Monday, July 28, 2008

The Nazarenes

In Vienna in 1809, two restless and disaffected young art students formed the Lucasbund, or Brotherhood of St. Luke (traditional patron saint of artists), deliberately recalling the guilds, the trade organizations of the late Middle Ages. They were Franz Pforr and Friedrich Overbeck. They were both barely 20 at the time they formed the Bund. In 1810, with a small group of like-minded students, they went to Rome and set up shop and living quarters in the former Monastery of Sant' Isidoro. They began to wear their hair long, and to wear anachronistic medieval looking garb. They took vows of poverty and chastity (very unguildlike), imagining their community of artists to be a kind of religious order with a seriousness of purpose. While they called themselves the Brotherhood of Saint Luke, most everyone else called them the "Nazarenes" and the name stuck.
They rejected the whole legacy of Baroque and NeoClassical art that dominated conventional painting of the day. For them, Raphael and Durer represented not a beginning, but an end. They wanted to go back to what they considered the more honest, truthful, and sincere art of the late Middle Ages and Early Renaissance, especially the early Flemmish painters. They lived at a time of awakening German nationalism in the aftermath of Napoleon's conquest of the German states. They believed, mistakenly, that the Gothic style of the great medieval cathedrals was a German creation (in fact, it was a French invention, beginning in the Monastery of Saint Denis in the mid 12th century).
Above are 2 pictures meant to celebrate the close friendship between Pforr and Overbeck. At the top is Overbeck's Italia and Germania, and below it is Pforr's more complex allegory, Shulamit and Maria, left unfinished at Pforr's untimely death at the age of 23. Pforr made an allegorical picture in a deliberately archaic style rejecting the chiaroscuro and linear perspective of the conventional painting of his day. Shulamit is the bride from the Song of Songs representing the sensual delights of the world, the Italian aesthetic, and Overbeck. Maria is the life of faithful dedication, the German aesthetic (represented by Durer whose print St. Jerome in His Study is quoted in the setting), and Pforr. It is presented in the form of a medieval altarpiece. Overbeck's more Italianate picture (the early Raphael) is more straightforward proclaiming a kind of natural affinity between the "sensual" Italian aesthetic and the "spiritual" German aesthetic.
And yet, though they tried so hard to make an art that pretended in all innocence that the High Renaissance and Baroque never happened, their work is unmistakably Nineteenth century. There is an air of art historical erudition in these pictures. They studied the earlier styles and techniques very carefully. They come across as very consciously anachronistic in a way that Fra Angelico never does. There is always an undercurrent of unacknowleged passions working at cross purposes to their stated intentions that makes their vision anything but innocent. The sensuality in Overbeck's picture, and the barely concealed passionate affection underneath all the tangled allegory and archaism of Pforr's picture undercut the stated purpose in these pictures. When we compare both of their pictures to their beloved prototypes of Fra Angelico or Durer, we see something entirely absent in the work of the 15th century artists, nostalgia. There is a profound dissatisfaction with the early 19th century present, and a fond and idealized vision of a remote past that is very modern and largely unknown in the 15th century.
In this, the German Nazarenes anticipate the experiences of the English PreRaphaelites almost 40 years later.

1 comment:

Davis said...

This "nostalgia" was of course part and parcel of the very Romanticism they abhorred.

Nonetheless, I love the Nazarenes.