- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 9, 2001

French artists such as Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and Paul Cezanne dominated 19th-century art for so long that Germans always lagged. A long-awaited survey of German art of this period that highlights both Prussian King Frederick the Greats power and Germanys birth as a unified nation in 1871 casts new light on this competition and on just what German art is.

"Spirit of an Age: Nineteenth-Century Paintings From the Nationalgalerie, Berlin" opens at the National Gallery of Art with the beautiful landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich, progresses through the romantic-historic and industrialized scenes of Adolph Menzel and concludes with the violent expressionism of Lovis Corinth. It presents 75 works by 35 artists.

Friedrich, who lived in Dresden, set the stage for much of the romanticism that runs through the show. The remarkable paintings of Friedrich and Karl Friedrich Schinkel in the first gallery are worth the trip to the show.

Napoleon Bonapartes occupation of Germany from 1806 to 1815 inspired highly personal and patriotic painting. Schinkel delved into Germanys history with idyllic medieval scenes, and Friedrich introduced pantheistic visions of landscapes. Friedrich hiked all over Germany to observe nature in its different manifestations. He never set out just to record the details of nature but sought to represent God in nature. He wanted to show viewers how to experience nature in a spiritual way. His landscapes are imaginary rather than actual.

One of the most beautiful is the luminous "The Riesengebirge," painted after drawings made on walks through the region. The hills and mountains move in gently rounded crests much like the waves of a peaceful ocean. The sun just begins to light the sky. Certain critics describe the movement from mountains to sky as redemptive. Friedrich merged figures with nature in the poetic "Moonrise Over the Sea." He sat three women on a large boulder and silhouetted them against a rose-whitish sky.

This kind of outlining could become mysterious, even threatening. "Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon" is the quintessential Halloween spook scene. The roots and branches of the black tree reach out for the couple.

The moon had magical powers for Friedrich and other romantic landscapists. They believed they could reach God and eternity through it. Perhaps the man and woman, probably a picture of himself with his young wife, Caroline, did also.
Enormous oak trees figure prominently in stories of Germanys ancient heroes, as with Johann Wolfgang von Goethes "Werther." Friedrich made them a symbol of Germanys then-present, and potential, strength. The nationalism that resulted in Germanys unification in 1871 began with paintings such as these.
Friedrichs influence is still potent with younger German artists such as Wolfgang Laib, whose work was shown locally last year at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Mr. Laib is a conceptual sculptor who works metaphorically. His materials and inspiration come directly from nature, and he walks the same mountains as Friedrich.
Romanticism traditionally inspired Germanys most important art and thought. Goethe wrote about the mysticism and poetry of nature in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Richard Wagner gave German romanticism its fullest musical and theatrical expression in the 1800s.
Throughout art history, romanticism and classicism usually emerge in reaction to each other. This was most obvious in 19th-century France, where the boldly romantic Eugene Delacroix revolted against the coldness of the neoclassicist Jacques Louis David.
The seesaw characterizes the same century in Germany. Germany may even have had more changes, as there was no one major art center and artists worked all over the country. The French, of course, had Paris.
"If you look carefully at French art, youll see as many different art styles as in Germany," says Philip Conisbee, exhibit curator and National Gallery senior curator of European paintings.
Although a kind of romanticism came afterward with the idealistic, religious painting of artists called the Nazarenes, "Biedermeier realism" was the style in Germany from the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 to the revolutions of 1848.
The Nazarenes could be described as one of those quirky asides in the path of German art. In 1809 a group of German art students active in Rome founded the Brotherhood of St. Luke. They wanted to infuse painting with the spirituality and pure form of early Renaissance Italy. They got their names because they sometimes wore costumes evoking Nazareth of biblical times.
The Biedermeier period exuded peace and prosperity. Emphasis was on painting done simply and realistically. Painters such as Johann Erdmann Hummel glorified the streets of the rapidly expanding Berlin. He also recorded such technological feats as the making of a giant granite bowl for the Lustgarten.
Portraits of the newly optimistic bourgeoisie were also in vogue. One of the most memorable is Ferdinand Georg Waldmullers "The Mother of Captain von Stierle-Holzmeister." The artist was instructed to "Paint her exactly as she is," according to the shows catalog.
She is one of the most appealing images in the show with her corkscrew curls, satin-tied bonnet, plump face, lace trimmings and striped Empire silk dress.
The National Gallery of Art mounted a major exhibition of Menzels work in 1996. Menzel is both the most famous and complex of this eras artists. He painted in many styles during his more than seven decades of work. Critics call him both a progressive realist and early impressionist. He, too, painted the wonders of Berlin.
He is still a romantic in his brilliant and painterly "Flute Concert of Frederick the Great at Sanssouci," a tribute to Fredericks arts patronage. Frederick expanded both the Prussian empire and its arts.
The work shows a musical soiree with a soloist playing the flute and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach at the harpsichord. The painting is a charming rendition of this high point in Germanys past.
He also showed the advent of the Industrial Revolution in Germany with the dramatically lighted "The Iron-Rolling Mill." In a dynamically curved scene, Menzel offers images of sweating workers and their tongs.
Another side of the always-versatile Menzel is his small, informal oil studies of Berlin landscapes and middle-class homes. The sensitivity of brush stroke and light in "The Balcony Room" clearly anticipate impressionism as early as 1845.
The story of the Nationalgalerie in Berlin is just as fascinating as the art it houses. It was founded in 1861 for the Prussian national collection of modern art.
In 1933 the National Socialists closed down its modern section. "No museum collection was so affected by the Nazi iconoclastic onslaught on so-called degenerate art as the modern section of the Berlin Nationalgalerie. Almost its entire stock was seized in 1937 and alienated," writes Peter-Klaus Schuster in the catalog.
The collection was divided into different galleries in East and West Berlin and reunited under the state museums of Berlin in 1992. It is closed for renovations under the larger reorganization of all of Berlins museums. In December, it will reopen in its original splendor.
The National Gallery of Art in Washington organized the exhibition in conjunction with the National Gallery in London and the Nationalgalerie, Berlin.

WHAT: "Spirit of an Age: Nineteenth-Century Paintings From the Nationalgalerie, Berlin"
WHERE: East Building of the National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street at Constitution Avenue NW
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday, tomorrow through Sept. 3
PHONE: 202/737-4215
SPONSOR: Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Foundation

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