Germans Had Beethoven, but Could They Paint?

It has long been one of the paradoxes of cultural life in the English-speaking world that while 19th-century German music, the music of Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, Schubert, Mendelsohn et al., has dominated the repertory of our concert halls and the recording of classical music, German painting of the same period has remained–until recently, anyway–an isolated and sectarian taste. No doubt the causes of this fundamental difference are many and complex, but one of them, certainly, is the fact that our own most influential modern artists, critics and museum curators have tended in the 20th century to look upon 19th-century Germany as a backwater as far as the visual arts are concerned. German music, on the other hand, was embraced by composers, musicians, critics and, not least, by audiences as the mainstream of Western musical achievement.

As a direct consequence of this division of critical opinion, our museums have rarely made an effort to acquaint us with the corpus of 19th-century German painting. My own experience may be typical in this regard. I first encountered the name of Wilhelm Leibl (1844-1900), who is sometimes referred to as Germany’s Courbet, in Julius Meier-Graefe’s magisterial, two-volume history, Modern Art (English translation, 1908). It wasn’t until I began visiting the German museums in the 1960’s, however, that I first got to see Leibl’s paintings and those of his German contemporaries. And as far as I can tell, there has still never been an exhibition devoted to Leibl’s paintings in America, though in recent years we have seen the work of certain other German masters–among them, Caspar David Fried-rich, Adolf Menzel, Arnold Bocklin and Lovis Corinth.

For the most part, however, 19th-century German painting remains an unknown subject not only in America but in Britain as well. Which is why the exhibition called Spirit of an Age: 19th-Century Paintings from the Nationalgalerie, Berlin , which is currently on view at the National Gallery in London and will be coming to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., in June, may be considered something of an event. Although it is hardly an ideal account of 19th-century German painting, the Spirit of an Age show will likely be an introduction to the subject for the many people who will see it in Washington.

If this sounds like faint praise, it is because the show itself is a bit of a hodgepodge. Major and minor German talents are lumped together without much concern for distinctions of quality, and then, for reasons to be explained, a number of major French painters–Courbet, Manet, Monet and Cézanne–turn up at the end of the exhibition, as if on cue, to confirm our own long-standing prejudice in favor of the 19th-century French masters.

It is to this prejudice–or, if you like, this debate about radically different pictorial sensibilities–that Meier-Graefe, the greatest of German art critics, devoted much discussion. Certainly no French or American critic has ever stated the case against German painting more categorically than Meier-Graefe himself, who declared early on in Modern Art that the “genius [of Germany] is deficient in the pictorial instinct.” “The German,” he wrote, “is a musician, a poet, but not a painter…. This is not due to a difference of personality…. The difference here is one of species.”

This is a harsh judgment, and Meier-Graefe cited many exceptions to it–Leibl among them–but there is much in Spirit of an Age to confirm his dour views on the subject. Especially in the long slog through the galleries devoted to smarmy Nazarene painters–a German counterpart to the Pre-Raphaelite movement in England–and the stultifying sentimentalities of the Biedermeier Realists, Meier-Graefe’s dicta prove to be a reliable guide. So does his praise of Leibl’s painterly realism, particularly in the wonderful Peasant Boy (early 1870’s). But as Leibl is treated as little more than a footnote in this exhibition, a newcomer to his work is given no opportunity to assess his achievement.

Not surprisingly, Caspar David Fried-rich and Adolf Menzel are accorded more protracted attention. Friedrich’s mystical Romantic landscape paintings have lately come to enjoy a kind of cult status, and Menzel, too, has acquired a certain following. And in both cases, we are given enough in this show to see why. The biggest surprise is likely to be the paintings of Karl Friedrich Schinkel, who is better known (and admired) on this side of the Atlantic as an architect. As a painter, however, his Romantic grandiosities–exhibiting a kind of transcendental postcard style–are a perfect illustration of everything Meier-Graefe most deplored in German painting, but for that very reason Schinkel is likely to be one of the hits of the exhibition when it comes to Washington.

Menzel is something else altogether. Shunning metaphysics in favor of more earthly social subjects, he is a master at depicting both the ceremonies of official life–as in The Flute Concert of Frederick the Great at Sanssouci (1852) and The Supper at the Ball (1878)–and the new industrial age, as in the gigantic Iron-Rolling Mill (Modern Cyclops) (1875). Yet it is in his more intimate paintings, The Balcony Room (1845) and Studio Wall (1852), that he discloses a more poetic aspect of his talent–one that was, incidentally, much admired by Degas.

It is in the last two rooms of the exhibition that we approach the dawn of modernism in German painting. Hence the presence of Manet, Monet et al., whose paintings all but capsize the show, and we are also given a few examples of early Max Beckmann and late Lovis Corinth. Beckmann’s large group portrait called Conversation (1908) is a salutary reminder of what this great painter owed to the Old Masters, while Corinth’s horrific Samson Blinded (1912) marks a farewell to everything that was most sentimental and technically correct in the exhibition we have just traversed. It comes as a welcome relief from the pageantry and mysticism and academic pathos that dominates the show as a whole.

In the end, of course, the Spirit of an Age exhibition is little more than a large miscellany. The Nationalgalerie in Berlin is currently undergoing a vast reorganization that will eventually bring together the collections that were formerly divided between museums in East and West Berlin during the Cold War period. This is what has made it possible for these paintings to be lent to museums in London and Washington. The result is not, as I say, an ideal account of 19th-century German painting, but it is probably the best we can hope for in the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, Spirit of an Age remains on view in London through May 13, and will be shown in Washington from June 10 to Sept. 3.

Germans Had Beethoven, but Could They Paint?