Two Modes

As Busch-Reisinger

It has long been a tacit assumption of German scholarship that if something can be defined, it must therefore exist. The Herr Professors of the Teutonic school have never quite seen eye to eye with Shakespear's query, "What's in a name?" The name, time and again, is everything. The category is sacred, the appelation supreme.

At Busch-Reisinger this month there is an exhibition devoted to two such titles. One is romanticism the other its successor, naturalism. I hesitate to say romanticism and naturalism in German art, because there is a good deal more attitude than art here, more description than substance.

Under the romantic section, for instance, there are a number of works which represent two emotional points of view. One has to do with assasinations, armies on the march, death incarnate, the bloody and the macabre, the romanticism of doom, while the other is as violently antithetical. The other has to do with maidens in voluptuous idleness, nymphs playing about grassy banks, lush and very saccharine landscapes which exude idyllic reverie.


First of all, these two outlooks are made to be appalling immature. They seem all the more so when the exhibition's "naturalistic" section illuminates a paradox which unites these two emotional extremes. Suddenly all the shouting stops, all the drama ends and rigor mortis begins to set in. The least trickle of spontaneous life is suddenly replaced with the dimmest pedantry. The right word is not naturalistic but academic. Here is a depressing union of the accomplished hand and the earthbound eye.

One has only to return to the romantics, however, to realize that the same situation is as true here. At this point, the problem becomes plain. There is a cerebral process of craftsmanship going on and an emotional dream world. But the two never really merge. There is absolutely no emotional equilibrium, no spiritual harmony. All the controls are academically understood, but almost never felt. All the emotion, hopelessly sweet or uncompromisingly grim, is deeply felt, but utterly without proportion.


Ideally, the emotional and intellectual impulses ought to be fused, balanced, reconciled--not necessarily fifty-fifty--but spontaneously and intelligently. What happens to a painting which cannot balance these impulses is precisely what happens to a human being who cannot. The result is an unhealthy state of affairs.

Attached to the formal exhibition are a number of modern German paintings--officially Expressionistic--which are familiar objects about the museum. It pays to take a good look at them after seeing these other works.

It is no wonder that Heckel's two almost-poetic canvasses express less than they should, that their statement of color is raw, that their organization is dubious. The same equanimity is lacking. Only the idiom is changed. It is no surprise that Schlemmer's canvas lacks the aristocracy of truly resolved expression. One can even understand how Otto Muller's canvas of the gal who lost her Maiden-form, can get by, utterly lacking, as it is, in substance and the very minimum diginity a work of art ought to possess.

All of these more recent works have had the misfortune to follow that poverty of expression which this current exhibition reveals, and all of them are the product of temperaments akin to those of their predecessors.

As a question of art, the phenomenon is sad enough. The drabbest epitaph of all is that the show is generally an unrelieved bore. The psychological implications, however, are more unhappy still. This all helps a great deal to understand why an advanced people of intellectual attainment have been known to find themselves hysterically shrieking Sieg Heil! to an enraged psychotic with delusions of grandeur.