From Drawing (Winter 1998-99):

Fuseli to Menzel: Drawings and Watercolors of the Age of Goethe, catalogue by Hinrich Sieveking

Reviewed by Michael Miller

During Goethe’s lifetime (1749-1832) German philosophy, literature, and music attained extraordinary levels and left behind a body of classics by which German civilization has been characterized both in Germany and in the world at large. It is generally appropriate to define this period in art, above all in draftsmanship, with Goethe’s name, not least because he was directly involved both as a critic and as a practitioner. Moreover, like Goethe, the artists of this time were engaged in many of the issues which animated thought and expression in all fields.

By the late nineteenth century the art of Goethe’s time was widely rejected or forgotten in Germany and awaited rediscovery. The watershed exhibition held in Berlin in 1906 initiated a series of publications and exhibitions that lasted about a quarter century. This coincided with a period of commercial activity, when the financial upheaval of the twenties put several old collections on the market.

American museums and collectors, who were then buying in Germany, confined themselves to medieval decorative arts or the painting and graphic arts around Schongauer, Dürer, and Cranach. In spite of a light flurry of acquisitions in the past few decades and a conspicuous enthusiasm for Friedrich, few American collections feature the art of this period at all, and none comprehensively, although the National Gallery has been actively collecting German drawings of late, and Cleveland and Milwaukee have some holdings. Public understanding is likewise scant. American audiences have been exposed to it primarily through a few travelling exhibitions of German collections, most notably The Romantic Spirit, the impressive exhibition of German drawings from museum collections in Berlin and Dresden shown ten years ago at the Morgan Library.

The Busch Reisinger has now organized an exhibition from a private collection in Munich, assembled over a fifty-year period by Alfred Winterstein and subsequently after his death by his son Wilhelm. Long renowned for its quality and scope, the Winterstein collection has been shown publicly only twice before: first in a 1958 exhibition of 182 sheets which was shown in Munich and several other German cities, Deutsche Zeichenkunst der Goethezeit. Handzeichnungen und Aquarelle aus der Sammlung Winterstein (cat. by Peter Halm), and second in a 1969 exhibition of 197 drawings shown in Lübeck for the hundredth anniversary of Overbeck’s death, Deutsche Zeichnungen 1800-1850 aus der Sammlung Winterstein (cat. by Peter Wignau-Wilberg). If the current exhibition of 80 drawings was less comprehensive, it makes up for this in its focus, which makes it more accessible to new audiences, and in the usefulness of its catalogue by Hinrich Sieveking.

The exhibited drawings were mostly superb in quality, and many left a lingering impression in the mind, attracting the viewer back for repeated visits. Also, most of the sheets are related to major projects of the artists, or are the product of crucial phases of their careers. Several of the drawings are quite famous in Germany and have been discussed extensively in print. Thus, if the Winterstein drawings appear more intimate in scale and spirit than those of the Berlin and Dresden collections, they are no less representative as examples of the artists’ work. In addition, they bear the rare mark of the Wintersteins’ dedicated sensibility. Finally, Sieveking’s enthusiasm and thoroughness are no less remarkable and make the catalogue an invaluable starting point for further studies in the field.

These drawings remind us of Goethe's preeminence in his own time. Alfred Winterstein was fascinated with Goethe and his writings as well as with the music and literature of the period, and that was the motive for his decision to build a collection of drawings in that particular area – because, as Sieveking says in his introduction, "he felt [in them] the pulse of that exciting time." The Winterstein collection stands out as the only major collection of drawings of the Goethezeit which was systematically formed with a twentieth century critical perspective on the period. Beyond this concentration on Goethe, the collection and this exhibition were marked by Winterstein’s predilection for landscape, Italy, and the artists of his home city, Munich. Of the eighty drawings in the exhibition, thirty-one were executed in Italy and fifteen in Bavaria.

Drawing was central to the art of Goethe’s time in extraordinary ways which set it apart from other periods. In late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Germany the dual functions of drawing as a medium of thought and a medium of communication bound it closely to a complex artistic process which set it to many diverse tasks. For Goethe, drawing was a heuristic method for scientific speculation or a poetic reponse to sensory experience. For the Nazarene it was an expression of spiritual friendship and artistic solidarity. For Friedrich and others it was a vehicle for showing work in an intimate form to select, sympathetic eyes, when a publicly displayed painting might elicit sharp criticism in the press and public controversy. Drawing is also the classic medium of caricature and satire. Neoclassicism, Sturm und Drang, romanticism, and realism all found an ideal vehicle in landscape drawings and watercolors. The Berlin artists Chodowiecki and Menzel found in drawing a means to express the photographic acuity of their vision. In these many diverse functions and others, the art of drawing in Goethe’s time went far beyond academic preparatory uses or the needs of the market. It belonged not only to the artist’s workshop or the dealer’s gallery, but to the worlds of science, travel, poetry, folklore, music, philosophy, history, and reportage.

Because of these rich associations it is entirely appropriate that Sieveking structured his entries in a way unusual for exhibitions of drawings. He generally begins with the broader cultural context of a work and proceeds to its specific relation or function, its significance in the artist’s career. He usually deals with questions of materials and technique at the end. The reader is drawn immediately into the general issues associated with each sheet and learns of the variety of the works, as well as of the ambitiousness of the artists. Many of the drawings lend themselves to interpretation on more than one level, and Sieveking industriously pursues these tracks to the limit. The complex stylistic and iconographic associations of Overbeck’s 1814 Madonna (cat. no. 30) are essential to its basic comprehension as something more than a nostalgic hommage to a motif from the Italian Renaissance. On the other hand, the visitor may be surprised by the symbolic cargo of Goethe’s landscape from the environs of Karlsbad, (cat. no. 6), which seems on the surface to be a banal view of a popular touristic destination, or to read that in Koch’s View of the Jungfrau (cat. no. 2) the "sketchy sepia pen strokes [which] fill the entire, pictorially executed drawing with a vibrant energy [...] embody the unifying primeval force of nature." Here a common pen technique with artistic roots extending back to Dürer and north Italian landscapists acquires an abstract spirit and meaning in Koch’s hand.

The catalogue presents the drawings in a regional and chronological sweep. The exhibition begins with Swiss landscapes reflecting the scientific and political interests which led artists to discover the rugged recesses of the Alps, as well as neoclassical fantasies of Italian inspiration. Both regions are linked closely to Goethe, who is represented by one scientific and one symbolic landscape. The eighteenth century drawings also represent the controversial American social reformer and scientist Count Rumford in Bavaria, Fuseli’s fevered imaginings in Rome, portraiture and social observation, as well as the Napoleonic Wars. Sieveking then focuses on the important romantics in Hamburg and Dresden, Runge and Friedrich, with a series of eight major works. [see ill. of Runge’s plant study] Then begins the largest section by far, the artists who worked in Rome, in particular the Brotherhood of St. Luke, or Nazarenes. The selection is tight but comprehensive, although Führich’s absence is surprising. Especially rare and instructive is Pforr’s Homecoming (no. 31) which was executed as part of a group exercise by the Brotherhood shortly after their founding in Vienna, before their departure for Rome. After two sheets by Ludwig Emil Grimm, the brother of the famous philologists and folklorists, the exhibition concentrates on the art of Munich, with the prolific narrative artist Moritz von Schwind, and the landscapists Johan Georg von Dillis, Wilhelm von Kobell, and Carl Rottmann, as well as the architect Leo von Klenze. Stieler’s famous portrait head of Ludwig I stands over this group like an icon for the flourishing of the arts he supported. The show concludes with the generation of Dresden romantics who followed Friedrich and a selection of Prussian artists, including Menzel, as well as a rare and impressive view of the crumbling Marienburg in Danzig by the short-lived architect, Friedrich Gilly.

The question of attribution arises in only one significant instance. The authorship of the extraordinary head of a boy attributed to Cornelius (no. 33) by Heise in 1926, has recently been questioned. Several other major Nazarene artists have been proposed. Among them Sieveking plausibly favors Horny. This is a classic example of the problems of connoisseurship presented by the Nazarenes and the numerous artists associated with them. Bound by friendship and common ideals, they worked as a group to suppress individual style in favor of a uniformity founded on the medieval workshop, thereby creating a critical nightmare for future generations.

Sieveking’s observations on technique are especially acute. They are never mechanical observations of obvious technical facts, but refined appreciations of the personal, even idiosyncratic way in which the artists used their materials. His discussions of the watercolor techniques of Fohr and Dillis, and his comments on various artists’ creative use of graphite are especially fine.

It is unusual to see exhibitions in which the method behind the selection and research is so profoundly supported by the material itself. Since Sieveking has worked with the Winterstein collection for many years, his understanding of each work’s context has grown out of the thought processes by which the Wintersteins slowly built the collection from 1925 to the present day. Our perception of German art tends to be based on familiarity of a few fragmentary movements which have become widely known and collected abroad. Sieveking not only delves into the artists’ assimilation of their predecessors, but he repeatedly highlights aspects of their work which prefigure German art of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, for example Liebermann, Kollwitz, Ernst and Kiefer. In this way this splendid exhibition reminds us of the continuity of tradition in German art, as well as the freshness and vitality of the artists of the Goethezeit today.

Fuseli to Menzel: Drawings and Watercolors of the Age of Goethe, was shown at the Busch Reisinger Museum at Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts from April 4 to June 6, 1998, and also at the Frick Collection in New York (June 23-August 30, 1998), and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu (September 15-November 29, 1998). An illustrated catalogue by Hinrich Sieveking is available, Prestel Verlag, Munich and New York, 1998. Biographies of the artists are included.