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Art Movements in Art History - Romanticism

Art Movements > Romanticism > Romanticism in Germany

Romanticism in Germany

In Germany, as in many other European countries, the Romantic period was one of major political and social upheaval. The consequences of the French Revolution in the invasion of Speier, Worms and Mainz in 1792 were followed by the second War of coalition in 1794. European history of the early 19th century is one of events leading up to the Napoleonic invasions and wars of liberation of 1813 and 1815, while the later phase of the Romantic period was closely tied up with the revolutions of 1830, leading up to those 1848. Despite, and possibly because of these unrests and tensions, the arts in Germany experienced a period of great activity. Kant, Hegel, the Schlegel brothers, Fichte and Marx in philosophy, Goethe, Schiller and Hoffmann amongst many others in literature, and Beethoven, Schubert and Weber in music, are but a few names that stand out in this context.

In reaction to the rationalism of the Enlightenment, in Germany only fully explored and understood by a few intellectuals and academics, the Romantic era was characterised by the emancipation of the middle classes. More importantly, it was precisely at this time that much German commerce was taken over by the Dutch and the English. This meant that many of the Northern trading cities deteriorated and, as a result, the middle classes, who had been responsible for these trading activities, fell upon hard times.

The German ruling classes began to suppress the middle classes, who became increasingly passive and politically apathetic, withdrawing into an inner world of idyllic privacy and freedom. This attitude also embodied the quite separate and distinct notion of the supremacy of the spirit over empirical reality. Political power was in the hands of the rulers. Although the individual determined the main cultural atmosphere at this time, he had no direct influence on the political or social situation. He naturally rebelled against the rationalism of the 18th century and against the kind of despotism he saw around him, and advocated spiritual values and emotional independence. He was offering ideological rather
an practical solutions, giving expression to the idea of the Divine through the exploration of nature as a reflection of the dynamics of the human spirit.

Whereas in France Paris dominated the scene in the visual arts, there were a number of important centres of painting in Germany - Dresden, Hamburg and Dusseldorf to name only a few. In the visual arts the most important of these was Dresden. Caspar David Friedrich, Phillip Otto Runge, as well as Ludwig Tieck and Friedrich Schlegel, all of whom were concerned with the visual arts in one way or another, were resident in Dresden for long periods at the height of Romanticism.

The first expression of a genuinely Romantic attitude towards the visual arts in Germany can be found in Goethe's essay "Von Deutscher Baukunst", in which he speaks of the Gothic (in particular, of Strassburg Cathedral) with admiration and enthusiasm. For the first time since the Middle Ages the Gothic was now seen as one of the greatest achievements of the human spirit. Although in Goethe's essay there was as yet none of that religious awe which was to be experienced by the true Romantics when confronted with the soaring interiors of Gothic cathedrals, it does contain concepts which anticipate the feelings of the Romantics proper. There is, for instance, an attack on academic rigidity in the arts, something that anticipates the Romantic attitude towards the art of the academies.

The title of Goethe's essay, "German architecture", reveals a patriotic concern which was taken up by many Romantics, particularly writers. An anti-French attitude runs through the entire essay. The interest of the German Romantics in their national past, particularly the Middle Ages, is to be seen too in the reconstruction of Cologne Cathedral in 1842 and in Wagner's "Holy German art", glorified in his Meistersinger of 1868.

In his "Von Deutscher Baukunst" essay, Goethe stresses the organic quality of the Gothic, which he sees as a work of nature in which the multiple parts are all related to the whole. Like the works of nature, a Gothic building possesses "inner form" and is conceived from within, rather than from without. Goethe, generally speaking, was inclined towards the scientific investigation of nature rather than towards metaphysical speculations, and although in this early essay he equates art and nature, he later, in his "Introduction to the Propylaen", emphasised their essential difference:

The highest demand that is made on an artist is this: that he be true to Nature, study her, imitate her, and produce something that resembles her phenomena. How great, how enormous, this demand is, is not always kept in mind; and the true artist himself learns it by experience only, in the course of his progressive development. Nature is separated from Art by an enormous chasm, which genius itself is unable to bridge without external assistance.

... It is still more rare, particularly in modern times, for an artist to penetrate into the depths of things as well as into the depths of his own soul, in order to produce in his works not only something light and superficially effective, but as a rival of Nature, to produce something spiritually organic, and to give his work of art a content and a form through which it appears both natural and beyond Nature.

The concept of organic and spiritual unity was later explored by Romantics such as Schlegel, Tieck and Schelling. It was Schelling who wrote:

Nature meets us everywhere, at first with reserve, and in form more or less severe ... .
How can we spiritually melt this apparently rigid form, so that the pure energy of things may flow together with the force of our spirit and both become one united mold? We must transcend form, in order to gain it again as intelligible, living, and truly felt. Consider the most beautiful forms; what remains behind after you have abstracted from them the creative principle within? Nothing but mere unessential qualities, such as extension and the relations of space ... . It is not mere contiguous existence, but the
manner of it, that makes form; and this can be determined only by a positive force, which is opposed to separateness, and subordinates the manifoldness of the parts to the unity of one idea - from the force that works in the crystal to the force which, comparable to a gentle magnetic current, gives to the particles of matter in the human form that position and arrangement among themselves, through which the idea, the essential unity and beauty, can become visible.

Whatever the subject matter, all German Romantics exhibit an awareness of nature. Landscape painting in Germany, however, takes on a totally different form from that practised at the time by Turner in England and by Gericault in France. Although there was in Turner and the German Romantics a search for deeper meanings within the appearances of nature, their methods of conveying such intentions were fundamentally different. Turner was primarily concerned with the sublimity and grandeur of nature's dramatic forces, and often showed man in active conflict with the elements. While he created dramatic narrative, however, the German Romantics, particularly Friedrich, approached nature with introspec-
tion and quiet meditation. In France painters like Delacroix were concerned primarily with man struggling with environmental forces. They did not develop a specifically Romantic style of painting, but merely exhibited a Romantic attitude to their subject matter in a style that could accommodate it.

In French, German and English Romantic painting, therefore, we encounter three radically different interpretations of the concept of man within the universe: in France, this concept is a more traditional one, of man as the centre of the universe, the master of nature (in the Renaissance tradition); in Germany, the concept is of man, anxious and lonely, alienated from society and tradition; in England, man is presented in conflict with the forces of nature.

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Meaning of Romanticism



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