The dark side of Romanticism | Arts | DW | 11.10.2012
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The dark side of Romanticism

Is Romanticism a German phenomenon? No, say the curators of an exhibition in Frankfurt that examines the dark side of Romanticism in Europe, inspired by the horrors of war and death and still relevant today.

"Romanticism is not an art movement but an ethos overarching centuries," said Max Hollein, the director of the Städel Museum in Frankfurt. A new exhibition there, "Dark Romanticism," examines the "ethos" of Romanticism in the work of artists from Goya to Max Ernst.

Images of atrocities and the horrors of war by Spanish artist Goya belong just as much to Romanticism as works by the German icon of the genre, painter Casper David Friedrich. Romanticism has never been so radically formulated as it is in the Städel Museum's exhibition.

Over the last few decades, the term "Romanticism" has almost always been used in a positive context in Germany, explained Felix Krämer, who developed the exhibition's conceptual framework. "When we think of Romanticism, we think of a shared glass of wine at dusk and maybe even Casper David Friedrich."

Paul Hippolyte Delaroche's The Wife of the Artist Louise Vernet, on her Deathbed, 1845/46

A beautiful death: Paul Hippolyte Delaroche's 'The Wife of the Artist Louise Vernet, on her Deathbed' (1845/46)

Enlightenment and terror

Aside from the evening ambience by the sea, a setting sun or spring awakening in the countryside in soft pastel hues, what else belongs to the genre of Romanticism? In many European countries, many painters produced images after the French Revolution which also portrayed the horrors of the post-revolutionary years, Krämer said. They are also contemporaries of the Romanticists.

"They all realized that the Enlightenment had not produced an enlightened society, rather the opposite," Krämer explained. The French Revolution led to bloody terror in various countries. The artists dealt with their experiences and the trauma in their artworks.

Enlightenment and terror: They are two sides of the same coin. Art went in both directions in the visual arts, literature and, later, film. The "Dark Romanticism" exhibition impressively illustrates that split.

A European movement

The horrors of the time and the dark side of Romanticism were manifested in diverse ways: In Spain, Goya dramatically depicted the atrocities of slaughter in "The Horrors of War" in which humans become cannibals in the truest sense of the word.

English artists like John Martin and Samuel Colman, as well as Swiss painter Johann Heinrich Fuseli who lived in England, captured the very individual consequences for people. A small sinister gnome sits on a woman in one of Füssli's paintings. It is insanity, fixed in the image, taking possession of the human psyche.

And in France, artists like Théodor Géricualt and Eugène Delacroix portray the horrific aftermath of the political storm in their own country.

Arnold Böcklin's Villa by the Sea, 1871–1874

Bleak and lonely: Arnold Böcklin's 'Villa by the Sea' (1871–1874)

And in Germany? Caspar David Friedrich painted his masterful, landscape panoramas. But even those paintings had a very different effect on audiences at the time, Krämer said.

Upon seeing the painting "The Monk by the Sea," Heinrich von Kleist, a contemporary of Friedrich's, wasn't thinking about peace of mind or romantic ecstasy. It reminded him more of an apocalypse "in its uniformity and endlessness, as if one's eyelid were cut off." The very real sense of horror the paintings provoked at the time is difficult for contemporary audiences to fully comprehend, Krämer explained.

Delight and disgust

The line between beauty and horror was fine. "Aristotle already recognized in his poetry that something that disgusted in real life could delight in art." Felix Krämer stumbled across many surprising associations during his two-and-a-half years researching the dark side of Romanticism.

Romanticism was a movement spread across the entirety of Europe which showed not only the illustrious, the beautiful and that created by God.

The curators of the exhibition also propose the thesis that the term "Romanticism" does not apply to a particular epoch. Moreover, they say, it is an expression of a certain mentality which can also be found in the here and now, in modernity.

This can be seen in developments like Symbolism and Surrealism, which are not stylistic experiments, but grounded artistic directions, according to Krämer. These influences can also be found in literature and film.

Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau's Faust, 1926, film still

The dark side of Romanticism can also be found in film's such as Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau's 'Faust' (1926)

From dream sequences to Frankenstein

The exhibition documents that with clips from classics of cinema history. Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau's "Faust" is presented alongside Salvador Dali's dream sequences in Alfred Hitchcock's film "Spellbound."

Especially striking are the scenes from the classic Hollywood horror film "Frankstein" from 1930. The manmade monster with the oversized, square-shaped head played by Boris Karloff is borrowed from a painting by Goya from the year 1799.

And when the female protagonist helplessly sinks into the divan after being attacked by Frankenstein, her body language and gestures mimic that of a painting by Füssli from 1790 down to the last detail.

And what does that tell us today? The human psyche is multi-facetted and ambiguous. The unconscious is a constant companion for humans. "Freud is unthinkable without Romanticism!" Krämer exclaimed.

Those who studying Goya's paintings and watch the evening television news with images of suffering in the Arab world, whose origins were linked to a kind of enlightenment, will see just how entertwined enlightenment and terror are, even today.

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