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.
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).
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Nolde was a great landscape painter specializing in seascapes and landscape views of the coastal plain of his native Schleswig-Holstein.
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!
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.
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.
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.
When I was a graduate student, the survey books on Northern Renaissance panel painting almost always began with this altarpiece.
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.