, Dusseldorf, and Berlin. They were not only independently governed, but tended to be fiercely proud of that independence. As a result, German art remained localized, even splintered, within these states and never became "national," as French art had since the founding of the French Academy in 1648.

Oddly enough, German art looks more all-of-a-piece than does the French art of that period. The tight, linear works of Peter von Cornelius (for instance) and the loosely executed "impressionist" oils of Lovis Corinth remain closer in spirit, even in execution, than do those of France's Ingres and Monet -- or David and Gauguin.

I thought at first this was because of the predominantly linear approach to painting so indigenous to pre-20th century German art. But I decided after a more careful look that it had much more to do with color. As Stephen Waetzoldt states in his eassay for the exhibition catalog, "German art has traditionally focused on content rather than on form or painterliness, and German artists have possessed an almost compulsive proclivity for mythological and philosophical subjects."

In other words, German artists of the 19th century tended to differ among themselves much more in subject matter than in form and technique.

Even though there is a great deal of bright color in evidence, it tends to be isolated. The impression is of deep browns, reds, and blacks, a few touches of white and yellow, and some rich but low-keyed blues -- not at all the range we would find in the French art of the period, with its dark, heavily varnished realist and academic works, and its bright and sunlit products of impressionism.

This fact is at least as important as the wide diversity of aesthetic and philosophical positions represented in this exhibition. No matter how different the beliefs and the works of the artists and movements of 19th-century Germany might have been, they all seem closer to one another than to any other school or group of artists of their time. (I must, however, exclude here those American painters of the 19th century who were heavily influenced by the Germans and whose work, as a result, resembled theirs to a remarkable degree.)

German 19th-century art was most certainly German, and most emphatically art of the 19th century. Corinth, Liebermann, and Slevogt may have been remarkable and free-spirited at the end of the century (and even into the first decade or so of the 20th). But their art points less toward the impassioned and innovative modernist German art of the 20th century than it does to the realistic and academic German art of the early to mid-19th. Even their "impressionism" was more a matter of loosened-up brushwork than of an altered perception of painting per sem .

And so, with the exception of Adolf von Menzel (who deserves a show all to himself), the outstanding figures of 19th-century German art tend to be those earlier, intriguing, and enigmatic figures of German Romanticism: Blechen, Carus , Kersting, Runge, von Schwind, and, most particularly, Friedrich.

Friedrich, in my opinion, tops the lot. He is Germany's major artist of the century -- as well as one of the best landscape painters of Europe -- regardless of century or nationality.

Friedrich alone would make this exhibition a very special occasion. But fortunately every one of the other 29 artists on view is at least interesting and, in many instances, excellent -- even if not absolutely first rate.

After closing at the Metropolitan Museum on July 5, this beautiful and important show goes to the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto -- then returns to Germany.

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