“The Romantic Spirit in German Art 1790–1990”

Hayward Gallery

Though assembled under the sign of Romanticism, “The Romantic Spirit in German Art: 1790–1990,” was not exclusively, or even principally, about the Romantic period in German art and its legacy; it was really about the recent reunification of Germany. Here Romanticism has been transformed into a Masonic cult, a kind of Virtual Romanticism—more an agent of German simplification than unification. This is not to deny that Romanticism figured as a source of expression for artists far afield of the period from the late 18th to the early 19th century, but such an argument is anything but self-evident from the works on view; so you had better buy the catalogue and study it. Those who selected work for this show (Professor William Vaughan, Dr. Keith Hertley, Dr. Peter-Klaus Schuster, and Henry Meyric Hughes) do mention the political context of Romanticism, that is, how some artistic currents took shape alongside the German longing for unification and national identity during the Napoleonic occupation in the early 19th century. Finally, though, there are so many different Romanticisms—Der Blaue Reiter, Neue Sachlichkeit, Max Ernst, Paul Klee, and National Socialist realism—to wade through that its disorienting. By the time you reach 1945, more than the spirit of Romanticism is on the wane.

Given this, you might as well take note of how reunification is implicitly presented from the point of view of West Germany. Scandalously, the East German problem gets curt treatment. Apparently, the Easties included were masters of working “outside” the system, which is to say, they were imaginatively working in the West. Pretty soon, German school children won’t even know there was such a thing as the German Democratic Republic. Perhaps Communism will return again some time in the future as an acceptable artistic theme—yet another encoded Romanticism.

Joseph Beuys, of course, is the great hero in all of this, and we would not want to ridicule him. The anodyne account of his reappraisal of the Romantic is scant improvement over what we have come to expect from previous historical amnesia mills. In his case, however, the dramatically effective but historically bankrupt symmetry of the exhibition is particularly at risk. Recent German cinema is a much more fertile ground from which to develop an explanation for Beuys’ obsession with the pagan origins of German culture, giving as it does a more accurate account of the experience of the postwar occupation and the far from sympathetic response of the ordinary German to the ubiquitous presence of multiracial U.S. troops, culture, and the de-Nazification campaign led by the intelligence community. “I can connect,” wrote Beuys, “only by going back as far as possible, radically.” What he should have said was “disconnect,” and confess from what exactly, since it seems to me that his fascination with myth, fantasy, intuition, and irrationality are more comprehensible when set against the real need to deny power to the “sordid boon” of U.S. culture and its effort to obliterate everything German. What then to make of Beuys’ vaunted individualism?

Finally, we have Gerhard Richter’s Woman Reading, 1994, which pictures another kind of engagement and escape. Despite the justifiable complaint that none of Richter’s landscapes were included, there could not have been a more astute foil to Friedrich. Self-engaged and self-satisfied, the gaze of Richter’s model is not directed toward a landscape but at a magazine, which just as effectively tells the tale of disenchantment. To have positioned Richter at the end of the road would have been a less pious, more clever, and courageous move than that of making Beuys’ mock landscape The End of the Twentieth Century, 1983–85, the climactic experience of the exhibition. Concluding the show with Richter’s work would really have been a reckless abandonment of the decorous echoes that accompanied every “spirit” on display like a tedious chaperone. Fantasies notwithstanding, this exhibition was an example of post-Modern curating at its (Chinese-Cultural-Revolutionary) best.

Michael Corris