The mystical vision of the Romantics

Toward the end of his life, the great Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich made various sepia drawings that depicted seascapes captured under moonlight. One of them, included in «Ideas on Paper,» an exhibition on early 19th century German Romantic drawings which opened a few days ago at the National Gallery in Athens in collaboration with the Hamburger Kunsthalle and the Goethe Institute, is typical not only of the artist’s mystical vision but also of the ways that the painters of Romanticism viewed nature: as transcendental, infinite and as containing forces that reach beyond the realm of reason. It was a view which reflected the great value that Romanticism placed on the power of imagination, instinct and individual experience. This value is the subtext that weaves one’s way along the variations of Romanticism. In many ways this is also the connecting idea in the exhibition’s broad-ranging thematic structure. «Ideas on Paper» is an exhibition exclusively on drawings, a medium which because of its immediacy and half-finished quality fitted Romanticism’s high value on the power of imagination, individual expression and artistic creativity. The exhibition contains a total of 100 drawings (all from the collection of the Hamburg Art Museum), arranged across subject matter including portraiture, city views and views of interiors, architecture and nature, and mythology, as well as topics derived from religion, literature and the theater. It also represents the most important strands of German Romanticism and includes some of its most prominent artists: the allegoric landscapes of Kaspar David Friedrich and Philipp Otto Runge, the religious themes of the Nazarenes (among them Johann Friedrich Overbeck and Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld), the «realist» Adolph von Menzel, the symbolist paintings of Max Klinger and Otto Greiner, and the works of Anselm Feuerbach and Max Liebermann. Each of the works is contained in the supplementing catalog written jointly by the exhibition’s two curators. Andreas Stolzenburg, who is director of the engraving and drawing department of the Hamburg Museum of Art (Hamburger Kunsthalle), traces the development of the drawing collection of the museum; and Marilena Kasimati, curator of the engraving and drawing department of the National Gallery here in Athens, writes on the spirit of Romanticism and the influence of the Nazarene painters on mid-19th century Greek religious painting. The exhibition Romanticism should be better understood as an attitude rather than a particular stylistic trait, something which the exhibition’s diversity helps put across. Certain works, however, such as Philipp Otto Runge’s preparatory drawing for the «Morning,» have been passed down in history as typical of this Romantic mood. The work, one of the exhibition’s highlights, was one of Runge’s «The Times of the Day» series, an expression of the artist’s pantheistic vision in which he tried to express notions of the harmony of the universe. Also by Runge is a self-portrait. The inward-looking gaze of the artist and the emphasis placed on his hands express the romantic value on individual expression and the role of the artist. The value which Romanticism attributed to the freedom of individual expression also helped support political revolution. The Greek struggle for independence and the philhellenic sentiments it aroused are all aspects of the Romantic sentiment. Peter Von Hess’s drawing showing the arrival of King Otto in Greece in 1834 captures something of this sentiment. Another example is Joseph Thurmer’s watercolor of the Erechtheion. The depiction of three men dressed in traditional Greek costumes in front of the Erechtheion may point to how the country’s past is linked to its present. Another entirely different but equally strong aspect of Romanticism is captured by the Nazarenes, a group of German painters guided with the idealistic vision that art should serve a religious or moral purpose. The group, which in 1809 came together under an association called the Brotherhood of St Luke, sought to return to what they considered the lost spiritual sincerity of the Middle Ages. Overbeck and Pforr moved to Rome (where they occupied the disused monastery of St Isidoro) and were soon joined by Peter von Cornelius. By the 1820s the group broke up, but their influence spread and can be said to have prepared the ground for the English Pre-Raphaelites that followed some three decades later. The Nazarenes are represented in the exhibition through several drawings, most of them narrations of biblical themes and moral parables. Seen together with the rest of the exhibits, they help put across the multiple layers of what we have come to call 19th-century Romanticism. «Ideas on Paper» at the National Gallery (44 Vasileos Constantinou avenue, tel 210.723.5937) until November 11. Parallel events include: On October 31, a lecture by the director of the Hamburger Kunsthalle, Uwe Schneede, and on November 10, a concert by the Dresdner Klaviertrio chamber orchestra at the Goethe Institute in Athens.

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