Zeitgeist: Art in the Germanic World


The Getty complex overlooking the Sepulveda Pass houses several discrete institutions under one roof. Two of them, the Museum and the Research Institute, regularly feature exhibitions. Not so regularly, the exhibitions in different parts of the Museum align with one another and with that on view at the Research Institute. We have such an alignment at present–one that describes the changing face of Europe in the 19th century, through images of people, places, and events.

To this day, we think of 19th century Germany and Austria – the latter a sprawling empire, the former an equally sprawling network of semi-independent states that ultimately congealed – as the heart of Romantic music and philosophy. Even after decades of superb scholarship and exhibitions, German visual art of that era remains entirely in the shadow of its much more expansive and experimental French counterpart. Such obscurity does not befit Caspar David Friedrich, one of the great picture-makers of all time. But it doesn’t befit Friedrich’s German-speaking contemporaries, either. By the end of the century, for instance, the Austrians, at least, were outdoing the French at their own avant-garde game. “Zeitgeist: Art in the Germanic World” puts forth this argument for a reconsideration of 19th century Germanic art, sparingly but convincingly, in two relatively small, compact rooms, bedecked with some 20-odd artworks, most of them drawings.

What drawings they are! The most breathtaking are Friedrich’s own, including a couple of vegetation studies whose brittle exactitude – best studied with a magnifying glass – brings their subjects to life rather than describing them to death; in his taciturn verism Friedrich brought atmosphere to everything he portrayed. Hardly less thrilling, however, are the large studies for the Times of Day painting cycle by Philipp Otto Runge. The cycle itself was an ambitious undertaking for a young artist (who stayed young forever by dying at age 33); but so were the drawings, so elaborate and yet so lucid they explain themselves at a glance. Precise and anatomically correct as Friedrich and Runge were, their stunning accomplishments could hardly be called academic; and, as in France, German art history of the period was written by those who strayed from the academy. For instance, a circle of mostly Austrian artists contemporary with Friedrich and Runge, the Nazarenes, defied the Vienna academy by living and working (communally) in Rome and romanticizing pagan myth and Christian iconography alike. Toward mid-century, the elegant bravado of Germanic Romanticism gave way to a more placid, charming, intimate expression, a comfortable and comforting approach to bourgeois life and traditional artistic themes we now know as Biedermeier. “Zeitgeist” makes the most of this modest period by presenting some of its less saccharine landscapes and figures; but the show can’t wait to get you to its fin de siècle apotheosis, the explosion of hallucinatory modernist eros personified here by Gustav Klimt (who could draw a woman’s back as if playing an instrument) – and, curiously, by the Czech František Kupka, whose early, intense figure study (done before his move to Paris) betrays the influence of Klimt while foretelling his own abstract experiments with color.


Ludwig Richter (German, 1803-1884). Spring Has Arrived, 1870. Watercolor, graphite, gouache and touches of red chalk. 20.4 x 16.7 cm (8 1/16 x 6 9/16 in.). 2009.31. Courtesy The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.



About Post Author