A luscious but flawed exhibition bridging the Northern and Mediterranean streams of the Romantics at the Albertina

Ninety years before the Secessionists, a first group of young men made an attempt to burst the confines of Viennese academic art and strike out on their own. In 1809, inspired by German Romantic philosophers, they rejected the neoclassical emphasis of the day for an art more Christian in form and feeling. They called themselves the Lukasbund, the Brotherhood of St Luke; after their removal to an abandoned monastery in Rome, they were known, often scornfully, as the Nazarenes. They were joined by other artists, mostly young Germans, and gradually their nostalgia for medieval and Renaissance ideals melded with a yearning quite new, the yearning for German nationalism.

Its an interesting story and, given a fuller social and political context, a great deal might have been made of it. Instead, in the current show Welten der Romantik, (Worlds of the Romantic) at the Albertina, the decision was made to present the work of these Catholic Romantics supposedly in specific contrast to that of their Northern Protestant contemporaries. The result is oddly incoherent. The Northerners found spirituality in nature, we are told, and there are certainly many beautiful examples of this; but there are landscapes by Catholics here, too, some of them arguably very ‘spiritual’. Joseph von Fürich’s Stations of the Cross cartoons clearly belong to one side of the divide, but how is a room of portraits to be considered specifically Catholic, in terms of Romantic art? What about Runge’s charming proto-Matisse cut-outs, or Ferdinand Olivier’s lithographs of local scenes around Salzburg?

It’s as if all the works to hand had somehow to be presented, and some kind of theme found to be set on top of them.

A conspicuous absence

Caspar David Friedrich is the prime exemplar here of the Northerners, and the selection of his works is generous. They include lesser known woodcuts and drawings, among them a beautiful set of six small sepias from a private collection. The oil paintings, large and small, glow with Friedrich’s gorgeous violet-yellow light, and yet evoke the feeling of loneliness that is so marked a feature of this artist’s work. They are all riveting, from the almost surrealistic Stages of Life (ca. 1835) to the bleak little Cemetery in the Snow (1826), and the extraordinary, unmissable Seashore in Fog of 1807.

Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid
Goya’s Colossus (Photo: Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid)

There are also three Goyas, all together at the exhibition’s entrance: two strong aquatint etchings and the thundering Colossus, in dark oils, a work inspired – or rather unleashed – by the artist’s experience of Napoleon’s war in the Iberian peninsula. It’s a privilege to encounter anything produced by this great artist. But these three works are quite out of place here. Far from Northern Protestantism, Goya is equally far from the historicism and derivative religiosity that form so much of the Lukasbund work. A more appropriate artist to include, among the Northern Protestants, would surely have been J.M.W. Turner; disappointingly, among ten rooms of holdings from Vienna itself and loans from various public and private collections in Germany and Madrid and St Petersburg, we find not a single one of Turner’s works. He is sorely missed. Would it not have been possible to borrow even a handful of sketches or watercolors for this exhibition?

Because it must be said that though there are some lovely things, on the whole, the Lukasbund and Nazarene works are pedestrian (and not helped by numerous infelicitous translations into English): mediocre figures, sentimental scenes, quasi-Renaissance religious paintings, medievalist fantasies looking like scenes from The Lord of the Rings. Look instead for Schadow’s engaging charcoal and chalk portrait of himself at the age of just 17; Leonhardshoff’s elegant 1809 self-portrait and his Self-Portrait With Puffed-Out Cheeks of 1815; or the two lovely leaf drawings by Carolsfeld and Olivier.

And then look longer at the Caspar David Friedrichs, and bewail the missing Turners.

 

Welten der Romantik, (Worlds of the Romantic)
Through Feb 21, Albertina
Daily 10:00 to 18:00
Wednesdays to 21:00
1., Albertinaplatz 1

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Veronica Buckley’s latest books are the beautifully illustrated New Insights into the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna (Brandstaetter 2016), and Twilight of the Romanovs: A photographic journey across imperial Russia (Thames & Hudson, 2013), both with Philipp Blom. Veronica has also published two historical biographies and has translated dramatic and documentary works for stage, film and radio.