Romanticism and National Character

Alexander Adams

Alexander Adams

Alexander Adams is an artist, critic and poet, based in the UK. He writes art criticism for The Critic, Standpoint, Apollo, Burlington Magazine, Print Quarterly, Printmaking Today, The Jackdaw and other publications. He publishes articles on censorship and free speech, as well as book reviews, on Spiked-Online.

[Image: Edvard Munch (1863-1944), At the Deathbed, 1895, Oil and tempera on unprimed canvas, 90.2 x 123.3 cm, KODE Bergen Art Museum, The Rasmus Meyer Collection]

Two recent exhibitions and catalogues prompted reflections on the role of geography and national character in the production and reception of Romanticism. This article will be in three parts. The first is a discussion of the exhibitions and catalogues; the second discusses the character of Romanticism, especially in relation to national character; the third explores the idea of national character and northern countries in relation to Romanticism, national myths and nationalism.

Part I: Romanticism and the Nordic Character

The recent exhibition of the paintings of Edvard Munch (1863-1944) showed Munch as a painter of the human essence, dealing with recurrent eternal themes: love, desire, loss, grief, fear, wonder. This is pretty much the standard approach for the artist – not least because of his Frieze of Life project, which conceived of life in such terms – but is no less true or important for us when we stand before Munch’s great art. The Frieze of Life (conceived 1889, exhibited 1902) was a series of paintings which would portray the progress of life for a person, presented in tableaux from different stages, incidents or situations in a life. This included Sphinx (Woman Three Stages)*, At the Deathbed*, Evening on Karl Johan Street*, Jealousy*, Melancholy*, Anxiety, Ashes, Puberty, The Lonely Ones, Despair, The Kiss, The Voice, The Dance of Life, Separation and The Scream (all 1892-1900). The marked paintings were included in the exhibition Edvard Munch: Masterpieces from Bergen (27 May–5 September 2022, Courtauld Gallery, London).

Munch’s Frieze of Life was both universal and personal, being drawn from some of his own experiences of eternally recurring situations. At the Deathbed (1895) was a rendering of the death of his sister Sophie, in 1877, which itself echoed the death of their mother in 1868. Munch’s observations of the complicated and turbulent private lives of associates in bohemian Christiania and Berlin gave him ample material for paintings on the subject of despair and jealousy, including suicide, murder, infidelity. Man and Woman (1898) shows a man slumped in despair under the gaze of a nude woman, positioned above him. In Munch’s world, the woman is supreme, the decider, slayer of men. She can withhold or divert her favours, rendering the male suitor pathetic or redundant. Munch has been seen as a misogynist. If he is so – and there is a case for that reading – he sees women with the power to be fickle and decide the fate of men of the highest calibre. (“Woman, who at one and the same time can be a saint, a whore and unhappily devoted.”) The artist’s own private life provided enough drama for several lifetimes. His affairs and break ups – including an incident where a mistress shot one of his fingers – were proof of the recurrence of suffering due to carnal passion. His Death of Marat (1907, not exhibited) shows Munch lying on a bloodied bed, assassinated by his lover Tulla Larsen who faces us nude, indomitable and proud.

[Image: Edvard Munch (1863-1944), Melancholy, 1894 – 96, Oil on canvas, 80 x 100.5 cm, KODE Bergen Art Museum, The Rasmus
Meyer Collection]

As the catalogue authors point out, Munch’s psychodrama is definitely presented to position the artist in the starkest of situations, exploiting the actual events and weaving in them myth and history to elevate the art. We should not see this exaggeration as egotism but instead as the desire to make art that rises to the heroism of the greatest works in the canon. Munch serves his art, even if that means showing himself as more pitiable and weaker than he was. He is an actor in a stage play of his own life, where he plays himself. In this performance, Munch makes situations clearer than they were, gesturing emphatically and condensing action into symbolic tableaux. This emphatic power – found so distinctively in the heavy outlines, assertive painterliness and simplicity of forms – is one aspect that has contributed to the definition of Munch as a proto-Expressionist, if not the first Expressionist (along with Van Gogh).

In the exhibition and catalogue, Munch grows from realism (defiance of art conventions to get at living reality) to Symbolism, which provided him with an ur-reality, that primordial truth that exists below surfaces. Munch’s aim was to be truthful about the unchanging realities of the lives of men and women, by dispensing with anecdote, qualification and specificity. His dramas of eternal man and eternal woman (not forgetting eternal child) have much in common with Romanticism and that movement’s drive to set aside convention, religion and public morals to uncover truths. Romanticism, the intellectual and artistic forerunner of Symbolism, rejected the recent accretions of social, technological and religious understanding, in order to find hidden things within human nature. This is, of course, as much an extension of Enlightenment science and philosophy as it is a refutation of it. Burke’s examination of the physiological dimensions of our responses to stimuli beautiful or sublime, was an assertion of the value (and application) of biological science and nascent psychological investigation. We shall come back to the nature of Romanticism in Part II.

[Image: Edvard Munch (1863-1944), Woman in Three Stages, 1894, Oil on canvas, KODE Bergen Art Museum, The Rasmus Meyer Collection]

The catalogue (Barnaby Wright (ed.), Edvard Munch: Masterpieces from Bergen, Paul Holberton, 2022) documents closely the actions of collector Rasmus Meyer (1858-1916), who personally knew Munch and bought work directly from his studio, with the express intention of building a permanent collection that would be maintained after the death of collector and artist. We see how patronage established handsome collections of the best art by certain exceptional artists and how this was left as a legacy to inform descendants’ understanding and taste. It is fair to say that Munch’s art has lodged deeply in the mental landscape of Scandinavians and the wider population which responds to the memorable and assertive images that have a hold over us, even if we are not inhabitants of Norway. This is not least due to the commitment of Norwegian collectors, who saw Munch as an exponent of the new modern school and showed that Norway was a serious independent country capable of contributing to the flow of European culture.

Another exhibition which raised issues of the importance of place and people to the Romantic movement and its ideals was Dreams of Freedom: Romanticism in Russia and Germany (22 April-8 August 2021, State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, 2 October 2021-6 June 2022, Staatliche Kunstammlungen Dresden). The exhibition covers art by German, Russian and Scandinavian artists working in the Romantic idiom, mostly with links to Dresden. The period selected is from 1800 to the 1890s. (It is reviewed here from the catalogue.)

At the turn of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, there was a mania for German stories, verse, painting, music and philosophy among Russian intellectuals, social liberals and Romantics. Germany looked to be a model for intellectual refinement and imaginative exploits, with Dresden as the city held in highest esteem. The catalogue has a chronology of the connections between Russians and Germans in Dresden during the Nineteenth Century. This includes military and diplomatic events during the Napoleonic Wars, when Russia defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Kulm. Dresden was a crossroads for Mitteleuropa and functioned as a site for mingling of German and Russian painters. For cultural tourists of the age – not least those on the Grand Tour – went to Dresden for its architecture (as “Florence on the Elbe”) and its picture gallery (which contained Raphael’s Sistine Madonna (1512-3)). Local artists and academy were poorly regarded in first decade of the Nineteenth Century. Matters improved when Caspar David Friedrich was member of the academy in 1816, though the consensus that many of Dresden painters were derivative.   

[Image: Caspar David Friedrich, Two Men Contemplating the Moon, 1819–1820, Albertinum, Dresden State Art Collections]

In the catalogue and exhibition, Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) is the towering presence. He was admired in his time by many. Grand Duke Nikolai Pavlovich (future Tsar Nicholas I) bought paintings from Friedrich’s studio when he visited Dresden and today there are nine paintings by him in the Hermitage. Friedrich’s symbolic landscapes – constructed from nature studies with added figures, buildings and subject to exaggeration and adaptation – are seen as pictorial poetry and as religious allegory. His paintings were seen as examples of the national genius of the German people, especially by nationalists in later eras.

This was at a time – after the violence caesura of the republican and anti-clericalist French Revolution showed that the organising principles of states did not have to be royal or religious – when national identity was becoming increasingly important. Old empires were split into nations and bishoprics and duchies were swallowed into larger states; the old glue of feudal structures and regional trading networks was dissolved as we see the rise of the nation state. Loyalty was no longer a chain of mutual duties in a strict hierarchy culminating in a monarch or prince of the Church; it became a collective project of an ethnic folk organised under the authority of a centralised and unified, with a group cause being self-determination and control of lands settled by kinsmen.   

[Image: Johan Christian Dahl, View of Dresden at Full Moon, 1839, Albertinum, Dresden State Art Collections]

Friedrich and Norwegian landscape painter Johan Christian Dahl (1788-1855) (a friend and colleague of Friedrich’s in Dresden, whose work also features in the exhibition) became more themselves and better embodiments of their nations when separated from their homelands. “In Romanticism, the idea of homeland arises out of a loss. It was not until they were in foreign lands that leading artists discovered how their identity was shaped by their origins. In Dresden, Caspar David Friedrich, who hailed from Pomerania, was seen as northern German – not only in his choice of subjects, such as the Baltic Sea and megalithic tombs, but also on account of his demure and withdrawn demeanour. It was not until he was in Rome that Johan Christian Dahl developed into a painter of harsh Norwegian nature.” National character, like all other assessments, is understood comparatively. The paintings of Friedrich are full of travellers and observers briefly inhabiting unpopulated places. The coasts, cliffs, mountains, forests and ruins are not places where one lives, rather they are places one encounters the dramatic, ineffable and sublime. The tomb of prehistoric man allows modern man to reflect on the human condition of mortality. The theme and iconography are as important as the appearance of the picture.

We will look at the importance of nationalism to Romanticism in parts II and III. Let us examine here the range of the art exhibited in the display and the connections between German and Russian Romanticism. The selection of Friedrich paintings, not least from Russian museums, is excellent and  it is engrossing to see these paintings reproduced so large and clear. Carl Gustav Carus (1789-1869) is a great and devoted disciple of Friedrich. His motifs and approach is similar to Friedrich’s – figures on a boat, wanderers in wild landscapes in moonlight, mountain views – but his handling is much simpler, flatter and less crisp. When he attempts the more dramatic – a stormy sea, closer to the art of Dahl – he fails. It is hard to see him as more than a poor man’s Friedrich, at least on this showing.

Carl Blechen (1898-1840) is more original and intense. Gothic Church Ruins (1826) shows a figure asleep in a church (or cathedral) not so much overtaken by nature but fused with natural terrain. The floor of the building is a rocky brook. Saplings emerge from stone parapets, echoing the slender spandrels of the Gothic windows below, a beautiful piece of visual rhyme. The ruin was a staple of fine art and literature made by the Romantics. The work of nature and of man is fused in the ruin. Man’s architecture is altered by the forces of nature and the passage of time, presenting the observer with a representation which reminds him of the limits of man’s abilities. This confrontation between man, nature and time is at the heart of the Romantic aesthetic, which attributes less to God, assigning the cosmos to forces which are not necessarily divine. Awe is generated by contemplation of the mighty sublime. The Romantic aesthetic also includes the advancement of artistic ideas concerning melancholy, grief, morbidity, dissolution, decay, entropy and disease. Blechen’s dramatic landscapes and building paintings in oil and ink-wash are richly satisfying and he can be classed in the second rank, just below Friedrich and Dahl.

The Nazarene movement is represented by Edward von Steinle (1810-1886), Wilhelm Schadow (1789-1862), Johann Friedrich Overbeck (1789-1869). Their weaknesses in handling and painterly presence are present in the selected examples; notwithstanding the deliberate archaism of the Nazarene movement, these are stiff and flat as paintings. The portraits seem notably weaker than the landscapes. Ferdinand Hartmann (1774-1842) is a curiosity. He is not a natural painter. His modelling of figures and drapery is crude, his lighting is rudimentary, his composition lacks nuance and sophistication and we have no sense of inhabiting the pictorial space. Yet, his two images here – a kneeling woman holding a dish and death as a skeleton stealing children from a sleeping mother’s bed – are impressively memorable and bold, perhaps precisely because they are so direct (even naïve) as paintings. Romantic painter Philipp Otto Runge (1777-1810) is represented by a self-portrait and his Times of Day print series, which has always seemed to me (in previous viewings) rather chilly and meretricious.

Much better are the landscapes and ruin paintings of Ernst Ferdinand Oehme (1797-1855). Cathedral in Winter (1821) is a nocturne of worshippers arriving for an evening service on a snowy night at a Gothic Cathedral; the only warm hues being those of the light within the building, indicating the salvation and comfort afforded by Christian worship. Dahl  was famous for his nocturnes and View of Dresden (1839) is one of his finest. It shows Dresden’s famous skyline, with shredded clouds obscuring a full moon, reflections on the river brighter than the few paltry lights of a fire or lamp. It reminds one of what has been taken from us by the saturation of artificial illumination in not only our cities but suburbs, industrial outskirts and motorways. There is something humbling and inducive of meditative contemplation about observing a landscape by moonlight.  

[Image: Maxim Nikiforovich Vorobiev, The Oak Fractured by Lightning (the Storm), 1842, State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow]

The cover of the catalogue features a detail from Maksim Nikiforovich Vorobyov’s Oak, Shattered by Lightning (Thunderstorm) (1842), which shows a tree cleft in two by a curving lightning bolt. Yet the detail does not do the drama of the picture – or the daring of the painter – its due. The motif takes up barely half the painting and is on the right side. The left side is almost blank – a haze of waves whipped to spume and a distance flicker of lighting from a murky sky. It is extremely audacious. However it would not be accurate to state that the most striking works here are entirely from Russians, but these paintings will be barely known by even connoisseurs of Romantic art in the West. Vorobyov is one of the finds of the exhibition, for a Westerner.  

The painting of Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov is a prominent presence in this exhibition. It is ironic that the most striking piece by him is a half-length seated Portrait of Vittoria Marini (late 1840s) rather than his mythological or religious scenes. The spatial ambiguity of the sitter’s left hand, which seems to rest on the cheek, yet anatomical understanding and absence of shadows from the head suggest is not the case, is quite a curious solution: the hand is both touching the cheek and held forward. It seems quite close in atmosphere, approach, palette and handling to the paintings of the 1920s and 1930s by Lotte Laserstein (1898-1993). Grand claims are made for Aleksei Gavrilovich Venetsianov (1780-1847) but they are not borne out by this selection. Only the very simple and warm-hued Harvesting. Summer (mid-1820s) – showing a seated peasant resting from harvest, light falling on her back – is enchanting and fresh. Portraits of peasants range from the touching to the trite. 

[Image: Alexei Venetsianov, Harvesting. Summer, Mid-1820s, State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow]

Of the Russians we get none of the Peredvizhniki (Передви́жники, Wanderer) movement. Enthusiasts will sorely miss their grandeur and intensity. Ivan Aivazovsky (1817-1900) is very poorly served by one lacklustre marine. He was the greatest of the Russian Empire’s painter of the period. Was he largely omitted because he was a painter of seascapes and also an ethnic Armenian? There is no dearth of wonderful paintings by him in Russian museums. Was he too difficult to integrate into the narrative? This is a shame because Aivazovsky is a painter he should be exhibited and discussed more often, although is better known in Germany than elsewhere on the Continent.  

The exhibition gathered material relating to Dresden’s most famous painting, Raphael’s Sistine Madonna. The painting was bought by Frederick Augustus II in 1754. The catalogue reproduces the many German and Russian copies and illustrates watercolours of stately interiors that housed full-size copies. Both Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy had copies of the painting in their homes, although Tolstoy later became averse to Raphael.  

Overall, both catalogues explain the hold of Romantic subjectivism and humanistic individualism on Norwegians Munch and Dahl and German and Russian painters. Next, we will look more closely at Romanticism before examining how nationalism and Romanticism became intertwined.

To read part II for free visit my Substack account here.

Dreams of Freedom: Romanticism in Russia and Germany (22 April-8 August 2021, State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, 2 October 2021-6 June 2022, Staatliche Kunstammlungen Dresden)

Edvard Munch: Masterpieces from Bergen (27 May – 5 September 2022, Courtauld Gallery, London)

Barnaby Wright (ed.), Edvard Munch: Masterpieces from Bergen, Paul Holberton, London, May 2022, paperback, 136pp, 60 col. Illus., £25, ISBN 978 1 913645 27 4

Staatliche Kunstammlungen Dresden (ed.), Dreams of Freedom: Romanticism in Russia and Germany, Hirmer Verlag, Munich, 2022, hardback, 360pp, 300 col. Illus., £49.95, ISBN 978 3 7774 35831