Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Kunsthalle, Hamburg

Two years ago when I visited Hamburg, the Kunsthalle was closed for renovation.  Now, it is fully renovated and wide open, and it was worth the wait.  What a great museum full of delightful surprises!

Unless otherwise noted, all the pictures are mine and are freely available, especially to educators.

Below is the original building that dates from 1863 - 1869.  It is a very 19th century public building proclaiming national greatness through fine art.  It is covered with the names and likenesses of the great artists of the past, the vast majority of them German.  The USA has similar art museum buildings from the 19th and early 20th centuries such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  The catalogue of past heroes and their accomplishments underwrites the progress of the present.  Today we look at those lists and note the conspicuous absences as well as the prominently featured once great and now obscure.

Here is a detail of the original Kunsthalle building with a statue of the Renaissance sculptor Peter Vischer, and below him, the early 19th century Danish NeoClassical sculptor Berthel Thorvaldsen.

The magnificent grand staircase of the Kunsthalle beautifully restored.

I have no idea who the artist(s) are who made the splendid freshly restored paintings in the grand staircase, nor am I German literate enough to read the verse underneath each one.

Two artists who are conspicuously absent from the roster of great German artists on the outside of the Kunsthalle are Phillip Otto Runge, and Caspar David Friedrich, now considered the greatest of the German Romantics and among the greatest of all the Romantics.  Runge and Friedrich are discoveries of the very end of the 19th century.  Runge worked in obscurity in his brief lifetime, and Friedrich enjoyed a brief period of fame before he ended his days in obscurity and poverty.
They both lived remarkably parallel lives.  They were both born and raised in the same part of Pomerania.  Friedrich was born in Greifswald in 1774 and Runge in Wolgast in 1777.  While Friedrich studied art in Copenhagen with the painter Jens Juell, he spent most of his professional life in Dresden where he met Runge who was there studying art.  Both men met the great Goethe and had problematic relations with him.  Goethe brusquely rejected a drawing Runge submitted to him.  Friedrich refused a proposal by Goethe to illustrate a book project.

Both Runge and Friedrich were serious Protestant Christians from the Lutheran tradition convinced that conventional religious imagery was no longer adequate, that it had become unmoored from what they believed were its origins in direct personal spiritual experience.  The theologian and poet Ludwig Kosegarten who lived and preached on the island of Rügen in Pomerania deeply influenced Runge and Friedrich with his Christian pantheist poetry, with the idea that somehow God's presence could be divined in the experience of nature; that the Creator Spiritus and the individual soul could somehow meet in the in exalted rapturous contemplation of the Creation.   Both artists ran into trouble with religious orthodoxy in their explorations of alternative religious imagery.  Kosegarten himself turned against Runge when he saw his work.  Protestant divines and other critics frequently attacked Friedrich for his even more radical departures from conventional religious imagery (especially the conservative Dresden journalist Friedrich Basilius von Ramdohr).

Here is the gallery in the Kunsthalle dedicated to Runge's work.  So far as I know, all of Runge's surviving work is housed in the Kunsthalle in Hamburg.

Here is a self-portrait of the youthful Phillip Otto Runge, from c1802 - 1803.

One of Runge's most famous and celebrated pictures is this portrait he made of the children of his employer at the time Friedrich Hülsenbeck, a prominent Hamburg merchant.  Runge worked as a clerk for his shipping firm at the time.  The children are definitely not cute or endearing, but they are vividly alive, from the young son raising a small whip to the infant daughter grasping at the plants.  This is such an odd painting in so many respects from the sharp contrast between near and far (we can see the steeples of Hamburg on the horizon; according to the peculiar perspective, we are looking up at the children) to the abrupt turn of the picket fence into the distance toward the house.

Plants play a major role in Runge's works as allegorical symbols, and as images of natural vitality.  Probably the most vivid character in this painting is the sunflower.

Here are the remains of Runge's most ambitious and unrealized work, the fragments of Morning from a series of four paintings he intended of the times of day.  He planned to paint four very allegorical pictures of Christian concepts of death and resurrection applied to the natural cycles of day to night, light to dark, and back again.  He intended to design a special chapel for these paintings and to compose music for them -- a gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art, long before Richard Wagner coined the term.
Runge died at age 39 shortly after he completed Morning.  While on his deathbed, he ordered his older brother Daniel to cut up the painting in front of him.  Daniel kept the surviving fragments that are now restored and reassembled as best as possible in the Kunsthalle today.

Next to the Runge gallery is the room dedicated to Caspar David Friedrich's work.

Friedrich too was interested in merging Christian concepts of death and resurrection with the exhilaration of contemplating nature.  Unlike Runge, he was not interested in allegory, at least not to the extent of Runge or in the same fashion.  While Runge was classically trained in  figurative art, Friedrich began and ended as a landscape painter traveling into the German countryside (usually in Saxony around Dresden or through his native Pomerania) filling portfolios with drawings and watercolors made from life that would inform his work back in his studio in Dresden.  The landscape in Friedrich's work is usually unremarkable German countryside.  Rarely does he resort to crags, mountains, and spectacular scenery.  It's the way he presents these landscapes, showing them in the enchanting transitional light of evening or morning, at night by moonlight, or shrouded in fog that makes Friedrich's landscapes so resonant and evocative.  The landscapes are usually very still with a witness or witnesses with their backs to us who act as stand-ins for us.  They sometimes seem to see something that we can't.  Always they appear to be listening for the Still Small Voice in the landscape that we see with them.

One of Friedrich's most famous paintings, Traveler with a Sea of Fog, 1818

Another thing that is so striking about Friedrich's work is its spareness.  There are no complex compositions of rolling hills with trees, rocks, and meandering rivers back toward the horizon as in so many landscape painters from Poussin to Constable.  Friedrich reduces landscape to what is most essential for creating that feeling of exaltation.  He resorts to a convention of religious painting, using centralized compositions like this one of a traveler standing on a rocky crag gazing out upon a fogged-in valley in the morning light.  The composition here is very simple and cross-like; the vertical of the figure appears in the center of the horizon line like a great implicit cross.  Religious art such as traditional icons centers the subject to make it an object of prayer, adoration, and contemplation.  Friedrich uses that same compositional convention to put us in mind of prayer and contemplation, not of the image itself in his landscapes, but of the Presence that they imply.   We share the traveller's rapturous contemplation of the spectacle before him.  He is our stand in and our guide to how we are supposed to understand what we are looking at.
Friedrich's paintings at their best are about a kind of communion between the inner life of the individual and the larger world, a connection that Romantic artists feared was being severed by the transformations of modernity, especially by industrialism with its reduction of all values to actuarial calculation.  

Caspar David Friedrich, Plowed Field, 1830

Caspar David Friedrich, Waft of Mist, 1820

Caspar David Friedrich, Meadows Near Greifswald, circa 1820 - 1822

A particular favorite of mine, a view of Friedrich's native Greifswald in what appears to me to be morning light.  A lot of these paintings are small, and this one was very small and a little hard to photograph.

My not very focused attempt to show the beautifully painted detail of the town in the painting, and the joyous horses leaping in the green meadow.

Another one of Friedrich's most famous paintings, The Sea of Ice.  Friedrich was probably inspired by William S. Parry's voyages into the Arctic in 1819 -1820.  The ship slowly being crushed to pieces by the grinding slabs of ice has the name Griper on the stern, and there was indeed a ship by that name in Parry's expeditions, though it was not lost in the ice, but returned successfully to Britain.

So far as I know, Friedrich never travelled any farther north than Copenhagen.  This is entirely out of his imagination and unlike the dazzlingly bright or frightfully dark ice-scape of the polar regions that we know from photography.  And yet, the chill stillness and the huge impersonal slabs of sea ice are remarkably convincing.

Gerhard Von Kügelgen's portrait of Caspar David Friedrich from about 1810 - 1820

By all accounts, Friedrich was a striking figure, a very large, tall, and pale man of few words.
Since the end of the 19th century, the consensus of opinion always regarded him as the greatest of all German Romantic painters, and among the greatest of all the Romantics.  Until recently, he was little known outside of the German speaking world, his fame contaminated by the radioactive fall out from embrace by the Nazis who tried to exploit the blood and soil nationalist mysticism in a lot of his work for their own purposes.  Friedrich likely would have been horrified.  His own sympathies were very liberal and democratic.  He was not at all happy about the embrace of more reactionary forms of monarchism and medievalist nationalism by his younger colleagues.
Friedrich enjoyed a brief period of fame when his work was both very controversial but also widely praised and eagerly sought after by collectors, including the Tsar of Russia.  By 1820, his own reclusiveness began to affect his fame and reputation.  He was not a very good or enthusiastic self-promoter.  His fortunes began to decline, and his work was increasingly ignored.  In 1835, Friedrich suffered a debilitating stroke that made it difficult to impossible for him to paint.  He made few oil paintings after this time and lived in poverty.  He spent the remaining years of his life painting watercolors and ink drawings, especially a series of striking sepia drawings of owls (also housed in the Kunsthalle in Hamburg, but not on display).  Friedrich died in 1840, his death little noted in the press of that time.

While I've always looked to Renaissance and Baroque art for inspiration and guidance in my art, I feel the most affinity with the Romantics; with artists like Runge and Friedrich as well as Blake, Turner, Goya, with all of those artists at the beginning of the modern era who cobbled together personal imagery to try to understand the transformations that they witnessed, to try to find some way of establishing a connection between their inner imaginative lives and the larger world.  I see something like that as my task as an artist.


The Kunsthalle is a treasure trove of the German Romantics, and also of the work of their heirs, the early German modernists, especially the very first, those earliest of hipsters in Die Brücke, The Bridge, the first modern art movement to name itself and to issue a manifesto.  They first appeared in Dresden in 1905.

The Kunsthalle houses one of my favorite paintings by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, a leader of Die Brücke, Artist and Model from 1907.  I use this painting to try to explain early German Expressionism when I teach modern art.
Kirchner appears in this painting to be working on the very painting that we are looking at, as if the canvas somehow is a mirror.  Curiously, the model is hardly the primary focus of the painting at all.  The figure who is most in a state of undress is not the model, but Kirchner himself wearing nothing but an oversize robe in clashing garish colors.  He dominates the canvas on the left while the model sits on a small bed on the right.  Kirchner appears to be painting right after a sexual tryst with the model.  The painting is on every level deliberately provocative and scandalous.  Kirchner's painting defies everything that Wilhelmine Germany valued most; those burgerlich virtues of propriety, industry, piety, patriotism, and respectability.  It especially defies the sense of finish, resolution, and internal harmony so valued by conventional classical art.
Instead, Kirchner's painting proclaims provocation in the choice of scandalous subject matter, and in the rough aggressive application of bright jarring unmixed colors on rough canvas.  The composition showing the artist dominating the left part of the canvas while the right part seems to trail off is a rejection of classical ideas of proportion and completion.  The flat bright colors and minimal chiaroscuro rejects the classical self effacement of the artist before the subject matter.  Kirchner's painting values discontinuity, dissonance, rupture, aggression as signs of a kind of life force.  Kirchner proclaims that most anarchistic of all aspects of life, sexuality, to be the truest source of inspiration and creativity.  The Life Force is life itself according to the young Kirchner, no matter how chaotic it is.  That same life force that manifests itself in the bedroom also drives the noise and disruption in the streets of the modern city, according to Kirchner.  It's no accident that his favorite book (that he always kept by his bed) was a German translation of the poetry of Walt Whitman.
Instead of the historic position of the Western artist as an observer of the outer world, Kirchner and his followers among the German Expressionists took in the world and reflected it through their own experiences and emotional life.  In that sense they were the true heirs of the Romantics.  Only instead of trying to discern God in moments of supreme exaltation contemplating nature, Kirchner and the Expressionists found exaltation in the noisy chaotic life and freedom of the modern city; first in Dresden and later in Berlin.
Kirchner and his fellow Expressionists lived what they painted

The Brücke artists were avid amateur photographers.  Here is a photograph from about 1912 in Kirchner's studio in Berlin showing a nude man (maybe Kirchner himself) dancing.  Photo from here.

Die Brücke was more than just a new way of painting.  For the artists themselves, it was a way of life.  They rejected the brittle propriety and stifling conformism of Imperial Germany for a life in pursuit of authenticity of feeling, guided by instinct.  A small group of very young architecture students, all aged 19 or 20, formed the group, published a manifesto, continued to publish every year portfolios of prints, and to exhibit on their own initiative (their first exhibition was in the showroom of a lamp factory in Dresden).  They lived together in a vacant butcher shop in Dresden and made their own furniture and wall hangings.  They shared their quarters with a number of hangers-on including numerous sexual partners.  In the hot summer months, they traveled together to the lakes and forests of Moritzburg Castle outside of Dresden for camping and skinny dipping.
In 1912, they all moved together to Berlin as their work became better known and in demand.

Here is another photograph from Kirchner's studio in Berlin in 1919.  Kirchner stands watching from the left.  Photo from here.

Bohemias are bourgeois creations.  They are the rebellion of bourgeois virtues of independence and honesty against bourgeois vices of greed, hypocrisy, and conformism.  All of the Brücke artists, including Kirchner, were sons and daughters of the bourgeoisie.  Kirchner was the son of a noted and successful industrial chemist.  Modern art (like the art of the Renaissance) was a bourgeois creation for a bourgeois audience.  That is still the case today.

This beautiful detail probably depicts the brightly colored hand made textile wall hangings that the artists made for their collective studio in Dresden.

Kirchner's work was frequently rough and aggressive, but it was never crude.

An artist who associated himself with Die Brücke, though he was never officially a member, was Emil Nolde.  Nolde was a brilliant artist and a very unattractive figure.  Paranoid, bitter, and ill-tempered, he quickly turned upon the young hipsters in Dresden who invited him to come paint and exhibit with them.  He was considerably older than them, and certainly felt out of place.  But still, turning so hatefully upon those kids who launched his larger career was uncalled for.
Nolde's abiding spite deepened into anti-Semitism as his thin skin suffered the attacks of critics as his work became more noticed.  Nolde joined the Nazis in the 1920s, an early member.  That party membership did nothing to prevent his work from becoming a star attraction of The Degenerate Art Exhibition in Munich in 1937.  Nolde spent the rest of the Nazi reign under house arrest forbidden to paint or even to own art supplies.  He only resumed painting again toward the end of his life in the 1950s.

Above is one of Nolde's most celebrated religious works, a series of three paintings, The Life of Mary of Egypt from 1912.  Many of the German Expressionists painted religious art, but Nolde's was always the best even though he made no formal profession of any faith.

The first panel showing Mary's earlier life of insatiable lust on the streets of Alexandria.  Hers is a story that we would probably not find very attractive these days for a host of reasons.

The center panel showing her repentance at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem before an icon of the Virgin and Child.

The last panel showing her death in the wilderness with Saint Zosimas of Palestine and a passing lion preparing to bury her.

Nolde's rather frightening lion

Nolde was always a great colorist, probably the best of the early German Expressionists.  His religious work inspired much bad religious art throughout the rest of the 20th century.  None of his imitators compares in quality and feeling to the original.

Emil Nolde, The Sea,

Nolde was a great landscape painter specializing in seascapes and landscape views of the coastal plain of his native Schleswig-Holstein.

Another great seascape by Nolde

A personal favorite of mine from the original Die Brücke group, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff.

Max Beckmann's arrogant early self-portrait that he made in Florence after winning a competition to spend a year there and paint.  The early German modernists hated the young Beckmann, promoted by establishment critics as a paragon of the figurative tradition ready to meet the challenges of modernity.  Young Max Beckmann was indeed arrogant insufferable, but he had a young man's ambition to make Great Art.  It took the experience of the First World War to teach him what it really means to make Great Art and what is at stake.  After that, he really did make Great Art and paid a heavy price for it throughout his life.

A later work by Beckmann from the 1920s.

One of many delightful surprises in the Kunsthalle, one of my favorite paintings by Robert Delaunay, Windows Open Simultaneously on the City, 1912
This is another painting I've taught before, a beautiful example of Delaunay taking Cubism all the way into abstraction.  This painting began as a view out of his studio window of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, something Delaunay painted many times throughout his life.
How different the original is from the reproductions!

The reproductions of this painting always crop it.  The big surprise to me is that the painted frame is a beveled surface.
Delaunay's work influenced a lot of German modernist painters with its spectrum colors and its abstraction.  He also exhibited his work frequently in Germany including in the first Blue Rider Exhibition in the Tannhäuser Gallery in Munich in 1911.

Another happy discovery at the Kunsthalle; I had no idea that this painting was in the collection.  This is one of my favorite paintings by Paul Klee, The Goldfish, 1925

Beautiful colors built up in transparent layers and richly harmonized.

Among modernists I love the work of the first generations of 20th century most of all when their work was still exciting, visionary, and courageous.  In comparison, so much work of the last 50 years seems so dull and academic.

Francis Bacon, Study for a Portrait, 1953

To my mind, one of Francis Bacon's scariest paintings, from his series of paintings of a man in a blue suit from the 1950s; part bureaucrat, part prosecuting attorney, part lover, and part preying mantis.

The Grabow Altarpiece by Master Bertram from the 14th century, painted for the Petrikirche in Hamburg when it was the city's cathedral church.
When I was a graduate student, the survey books on Northern Renaissance panel painting almost always began with this altarpiece.

Master Bertram's illustrations of Genesis on the Grabow Altarpiece.

What was originally the sculpted interior of the Grabow Altarpiece

The original home of the Grabow Altarpiece, the Petrikirche in Hamburg, rebuilt twice; first after the great fire of 1842 that devastated the city center, and again after the air raid of 1943 that flattened the city.

Interior of the Petrikirche, a Lutheran church since the Reformation

The apse of the Petrikirche where the Grabow Altarpiece was originally located.

Something that I saw in the Petrikirche and in just about every Protestant church I visited in Germany, even in the Calvinist Reform churches, votive candles.  I don't remember seeing that in any Protestant churches when I visited 2 years ago.
Some of the displays of votive candles can be very creative, like this one in sand around a 15th century sculpture of the Virgin and Child.

Votive candles are apparently very popular.


Gerrit said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gerrit said...

O, shadow rich treetops, protect my head from afternoon's arrows
O, Love, protect this heart when Life scorches me'

'Secretly under the snow the future spring already germinates
Rest comforted, ageing head, each death is just illusion'

JCF said...

Another great post, Doug!

Friedrich's "Traveler in a Sea of Fog" has actually become a meme by now. A television show I watched (that ended in the past year), "Lost Girl" used it thus: a "Traveler" character of mystery.

I swear, the "Sea of Ice" painting looks like a 1960s scifi paperback cover (maybe cropping out the ship).

I'm afraid the "Brücke" works don't do anything for me: to each their own. I like the Delaunay and Klimt though!

Aw, jumping back to my kinda art: the Grabow Altarpiece! My mom had a vinyl album of Haydn's "The Creation", w/ Genesis scenes from it on the cover.

Re votive candles: has Taize become big in Germany? Candles are such a huge part of that spirituality.

Onto you next post!