Eduard Gaertner, Gendarmenmarkt in Winter, 1857
This project originally began as a single post. But, as I looked further into this topic, it became ever larger and more fascinating than I had anticipated. So now, it is a series of posts.
Modern art and design were born independently (if not exactly simultaneously) in several places; Paris, New York, Chicago, Zürich, Munich, Moscow, Barcelona, London, Glasgow, Vienna, Mexico City, Brussels, Amsterdam, and Berlin. Berlin, unlike most other cities where modernism began, was less a womb and more of a crucible. Art and artists were tried in the refining fire of historical events.
Berlin over the course of a little more than a century rose from a backwater military outpost and Prussian royal capital to become one of the most technologically advanced and forward looking cities in the world. The experiences of this great city would shape the ambitions of artists and the expectations of their publics everywhere. Transformations in art and design pioneered here would shape the look of cities around the world.
The Prussian Capital
Karl Friedrich Schinkel, On the Banks of the Spree Near Stralau, 1817
set design for Mozart's The Magic Flute, 1815
Karl Friedrich Schinkel, On the Banks of the Spree Near Stralau, 1817
Karl Friedrich Schinkel was the pre-eminent architect of Berlin in the years following the War of Liberation against Napoleon's occupation of German territories. As an architect and as a painter, he participated in the revival of interest in German identity in the renewed Prussian kingdom. In his architecture, he championed both Greek revival and Gothic revival as virtuous German national styles in contrast to the Neo-Roman imperial splendor of Napoleon's Paris.
Schinkel started out as a painter, and ardently admired the work of Caspar David Friedrich at a time when Friedrich's star was fading and the great old Romantic became increasingly reclusive.
Schinkel learned from Friedrich the use of the fleeting but exhilarating light effects of transitory times of day like morning and evening. Schinkel became a master of luminous effects, perhaps even more so than Friedrich himself. However, Schinkel's paintings don't have Friedrich's concentration and singleness of purpose. The spirit in Schinkel's work is much less anguished and alone than Friedrich. Instead, Schinkel's paintings are full of anecdotal detail and people doing things. Schinkel's work comes across as much more convivial than Friedrich's.
Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Schloss am Strom (Castle by a River), 1820
This spectacular painting was the result of a contest between Schinkel and the poet Felix Brentano. At a dinner party, Brentano dared Schinkel to come up with a picture that could fully illustrate and capture the spirit of any short poem he could improvise. Brentano claimed that poetry was superior in its evocative powers to painting. Brentano came up with a poem about a game-keeper at an old castle who had died, and who lay buried on the opposite bank of a river. A deer wandered into the now abandoned castle grounds assured of his safety. As in Brentano's poem, Schinkel's painting is filled with Romantic death and resurrection imagery. Schinkel's painting was widely applauded, but it didn't so much best Brentano's poetry as demonstrate the interconnection of the two art forms. The interrelation of the arts preoccupied German Romantic poets, musicians, and artists at the time, and would pre-occupy artists again in the early 20th century.
set design for Mozart's The Magic Flute, 1815
Never was that idea of the interconnection of the arts more forcefully demonstrated than in Schinkel's spectacular stage set designs for a performance of Mozart's The Magic Flute. Schinkel in all of his work had an architect's command of space (more so than Friedrich or his followers), and never is it more forcefully displayed than in this majestic dome of stars in the night sky.
Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Design for the Mausoleum of Queen Louise, 1810
Eduard Gaertner, Unter den Linden, a view looking east toward the Stadtschloss, 1853
Gaertner's brilliance combined scrupulous topographical accuracy with a remarkable command of light and atmosphere and point of view. I can think of few other topographical artists who can convey through the combination of the slightly odd point of view and lighting effects the experience of walking through a great city like Berlin. My summer evening strolls through the center of Berlin last July immediately brought to my mind the painting below which for some reason, I've known for years.
Eduard Gaertner, Neue Wache, 1833
Eduard Gaertner, Parochialstrasse, 1831
Eduard Gaertner, Klosterstrasse, 1830
Carl Blechen had a very brief but remarkable career as an artist lasting only about ten years before insanity and death cut it short. From a very poor background working for a few years as a bank clerk, then serving in the military, he first gained fame for fantastic and seemingly haunted subject matter in theatrical lighting like the painting below.
Carl Blechen, Mountain Gorge in Winter, 1825
Carl Blechen, Forest Path near Spandau, c. 1835
Even his local vistas from the region around Berlin have an air of the bizarre about them. The lighting is very theatrical (Blechen worked for a time in the theater as a scene-painter). The play between warm and cool lighting in this painting and in much of his earlier work can be extreme and adds to the strange quality of his work.
Looking at Blechen's work (and some of C.D. Friedrich's work), I see where Walt Disney got some of his ideas for making ordinary scenery suggest the magical in so many of his animated movies. Blechen was a contemporary of another master of the fantastic and horrific, the poet E.T.A. Hoffmann who spent his last days in Berlin while Blechen lived there.
Carl Blechen, Rooftops and Gardens, Berlin, 1835
And then there is this unexpectedly candid study made while looking out of a window.
Blechen makes a fresh and straightforward painting of a very ordinary and unremarkable view in a corner of a suburban Berlin neighborhood.
Adolph Von Menzel, a native of Breslau (now Wroclaw in Poland), was the arch-realist of 19th century Berlin. Degas praised his work. He stood less than five feet high, almost a dwarf. He observed Berlin from the position of an outsider as it passed through a series of historical changes from Prussian capital to becoming the capital of a united imperial Germany.
Adolph Von Menzel, The Artist's Sitting Room in Ritterstrasse, 1851
Adolph Von Menzel, The Balcony Room, 1845
Another beautifully evocative painting of an interior in Menzel's house with his sister Emelie leaning on the door and looking down a hall while another sister sits sewing in the background.
Adolph Von Menzel, Victims of the March Revolution Lying in State in the Gendarmenmarkt, 1848
Menzel's painting remains unfinished.
Adolph Von Menzel began life in poverty. His father was a teacher who also ran a small lithography business. The father died when Menzel was 16 leaving the print business to his son. Menzel, always a hard worker, invested all his energy into the business and made it a success. He never married and spent his life with his mother and sisters. Menzel began as a middle class liberal who whole-heartedly supported the 1848 Revolution. His liberalism soured as the Revolution withered in the violent backlash by the landed nobility, and ended in frustration with the notoriously ineffectual Frankfurt Parliament. Menzel emerged out of the experiences of 1848 a nationalist authoritarian. His lifelong admiration for King Frederick the Great became a vessel for his ever more passionate nationalism. Menzel ended his life an enthusiastic loyalist to the German Empire under the Hohenzollerns. Menzel left his painting of the funeral of the victims of March 18, 1848 unfinished because he simply lost interest in the cause that they died for.
His work after 1848, and especially during the Empire, becomes larger, more spectacular, and coarser. That sense of nuance that made his work so magical before 1848 gets lost in large showy displays of virtuosity in big paintings proclaiming the greatness of the rejuvenated Fatherland.
Adolph Von Menzel. The Iron Rolling Mill, 1872 - 1875
Adolph Von Menzel, Supper at the Ball, 1878
Adolph Von Menzel's remarkable painting of his own foot, 1886
The Imperial Capital
Kaiser Wilhelm II's favorite artist was Anton Von Werner. The relation between the two men was very close. Von Werner gave the Kaiser painting lessons.
Anton Von Werner, The Proclamation of the German Empire, 1885
Anton Von Werner began his successful career as the establishment artist with his paintings of the proclamation of the German Empire in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles in 1870 at the victorious conclusion of the Franco-Prussian War.
Anton Von Werner, The Congress of Berlin 1878, 1881
As establishment artists go, Von Werner was a fine one, if not all that imaginative. His paintings are very well made, very clear, very skillful, with a lot of attention to uniforms and gowns of state as well as the likenesses of Very Important People. He was the artist to please a head of state. Anton Von Werner was the Kaiser's perfect model German artist subordinating his vision to the larger interests of patriotism and the state.
The Siegesäule in its present location in Tiergarten Park
This is my very bad photo in less than ideal conditions of Anton Von Werner's
mosaics on the Siegesäule.
A better photo of the Siegesäule mosaics.
Anton Von Werner, Dedication of the Wagner Memorial in Tiergarten Park, 1908
It was at the dedication of a similar memorial, the Siegesallee also in Tiergarten Park, that Kaiser Wilhelm II expounded upon his ideas about art in 1901. In typical fashion, he dwells at length upon what he sees as disturbing trends in the visual arts of his day:
If art, now, does no more than portray misery – as it happens so often today – in an even more dreadful light than that in which it is already cast, then it sins against the German people. The nurturing of ideals is at the same time the greatest task of culture. And if we want to be and remain a model to other peoples, we [the German people] must all work for it together. And if culture is to fully fulfill its duty, it must penetrate the lowest levels of society. Art can only do this [however] when it offers its hand, when it elevates, when it does not lower itself into the gutter instead.
It sometimes pains me as sovereign that art – in the person of its masters – does not vigorously resist such influences. In no way do I even remotely fail to recognize that many an ambitious character among the followers of such trends might have the best of intentions. He nevertheless remains on the wrong path. The true artist has no need for ballyhoo, marketing or connections. I do not think that in the area of the [arts and] sciences our great predecessors in ancient Greece, Italy, or the Renaissance ever advertised, the way it is so often done today in the press, so as to draw attention to their ideas. They worked as God intended and let the people say what they would.
The Kaiser wanted a clear unambiguous public art that proclaimed the greatness of the renewed Fatherland. He wanted artists to fall in line behind his ambition to create a new German patriotism. Artists in Berlin, like artists everywhere always jealous for their independence, refused to be reduced to civil servants in the imperial state. Instead, many of them focused on what the Kaiser wanted to conceal, or on creating an entirely new way of living and making art.
The Berlin Secession
Modern painting arrived in Berlin in the form a local variation of French Impressionism that was less about optical science and more about very unClassical random views of middle class life in an increasingly modern Berlin.
Impressionism arrived late in Berlin, in the 1890s when the movement in Paris was already over. The chief practitioner of the style in Berlin was Max Liebermann, the son of wealthy Jewish parents who used much of his inherited wealth to collect the work of artists like Monet, Manet, and Degas for his large townhouse by the Brandenburg Gate. Liebermann painted in something like the Impressionist style and actively propagated it in the German art establishment
Max Liebermann, The Flax Spinners, 1887
Liebermann's Impressionism came out of the realist tradition of artists like Von Menzel. Liebermann's early realism, like that of other painters of the time, had a tinge of social protest about it, enough to irritate the Kaiser.
Max Liebermann, Picnic in a Park, c.1900
This is a very small study on cardboard from an uncertain date. Liebermann learned from the French painters something like the over-all Impressionist brushstroke that gives equal attention to every part of the painting. Our attention is not on one part of the picture over another, but on the complete effect of light upon the whole scene. Unlike earlier German painting (including Liebermann's own work), Impressionism is much less interested in subject matter or in making some kind of point. The only story telling in a work of Impressionist painting is about the artist's attempt to reconstruct a fleeting effect of light in a painting.
A major difference between Liebermann's work (as well as the work of other German Impressionists) and the French Impressionists is color. The Germans did not share the French interest in optical science and divisionism in colors. In fact, the colors in Liebermann's work compared to the French seem rather wan and a little tone deaf. American Impressionists frequently did the opposite exaggerating the brilliance of Impressionist color to the point of excess.
Max Liebermann, Beer Garden, 1905
Another import from France that Liebermann exploited was the fragmentary casual composition. Instead of a composition composed like as stage set (as in Schinkel's paintings above), the Impressionist painter composes his paintings to appear as though they are casual momentary glances. Japanese prints certainly inspired this alternative way of composing pictures; but even more so, photography suggested to artists a very different way of composing pictures that was truer to actual experience.
Max Liebermann, The Artist's Studio, 1902
Max Liebermann, Self Portrait, 1909 - 1910
Max Liebermann emerged as a leading public figure in German art for many decades. His views on art and many other matters were cautiously liberal. He shared the resistance of most German painters to being dragooned into the Imperial civil service under the direction of the Kaiser. Artists in Germany, as elsewhere, were anxious to preserve their independence. Liebermann publicly advocated for freedom for artists to pursue their own path without direction from the state or other powers.
However, Liebermann strongly opposed mixing art and politics. This set him at odds with a lot of younger artists, especially after the First World War. Liebermann was the first artist to break with the official artistic establishment in Berlin, and yet in later life he resisted much anti-conventional art.
In his later years, Liebermann became something of an establishment figure himself with important official retrospective exhibitions on his 50th, 60th, and 70th birthdays. The biggest celebration of all was for his 80th birthday in 1927.
In the last years of his life, he witnessed the rise of National Socialism with its torchlight parades through the Brandenburg Gate and just outside his door. In 1933, he quit his position at the Prussian State Academy rather than be fired for being a Jew. He died quietly in his sleep in 1935 at the age of 88. The Gestapo warned people against attending his funeral in Berlin's Jewish cemetery, but over 100 people showed up anyway to pay their respects, including the artist Käthe Kollwitz.
Another Berlin Impressionist was Max Slevogt.
Max Slevogt, Unter den Linden, 1913
Max Slevogt, Garden in Neu Cladow, 1912
As cautious as these paintings appear to us, they outraged most public and establishment opinion. Impressionism was already old news in Paris and much of the rest of the world in 1892, but was still not accepted in Germany. The Imperial government made no secret of its distaste and opposition to this foreign import. In that same year, leaders of the Verein Berliner Künstler (Berlin Artist's Club) invited the still not very widely known Norwegian artist Edvard Munch to exhibit with them. The members of the Verein knew Munch for his earlier pointillist work and were only dimly aware of the new direction in his work. The show opened featuring new work by Munch such as this.
Edvard Munch, Evening on Karl Johann Street, 1892
The public and officialdom were outraged. The great establishment painter Anton Von Werner led the attack. Critics and angry moralists demanded that the show be closed. Liebermann and other members of the Verein defended Munch's right to show his work. The Verein caved to pressure and closed the show after a week. Lieberman and ten other artists quit the Verein in protest. They founded a new organization, The Berlin Secession, and established a headquarters on the Kurfurstendamm.
The angry public row over closing the Verein exhibition earned Munch a lot of free publicity and attention from interested critics and exhibitors from Paris to Vienna. Munch decided to stay in Berlin and work, and did so from 1892 to 1908 painting many of his most significant works in the city such as this one.
Edvard Munch, Death in the Sick Room, 1893
Munch's paintings were a revelation to younger German artists, and suggested an alternative direction to the official civil service grandeur that the Kaiser advocated, and the imitation of French styles promoted by the artists of the Berlin Secession.
The modernist project to collapse the distinction between form and content through reductivism was a much more problematic and fraught business in Germany than it was in France or the USA. German artists down to the present day resisted both reductivism and formalism.