Caspar David Friedrich, Die Kathedrale (Cathedral), ca. 1818, 60 x 27 3/4".

Caspar David Friedrich, Die Kathedrale (Cathedral), ca. 1818, 60 x 27 3/4".

“De l’Allemagne, 1800–1939”

Musée du Louvre

Caspar David Friedrich, Die Kathedrale (Cathedral), ca. 1818, 60 x 27 3/4".

IT HAS BEEN A LONG TIME since an exhibition has provoked the kind of intense debates that greeted the Musée du Louvre’s “De l’Allemagne, 1800–1939: German Thought and Painting, from Friedrich to Beckmann.” All the ambition of the enterprise was contained in its title, which asserted the show’s place within a prestigious intellectual genealogy. In 1813, Madame de Staël published her book De l’Allemagne, a fervent defense of the German thought of her time. She saw in German idealism and Romanticism the very blooming of modernity, the advent of a liberal Christian Europe that would look to the Middle Ages, not the classical norm of the Enlightenment, for its inspiration. Twenty years later, in a book also titled De l’Allemagne, poet Heinrich Heine attacked these views with his customary mordant irony. For him, this pseudo-spiritual revolution was, in reality, a reactionary move, a political counterrevolution. The implication of the title’s double allusion, then, was that curators Sébastien Allard and Danièle Cohn would take on the historicity of this debate, in all its conflicting interpretations. But nothing of the sort transpired. On the contrary—and this was the source of the debates—the show inflicted upon the visitor an essentialist vision of German art and culture that we might have believed to be a thing of the past by now. The uncanny persistence of this vision—and its appearance at France’s most venerable cultural institution—is a remarkable phenomenon with which historians must reckon.

Indeed, if one part of the title fostered false hopes for nuanced historical analysis, another element of it—the chronological markers themselves—hinted at this essentialism. Eighteen hundred to 1939: What coherence is there in these boundaries? What logic connects these dates? The answer is: the implacable logic of destiny. Within this teleology, artworks must be treated as monophonic documents attesting to German painters’ efforts to constitute their national identity. And these efforts must be seen as having helped set the conditions that led to two world wars. That it focused entirely on certain limited though important aspects of its subject was, to be sure, one of the exhibition’s major problems. In their catalogue text, Allard and Cohn sketchily elucidate German thought from Winckelmann to Benjamin, proposing a kind of quasi-organic evolution of concepts, and detaching these concepts from their own contexts as well as from the historiographic debates to which they have given rise for a half century. So, for example, Schiller’s notions of the naive and sentimental transform seamlessly into Nietzsche’s theory of the Apollonian and Dionysian.

The exhibition was presented as “a play in three acts”—a dramatic and spectacular conceit nicely in keeping with the narrative it framed. “Apollo-Dionysus,” the first of the sections, or “acts,” underscored the uses of history by nineteenth-century artists torn between two nostalgias: one for the medieval era, the other for classical Greece. The next section, “The Hypothesis of Nature,” explored different aspects of landscape painting. Finally, “Ecce Homo” presented a few twentieth-century artists preoccupied with their German identity and with the legacy of World War I. Although the very first painting that visitors encountered was a portrait of Goethe (by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein), the show in fact contradicted the Goethean attachment to concrete form as a bulwark against the reductive influence of the Idea. One had to be a pure aesthete to be contented with the simple pleasure of the works that followed, however magnificent, for their installation put them at the service of a discourse that plunged many visitors into a deep malaise.

The onset of symptoms could be felt upon entrance to the “Apollo-Dionysus” section. Opening this act was a group of paintings by the Nazarenes, that brotherhood of mostly Catholic artists who, between 1809 and 1829, advocated a “patriotic and religious” art, here labeled “Political Primitivism.” In another gallery, a wall of Romantic cathedrals (by Caspar David Friedrich, Johann Anton Ramboux, etc.) went head-to-head with a wall of Greek temples (by Friedrich, Leo von Klenze, etc.), all brought together under the title “The Cathedral, Between Reverie and Political Utopia.” The retroactive use of the conceptual dyad elaborated by Nietzsche was shown to be inadequate: Was one to understand Friedrich’s Greek temples as “Apollonian” and his cathedrals as “Dionysian,” or perhaps the other way around? Allard and Cohn’s text worsened matters by asserting that the Nazarenes laid claim to the “noble simplicity and tranquil grandeur” (using Winckelmann’s phrase) that “for fifty years . . . structured German thought.” This is a remarkable oversimplification of the tensions that animated German culture in the first half of the nineteenth century and of the temporal heterogeneity at work in these pieces (historicism, primitivism, etc.) The section ended with two galleries evoking a fin-de-siècle divided between “elegy” (e.g., Hans von Marées, soberly registering the irretrievability of the past) and the explosive vitality of Arnold Böcklin. Max Liebermann’s cosmopolitanism or the Orientalism of Hans Makart could obviously not enter into these rigid frameworks—and were therefore excluded.

The second “act,” “The Hypothesis of Nature,” proposed a reading of landscape painting as offering “two pathways into the constitution of a German identity”: the scientific study of natural forms (Goethe, Carl Gustav Carus) on one hand and the mystical approach of Friedrich and Philipp Otto Runge on the other. Again, the proposed dichotomy was highly debatable. How, for example, might one separate the scientist from the theosophical mystic in Carus? Still, the works of Paul Klee were productively compared with Goethe’s naturalist studies, and visitors were granted the opportunity to contemplate a vast ensemble of landscapes by Friedrich, rarely exhibited together. But just as viewers perhaps began to feel appeased by this serial neutrality, they were thrown into the “neo-Romanticism” of the 1920s and ’30s. Invented for the occasion, this category associated apocalyptic landscapes by Otto Dix, George Grosz, and Franz Radziwill with Klee’s Looking over the Plain, 1932, a work that is in fact a perfect stranger to this theme.

This apocalyptic neo-Romanticism was intended to lead visitors to the “apocalypses” of the final “act,” “Ecce Homo.” Here works by Max Beckmann, Dix, Grosz, Käthe Kollwitz, and others were meant to testify that the “strength” of interwar German art “lies in this exposure, this unique demonstration of the human at the heart of barbarity.” Why this formulation when thousands of others were possible? The effect was to exclude almost every work that could have attested to any opening of Germany to the surrounding world: no acknowledgment of Dada or of the Bauhaus, no trace of the representatives of international Constructivism or Surrealism. All that was retained was a kind of “talking painting” that could—if one forced the interpretation a bit—literally narrate “the human at the heart of barbarity.”

Bafflingly, Allard and Cohn assert that World War I had sounded “the knell of Greek gods” and necessitated “leaving the domain of myth”: How can this be reconciled with the massive use of myth by Beckmann or with Oskar Schlemmer’s return to Apollonian Greece, for example? It was of course precisely during the interwar period that the polarity of the Dionysian and the Apollonian proved particularly active in art produced in Germany, as Nietzsche’s thought—or rather a corruption of it, a Nietzschean vulgate—came to dominate every discourse. But since it was less iconography than formal principles and the organization of pictorial space that attested to this polarity during the ’20s and ’30s, the Louvre exhibition chose to simply ignore those other works that had actually constituted the most “modern” part of modernity in Germany, the part that detached art from any obsessive preoccupation with national identity.

Was Germany, even before its political birth, devoted to Nazism? This was the question that silently nagged the visitor, even though—despite the show’s titular conclusion in 1939, six years after Hitler’s rise to power—only one work explicitly affiliated with National Socialism was included: Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia (1936). A single scene from the documentary, facing an excerpt from the superb 1930 film Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday) by Robert and Curt Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer, Billy Wilder, and Fred Zinnemann, was projected in the gallery. But the Olympia scene only showed statues! Constantly suggested but materially absent, Nazism haunted the final “act” of the German drama like a ghost.

The real logic of the exhibition was in its circular spatial organization: The entrance coincided with the exit. It was something like penetrating a windowless monad: Germany, 1800–2013. Filling the huge rotunda was Anselm Kiefer’s monumental work De l’Allemagne, 2013, commissioned for the occasion. As always, Kiefer has drawn his themes from German history: Dürer, Valhalla, the great men of the nation, all bound together by the Rhine, the river that divides Germany from France. But der Rhein also divides Kiefer himself, the scholarly painter who, after Heidegger, plays with orthography (as Die Zeit’s Thomas Assheuer has noted), inscribing the phrase der Rein on one panel. The word without the h means pure. Kiefer may, in the catalogue, invoke the need to work on a “past that is never past,” but such melancholic citations remained complacent, devoid of genuine critical distance. The show thus merges his ego and his biography with the history of his country. In this sense, his work perfectly justified the place it occupied. Leaving the last gallery to once again face Kiefer’s monumental installation was like entering James Joyce’s nightmare of history. This circular structure disguised a quality that (as some catalogue texts noted) defined the Germanophone space for two centuries: the absence of a geographical, political, or cultural center. What was instead embodied was a vision of a homogeneous Germany centered on itself, which never existed except in the worst fantasies of an era.

Eric Michaud is Directeur d’Études at the École Des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris. Maria Stavrinaki is an associate professor in the history of contemporary art at Université Paris 1–Panthéon-Sorbonne.

Translated from French by Molly Stevens.