Art Dictionary

Romanticism

Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein

Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, Goethe in der römischen Campagna (Goethe in the Roman countryside), 1787
Landesmuseum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte, Oldenburg

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Romanticism can be understood as a basic intellectual attitude whose focus is on the imagination and the individual´s experience of nature as a mode of artistic expression.

The painter should not simply paint what he sees in front of him, but what he sees in himself, too. However, if he sees nothing in himself, then he should also stop painting what he sees in front of him. Otherwise his paintings will be like folding screens, behind which one can only expect to see the sick, or even the dead. (Caspar David Friedrich)

By giving the common a higher meaning, the normal a mysterious mien, the familiar the grandeur of the unknown, the finite the appearance of the infinite, I romanticize it. (Novalis)

In common parlance, »romantic« describes an affinity for yearning. In terms of epochs, Romanticism is regarded as an aesthetic literary movement that occurred around 1800 and spread throughout Germany, England, and France at the same time as European classicism, gradually coming to include all areas of cultural and intellectual life. Politically, it was marked by the French Revolution, the subsequent enthusiasm for Napoleon, and ultimately, the hatred for Napoleon, as well as the other revolutions that intensified nationalism throughout Europe.

Expressions of Romantic thought and sentiment were especially strong in painting, literature, and music. The Romantics turned their backs on the intellectual rationalism of the classicists; they felt that the key to understanding a world in a state of constant transformation lay in human sensibility and sensitivity, as well as in man´s connection to nature, in which one could see the omnipresence of God. It is impossible to separate Romanticism entirely from classicism, since Romanticism does not describe a style and did not produce any sort of authoritative formal vocabulary with its own particular characteristics.

Romanticism can be understood as a longing for a lost, harmonious construct of the world, and is closely linked to literary ideas of the time. One reason for this yearning was the altered role of religion, which had formerly given direction to art and life. Out of this change emerged a quest for religious reform, which would be in accordance with the new knowledge of philosophy, the natural sciences, and history, and would once again be able to give modern man something to hold onto. Hence, Romanticism is a continuation of religion through aesthetic means.

Philipp Otto Runge and Caspar David Friedrich were the first to take new paths, as they attempted to create a »new mythology,« as Friedrich Schlegel called it. In February 1802 in a letter to his brother, Daniel, Runge turned against the aesthetic ideals of antiquity. He was no longer inspired by outmoded Christian themes; for him, »everything culminated in the landscape.« Like Novalis and Ludwig Tieck, Runge felt that the hand of God was revealed through a kind of natural hieroglyphics.

While Runge formulated his concept of a spiritualized nature in terms of allegory, Friedrich translated this new idea into his landscapes. He employed a completely subjective iconographical vocabulary, whose meaning was influenced by the natural philosopher, Schelling. His motto was: »No one is a yardstick against which everyone can be measured; each individual (and more or less related minds) can only be measured against himself.« This makes it clear how very important his individuality as an artist was to him.

Transposing the manifestation of God in nature into a new visual language assumes that the viewer can be as subjective as the artist during the process of interpretation. In this, Friedrich was very close to philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte, who, in his Wissenschaftslehre, written in 1794, took the view that the world outside of us is the product of our own imaginations. The self, therefore, determines things; it follows that perception would become a creative act for both the artist and the viewer alike.

With his altar painting Kreuz im Gebirge (1807/08) Friedrich made a radical break with the previously significant world of Christian ideas, triggering in turn a passionate debate. Even though the painting contains the impression of a natural context, Friedrich avoids the usual rules for portraying perspective and natural light: the viewer is outside of a definite standpoint, the visual space is suggested and infinite. It is removed from rational, practical experience and instead is opened up to the viewer´s creative fantasies.

Although Caspar David Friedrich, Philipp Otto Runge, and Karl Friedrich Schinkel felt that the traditional ideas of Christian beliefs belonged to the past, the Nazarenes wanted to connect to the Christian mythos, to renew its content and form for the present day. Friedrich Overbeck, Franz Pforr, and others protested in 1809 against the classicist artistic ideals of the Vienna Academy, by forming the Lukasbund, with the purpose of modernizing German art on the basis of religion. They saw their ideals embodied in the art of Raphael and Perugino, as well as Dürer and other old German masters. They lived in Rome, at the cloister of Sant'Isidoro, on the Picio. Their figurative paintings expressed the notion of an historically oriented utopia, with a preference for Biblical legends. During the late Romantic period Führich, Schwind, and Waldmüller intensified this tendency to evoke the idyllic.

Even though Romantic painting later fell into obscurity, it was rediscovered after the turn of the century. Neue Sachlichkeit pictures, especially the deserted landscapes and lonely figures by painters such as Alexander Kanoldt, Franz Radziwill, and Georg Schrimpf, refer to early Romantic visual motifs. Surrealists and lyrical abstract painters, such as Klee, Miró, and Masson, were described as Neo-Romantics, introducing events from the realms of the dream and the subconscious into art. Caspar David Friedrich´s conceptual approach to perception as a creative act led the way to abstract art and artists like René Magritte, Max Ernst, and Mark Rothko. And even though the National Socialists instrumentalized them to promote their ideology, Romantic impulses and ideas clearly exist to this day in post-1945 art by artists such as Beuys, Baselitz, Polke, and Richter.

01.04.2009 Monika Wolz

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