German Art in Washington

by Alice Cherbonnier
German art showing at the National Gallery shows precursors and harbingers of Europe’s great art movements.
       Don’t allow “Spirit of an Age,” the exhibition of 19th century German paintings at the National Gallery, to slip by without having a look at it. Throughout a century of European upheaval, of dashed hopes and blind idealism, you will be transported from mystic Romanticism through stalwart Biedermeier and German-Roman art to the rebellious Secession of the 1890’s.

       During my trip through Germany in April I had already been captivated by the delicate brushwork of Caspar David Friedrich. His marine scenes and landscapes are frequently backlit—suffused with light in the background so that human figures or great trees are silhouetted against the glow of a sunset or a bright meadow. Friedrich’s paintings seem permeated with poetic and otherworldly overtones.

       The figure of Friedrich’s “Woman in the Window” is exquisitely painted against a sky etched with lines of tall masts and trees, and one finds comparable clarity of detail in the landscapes and great Gothic cathedrals of artist-architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel that reflect his hopes for a Germany liberated from Napoleonic occupation.

       Late German Romantics looked to Italy and the Middle Ages to achieve purity of form worthy of Raphael or Albrecht Durer. Carl Blechen’s “Interior of the Palm House” affords a fine, feathery study of tropical foliage in a classical setting. However, Moritz von Schwind’s scenes of children at play smack of the sentimental “kitsch” of academia that most of these paintings are quite free of.

       Towering over other artists, the gifted Adolph Menzel depicted mid-century life in Berlin. A theater scene proves him a precursor to Daumier and Degas, a train puffing hazy smoke predicts Monet, and an astonishingly powerful painting of an iron-rolling mill in action looks ahead to the social conscience of the 20th century.

       Menzel’s depiction of Frederick the Great performing at a flute concert seems a perfect example of academic art (Menzel was diplomatic enough to please his great patron), while a sketch of his family’s apartment, painted seven years earlier in 1845, suggests an understanding of the themes of Impressionism—the play of light on a billowing curtain, a wall, a floor and in a mirror—at least 30 years ahead of his time.

       That German artists were very much aware of other European art movements is revealed in Anselm Feuerbach’s image of a maiden contemplating nature in a mode very similar to that of England’s Pre-Raphaelites, while his portrait of “Nanna” is the epitome of Roman beauty and sensuality.

       Later German artists were directly influenced by the Impressionist movement. Hugo von Tschudi, director of the Nationalgalerie, acquired paintings by Manet, Monet and Renoir. Some of these are in the show, along with a handsome landscape by Paul Cézanne, the first of his works to be bought by any museum. Emperor William 11 viewed these purchases as detrimental to German artists and forced Tschudi to resign.

       But by the end of the century, open rebellion among the ranks of German artists resulted in very visible alienation, such as radiate from early works of Expressionist Max Beckmann like “Conversation” and “Deathbed Scene,” in which family members lean apart from one another in their individual isolation.

       The exhibition of 77 paintings is brought to an end by two intriguing, highly expressionistic works by Lovis Corinth. Slashing strokes in “Woman in a Rose-trimmed Hat” make clear the anguish of Corinth’s wife after the artist suffered a stroke, while “Samson Blinded” is a searing emotional study of the bloodied martyr, representing the artist himself, groping toward the viewer with outsized hands in chains.

       This show of the varied talents and movements that traversed a century in Europe, sent from the Nationalgalerie in Berlin to our National Gallery in Washington, may be seen through Sept. 3.


       Meanwhile, another summer show, in Baltimore, that should generate interest on the part of purchasers, as well as viewers, is the Artists’ Open Invitational of Miniature Works (6” x 6” or less), including oils, watercolors, collages, needlepoint and sculptures. It’s at Paper-Rock- Scissors (1111 West 36th St.; 410-235-4420), and will be on view through August 5. High school and college students, along with local artists and artists from Italy and Canada, will participate.


       The City’s paean to the arts, Artscape 2001, will be held in the Mt. Royal Cultural District on July 13, 14 and 15.

       An art exhibit called “Child,” curated by Jack Rasmussen, executive director of Maryland Art Place (MAP), will be on display in MAP’s galleries at 34 Market Place, across from Port Discovery in the former Brokerage complex, during Artscape and continuing through August 19. Works by 11 regional artists—Christine Bailey, D.S. Bakker, Ed Bisese, Mark Barry, Raya Bodnarchuk, Doan Danziger, Nicole Fall, Sue Frame, Jill A. Lion, Jo Rango, and Tammra Sigler will be featured. Hours are 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Sun. Info: 962-8565.


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This story was published on June 27, 2001.