II. The End of the Modern Era
1. A Historical Overview
History is a continuum. Even such radical upheavals as the French Revolution or the First World War do not represent breaks in historical development; the transitions from one era to the next are fluid. So, too, the art of Modernism did not arise suddenly from a void; it was in emergence long before the first exhibition of the Impressionists. To locate Modernism within its greater context and view it in the light of its intellectual foundations, I shall begin by sketching the social and political conditions and the development of art in the period which preceded Modernism, which we shall here call the Modern era (die Neuzeit: roughly, from the late fourteenth to the mid-nineteenth century). The features of Modernism are all the better discerned against this contrasting background.
The outbreak of the Black Plague, the claim to secular power posed by the
Renaissance popes, and the increasing dissemination of humanist thought plunged
medieval Christendom and the Roman Catholic Church into a deep crisis, leading
to the radical intellectual upheavals of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries
that culminated in the Protestant Reformation. Early in the sixteenth century
this movement shattered the unity of the occidental religious community, and
introduced the Modern era.
The Modern era was characterized by an increasing individualization of consciousness, which took on different forms in northern and southern Europe. Whereas an internalization of faith and Christian moral dictates, i.e.
a turn towards the idealized pole of the collective self, was consummated in the Protestant north, the cultural development of Italy was under the spell of the exhibitionist pole of the self. The Italian Renaissance was marked by an acute receptivity for facts and processes, an object-oriented understanding of the world, and a view of life centered upon humankind exploring, grasping and ordering the world. The world became an object, mastering it became the meaning of human existence.
The effects of this attitude of mind were to fundamentally transform Europe. The gradually growing understanding of the nature of things found expression in an ever increasing number of inventions. The most momentous of these were the printed book, which reshaped schooling, popular education, public opinion, and political institutions; the seaworthy ship, sailing the oceans with the help of the compass and reaching all parts and territories of the world; and, finally, modern firearms. These conferred upon the European conquerors a military superiority that allowed them to subjugate foreign peoples and wide expanses of the earth.1
These developments found their artistic parallel in the painting and sculpture
of the Renaissance, in the significance that was suddenly assigned to
'Nature', to the human body, to visible reality and its recognizably correct
rendition. The irrational receded; artistic representations lost their
purely sacred and symbolic character, and gained a part of their meaning
and value as reproductions of the physical world. The rise of the mathematical
sciences was expressed in the artistic discovery of perspective and of
the human anatomy. Beauty lay in accurate perception.
The thorough realism of Italian art reflected a new and unconditional faith of humankind in itself and in its natural faculties. This anthropocentric view found its visual expression in central perspective: just as people were the essential subject of the new art, so too did the human eye constitute its creative focal point. The vanishing lines that structure a picture and confer its perfect closed form emerge from the eye: the artistic order is based on the human being. With this metaphoric proclamation of creative power, artists placed themselves as equals alongside God.2
The German psychoanalyst Horst Eberhardt Richter interprets this "deification of the human being" that marked the self-image of the elites at that time as a narcissist identification with God. The release from divine guardianship at the same time led to a feeling of isolation and helplessness, whence individuals could escape by appropriating an illusion of divine perfection and omnipotence that came from having unconsciously set themselves on an equal footing with God. Thus everyone in a sense become his own God. The monotheistic religious tradition was carried on in the self-deification of one's own ego.3 The guiding paradigm of the Modern era is concentrated in the idea of the god-man, the genius.
On the political level, the shattering of a single unified church and the
changing conditions of life led to the formation of the absolutist dynastic
In the Middle Ages, the state had been understood as a necessary means of resisting evil and thereby reaching "peace in God," the highest goal of human life. The medieval state was directed towards heavenly goals, and limited in its power through its integration in the divine order; it was transnational and decentralized. The European states of the Early Modern era instead pursued a hostile disassociation from each other. Their sovereigns had made themselves largely independent of the papacy's spiritual authority; they rejected any deeper attachment to their peers or to an overarching community, and were troubled exclusively with asserting their claims to sovereignty at home and abroad. They waged a constant struggle for power, be it to defend it against stronger neighbors and extend it over weaker ones, or to repulse the constantly growing claims of the rising bourgeoisie.
In the period from the Renaissance to the French Revolution, the political realities of Europe were defined by Absolutism-the concentration of all authority in the hands of the princes, later of the crown. Starting in the seventeenth century, this doctrine was put to ever greater doubt by the philosophy of the Enlightenment, which conceived the State from the point of view of its individual citizens, and expounded individual rights to freedom, property and political co-determination. But this new thought (the political teachings of Locke, Montesquieu and Rousseau) at first hardly found its way beyond a rather narrow circle of educated people.
The American War of Independence and the French Revolution
With the exception of a few progressive minds, Europe at the end of the eighteenth century no longer possessed any unifying political or religious idea. Nonetheless, thanks to its achievements in science and technology, it was able to control all of the world's coasts and settle the weakly populated continent of America. We cannot go into the history of these colonial enterprises. Suffice it to say that in 1775 the British Crown's total disregard of political and economic realities, its obstinacy and avarice, led to the outbreak of the American War of Independence, which, with the Peace of Versailles in 1783, spelled the end of the British Empire in the Atlantic. As though a dam had been broken, events followed at a breakneck pace. In 1787 the Constitutional Convention of the United States passed the first modern democratic constitution. In 1789 the French Revolution began, in 1792 the Republic was proclaimed in France. In 1799 Napoleon became First Consul of the Republic. He conquered nearly all of Europe from 1804 to 1812, and after his defeat at Waterloo in 1815 was forever banished to the island of St. Helena. In the years 1811 to 1821 the Spanish-Portuguese colonial empire came to end with the independence of Venezuela, Paraguay, Argentina, Peru, Mexico, Brazil and Uruguay. In the space of a few decades, new inventions transformed all previous standards of distance, time, and human labor. Everything was in motion, and this motion accelerated constantly. In the nineteenth century, the spirit of revolution became the defining constant in the political, economic, social and intellectual life of the Occident.
After the defeat and final banishing of Napoleon, the victorious powers convened at the famous Congress of Vienna and attempted as much as possible to reestablish the conditions that had obtained before the great storm. These efforts were inevitably doomed to fail. They succeeded in creating a new international balance of power and in securing a peace of several decades for Europe; but the sociohistorical effects of the Revolution could no longer be reversed. That was especially true of France. There was no way to reintroduce the institutions and laws of the Ancien Régime there. The privileges of the aristocracy had been swept away, the old administrative system replaced by a centralized, logical system that really worked, the old judicial system by a uniform system of courts and by laws that were codified and binding on all parts of the country.4 In this way, the cultural cycle of the Modern era had entered its final phase; in the further course of the nine-teenth century, the political, economic, social, and aesthetic transition from Modernity to Modernism took place, step by step.
The Struggle for a New Social Order
Hostilities among states now gave way to domestic struggles over a new
constitutional and social order. In all of the countries of Europe, Liberalism,
borne by the rising bourgeoisie (the educated social strata of academics and
businessmen), led the fight against the monarchical order and its associated
social and political privileges for the aristocracy and clergy.
By obtaining fundamental political rights (such as the freedom of speech and assembly), establishing constitutional polities, releasing free individual activity in the economy and society, and limiting state intervention therein, Liberalism hoped to lead Europe into a new and better future. This political ideology had enormous faith in progress; despite resistance from the ruling strata, its triumph would prove unstoppable. The established rulers put up bitter resistance to the liberal endeavor. Fearing they would lose their privileges along with the existing social order, overpowered by their dread of a popular reign of terror, and filled with a deep-seated aversion to change of any kind, the conservative forces fought and blocked even moderate reform proposals with all the means at their disposal. Revolutionary uprisings therefore broke out in the years 1820, 1830, 1840, and 1848 in many European capitals, increasingly forcing political absolutism onto the defensive.
Despite initial successes, all of these uprisings foundered on the divisions among their bearers. After each moment of uprising the authoritarian regimes reestablished themselves in Europe. By 1850, political idealism had played itself out-the revolutionary flame was extinguished.
The second half of the nineteenth century was shaped by scientific and
technological progress that fundamentally transformed the social structures of
Europe within a few decades. The new generation no longer placed their hopes in
political changes but in the now flourishing economic expansion, which created
previously unimaginable possibilities of upward mobility for resourceful and
The new scientific theories, especially Darwin's teachings on the origins of species and the natural selection of the strong and fit, greatly influenced the educated strata of society. These theories undermined the already weakened authority of the church and promoted an increasingly materialist attitude of mind, which became the dominant criterion in any decision-making; life in general, and polity and economy in particular, were regarded as an incessant struggle, wherein only power counted. Popular thinking, by contrast, remained unperturbed by scientific developments, until a series of spectacular inventions began to transform the general conditions of life.5
First, travel times were radically reduced. Following the opening of the first railroad between Stockton and Darlington in the year 1825, the railways spread rapidly, covering all of Europe by the mid-nineteenth century. This cut the average travel time between two given points to about one-tenth. Much the same happened at sea. By the late nineteenth century, the use of steam-powered propeller boats turned the journey to the New World, formerly a passage of several weeks, into a matter of a few days. The invention of the internal combustion engine intensified these developments. Benz had his first (three-wheel) motor vehicle patented in 1886, the Wright brothers undertook the first motorized flight in 1903, and by 1909 Louis Blériot was able to fly across the English Channel in just 27 minutes.
This astonishing reduction of distances was only one side of the technological revolution then transforming the Western world. New manufacturing processes, by which steel and iron could be smelted, refined and formed into unprecedented qualities and shapes, allowed the construction of gigantic ships and other machines, and paved the way for new building methods that created international sensations such as the Crystal Palace in London in 1851, the Brooklyn Bridge in New York in 1870, and the Eiffel Tower in 1889,
the symbol of the Centennial Exposition in Paris.
Great progress was also achieved in medicine, substantially lengthening the average life-span. Of decisive significance here was the discovery of the microscopic germs that cause infectious diseases, and the development of inoculation and sterilization measures.
The exploration of electrical phenomena by Volta, Galvani and Faraday led to the discovery and use of a new form of energy which, although incomprehensible to most people, opened up unsuspected possibilities. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the telegraph network was extended over the entire civilized world. News now spread almost instantly around the globe. Step by step, the telephone (1876), permanent street illumination by electric arc-lamp (1877), electric street cars (1881), the gramophone and the audio record (1887) revealed to the amazed citizens of the modern world the incredible potential of the new forms of energy.
Of the many technological innovations of the nineteenth century, the transformation of energy, meaning the possibility of converting it as needed into mechanical motion, light, or heat by conducting electricity through a copper wire, was not only the most revolutionary and momentous, but also the most mysterious. In the phenomenon of electricity, unseen forces for the first time manifested themselves materially; God, spirit and the soul were no longer alone in the realm of the invisible.
These scientific and technological developments opened the collective consciousness to the realms of the previously unknown and impossible, time and again invalidating generally accepted standards. This had its impact upon art, with a special role falling to photography, which assumed its ascendancy around the turn of the century. The enormous experience, skill and effort hitherto required to create a faithful likeness of reality were reduced to a few technical motions of the hand. The work of art seemed to have been altogether deprived of its representational function and meaning.
The technological transformation that affected the world of that time can be
compared in scale only to those following the invention of agriculture and the
discovery of metals. This transformation is often wrongly equated with the
financial and social developments usually described as the Industrial
Revolution. Although the two processes occurred at the same time and influenced
each other in various ways, there are essential differences.6
Industrial production of commodities was known already to the Romans. But while the labor-power of the old world was still that of human or animal muscles, industrial production at the end of the Early Modern era was driven by steam and electricity. The new energy sources caused a far-reaching transformation in the methods of work, thereby altering relations between employers and workers; the factories, which often employed hundreds or even thousands of people, established the conditions under which workers could exercise their solidarity and organize themselves politically.
In the first phase of industrialization, railway building and the textile industry were the pacesetters of economic progress. Railways opened the countryside to the new economic forces, while as a relatively cheap means of transport they also facilitated the influx of great numbers of workers to the emerging urban centers, and thus created the large regional markets required by industrial mass production. Once the rail network of western and central Europe was essentially complete, around 1890, the chemical and the electric industry and machine-building took over as the pacesetters and the European economy entered upon its second gigantic phase of growth.
The gradual replacement of traditional forms of production with those of industrial capitalism greatly altered the long-standing relation between agriculture and industry. The proportion of the population living directly or indirectly from agriculture fell constantly, accelerating the growth in European cities: a process that was particularly noticeable in Germany. This had profound effects on the way people of that era felt about their lives and conceived of themselves and of the world. The city created a completely new, artificial environment, which also forced artists into a new kind of seeing.
In the late nineteenth century it became ever clearer, even to the ruling classes, that the proletariat had to be educated and schooled, if only to qualify laborers for industry. Throughout the Western world this insight led to a rapid increase in the provision of popular education. Since the knowledge of the upper classes did not advance at the same rate, there began, if only slowly, a reduction in the great gap that had until then divided the population into the educated few and the illiterate majority.7
By the turn of the century most people could write, read, and hold factual discussions with each other, so that they could comprehend the great transformation that they were faced with as a consequence of technological and scientific progress. The mass media began their rise to ascendancy. They influenced and structured public opinion, grew ever more important, and became a factor in political power.
This was especially obvious in France between 1850 and 1870, which experienced under Napoleon III a period of unprecedented economic boom accompanied by fundamental political change. Napoleon III was a far-sighted and inventive ruler; by promoting industry and agriculture, by expanding the rail network, by extending trade, and by a comprehensive program of public works (including a complete restructuring of the layout of Paris), he succeeded within two decades in transforming France into a land with a flourishing economy.
In the 1860s the Emperor carried out a far-reaching liberalization of his regime; for the first time in French history, change was compelled not by a popular uprising, but by the pressure of public opinion. He legalized unions and strikes and began comprehensive, if not fully realized, educational reforms, which foresaw free and universal elementary education and a curriculum for secondary schools. But with the French defeat at Sedan in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 his regime came to an end. In Paris a republican government was set up and founded the Third Republic, which was to last until the Second World War.
By the final decades of the nineteenth century, the most important liberal
demands had largely been achieved, at least in western and central Europe. The
liberating function of liberalism was thus fulfilled and its momentum began to
flag. At the same time, the rise of the working class heralded a new political
power that cast doubt on the bourgeoisie's "natural" leading role in state and
society and attacked bourgeois privileges as wrongful.8
By 1890, conservatism-the historic antagonist to liberalism-was completely on the defensive. Since conservatives could not, despite the support of both Christian churches and a large part of the peasantry, turn back the onslaught of the democratic forces, they unconditionally embraced the aggressive nationalism that in the early 1880s began to take hold among the European peoples. By standing up for forceful national power-politics, they hoped to halt the decline of their influence on the great majority.
Soon enough, they were no longer satisfied with mere national recognition within the European state system, but also desired power overseas. The political and economic conquest of the still-underdeveloped areas of the earth became the great national mission of the age. The point was no longer that of earlier colonization, of mere economic exploitation and settlement, but to gain the status of a world power, to use colonies and their human resources to increase the nation's power and importance.
The European imperialism of 1885 to 1914 took up the idea that the white race, thanks to supposedly greater vitality and higher civilization, was predestined to rule over the peoples of color. Incipient doubts about the moral right to subjugate these nations and conquer their territories were met with missionary invocations of bringing Christianity to the peoples of Africa and Asia. At that time, no one seriously thought that intellectual and cultural diffusion might also flow in the opposite direction.
Imperialist politics were justified materially with the argument that the living standards of the broad masses were dependent upon the success or failure of overseas expansion, that in the long run only new markets and new sources of raw materials could assure economic security for European workers. Thus was the support of the majority gained for these often costly expansionist endeavors. Under the pressure of the zeitgeist, liberals also finally adopted the imperialist idea, although they had originally regarded it with distaste. The inner contradiction between expansive power-politics and the free and democratic ideals of the older liberalism proved insolvable. Liberalism fell into a deep crisis, from which it never entirely recovered; it increasingly ceded leadership of the progressive forces in politics and economy to the ideology of socialism, which was gaining ever greater influence as the nineteenth century drew to a close.
Around the turn of the century, political and intellectual attitudes in Europe took on an increasingly irrational cast. On the right there were movements such as the Action Française and the Alldeutsche Verband, drawing together all the various political forces that opposed human rights, individualism, pacifism, and the materialist ideals of the time, and which instead elevated the power and splendor of their own nation to the highest value.9 Although European intellectuals were increasingly alienated from a political realm that they regarded as dirty and humiliating, corresponding ideas arose even within their circles, albeit in an apolitical form. Nietzsche's extremely aristocratic individualism, which regarded the self-fulfillment of the great personality-of the superman-as more pressing than raising the material and intellectual life of the masses, met with a broad echo; this elitist attitude found its aesthetic formulation primarily in the artistic and literary currents of Symbolism.
While the political right developed the ideological tendencies that after the First World War would pose the most vehement challenge to liberalism and democracy, a new force was forming on the political left.
In the course of the historical development outlined above, the workers had
broken away from their previous liberal guardianship. A variety of ideological
directions began to form within the workers movement, even as it prepared for
the struggle with its bourgeois antagonists. Anarchists and socialists,
syndicalists and social reformers fought bitterly with each other over the right
way to liberate the working class from the yoke of bourgeois capitalist rule.
On the one side stood the advocates of active reform politics within the existing social order, of the gradual acquisition of power through parliamentary struggle; on the other, the supporters of the goals that Lenin first formulated in his programmatic pamphlet of 1902, "What Is to Be Done?" Writing with regard to Russia, he called for the socialist movement to reorganize into an authoritarian structure of professional revolutionaries; only in this way could the party face up to the czarist police. As the goal of the party he declared the establishment of a dictatorship of the proletariat, and this goal-the complete smashing of the existing state apparatus-could only be achieved through armed force.
Between these two directions stood the advocates of the "political strike," who hoped by it to win political rights with the support of the trade unions. This movement, normally termed syndicalism, was not rooted in a carefully fashioned political theory, but in a doctrine of struggle directed against the class enemy that the workers came up against constantly in everyday life.
Thus the political consciousness of the dawning Modernist era was characterized by the decline of conservatism and liberalism and the formation of various, mostly radical political movements on the right and the left.
This radicalization of existing developmental tendencies encroached upon all aspects of life. The technological and industrial revolution, the ideologization of politics, and the gradual dissemination of scientific insights into the structure of invisible reality together created a new social reality which, in turn, had a fundamental effect on the contemporary view of the self and the world.
2. The 19th-Century View of the World and of the Human Being
The enormous structural, social, and intellectual revolutions of the second
half of the nineteenth century undermined the last remaining faith in
institutionalized religion and its interpretation of the world, and destroyed
the precarious unity in the view of the world and of the human being that had
prevailed until that time.
The search for a new sense of the world and of the place of the human being within the cosmos developed along two different directions. On the one side stood the exponents of a rational understanding of the world, borne by a belief that all existence was utterly determined and fundamentally explicable; for them, the path to knowledge led through scientific research and a philosophy modeled on science. On the other side stood the exponents of esoteric doctrines and the followers of pre-religious movements, who hoped to gain "higher knowledge" and insight into ultimate realities through meditation, mystical contemplation, or occult practices. From these diverging explorations arose the decisive views of the world and humanity that-with all their oppositions and intersections-defined the intellectual life of the fin de siècle.
In the nineteenth century, the scientific view of the world was founded
essentially on the discoveries, insights and calculations expounded in
1687 by the English physicist Isaac Newton (1643-1727) in his pathbreaking
work, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles
of Natural Philosophy).
Newton was filled with a deep faith in the comprehensive unity of Nature and its absolute conformity to natural laws. Through a methodical combination of empirical study and mathematical description of Nature, he succeeded in uniting the insights and discoveries of his great forerunners, Kepler, Galileo, Bacon and Descartes, into a comprehensive synthesis, and in creating a universal mathematical theory of the world that formed the foundation of scientific thought for two hundred years, until the dawn of the Modernist era.
Newton supposedly had his most significant inspiration at the sight of a falling apple. He recognized that it was pulled to the earth by the same force that keeps the planets in orbit around the sun, and derived from that a general law of gravitation, which states that every body in the universe attracts every other body with a force proportional to the mass of each body and inversely proportional to the distance between them.10 He achieved the breakthrough to his system thanks to the invention of differential calculus, a new methodology for describing mathematically the movements of solid bodies. The epochal significance of his laws of physics lay in their universal applicability: using them, Newton was able to explain and calculate in finest detail the movements of planets, moons and comets, the ebb and flow of tides, currents, electrical, acoustic and optical phenomena-describing the universe as an enormous mechanical system that functioned according to exact mathematical laws.
Despite the overwhelming evidence in its favor, Newton's theory had a weak point. It could not define a motion in absolute terms, i.e. relate that motion to a point at absolute rest. With his legendary remark, Give me a place to stand and I shall move the earth, as long ago as 250 bce, Archimedes, the great mathematician and physicist of classical antiquity, had pointed out the absence of such a reference point outside the earth.
Certainly we can regard the earth as a stationary system for nearly all ordinary
purposes of science. We may say that mountains, streets, and houses are
at rest, while animals, automobiles and airplanes move. The earth, however,
is definitely not at rest, but orbiting the sun. The entire solar system
is moving with regard to its stellar neighbors, this subsystem moves within
the Milky Way, and the Milky Way moves in relation to other galaxies,
whereby all of these motions are in different directions.
Thus Newton was faced with the problem of distinguishing relative motion from 'absolute' motion in the confusing complexity of a universe in motion. He gave up hope of discovering a body at absolute rest in the distant stellar regions, or perhaps far beyond, and instead took as his fixed frame of reference the concepts of 'absolute space' and 'absolute time'. Thus he introduced the two elements which would, two hundred years later, reveal the decisive defects of his theory. To Newton, space became a physical reality, an empty, immutable container. While he could not support his conviction with any scientific evidence, he clung to this shadowy concept (Einstein) on largely theological grounds: to Newton, absolute space represented the omnipresence of God in Nature. He thought much the same to be true of 'absolute time'.11
All physical phenomena, i.e. all matter moving in absolute time and in absolute space, consisted according to Newton of tiny, solid and indestructible objects, so-called mass particles, the motions of which are caused by mutual attraction, i.e. by gravity. The equations that allowed the effects of this force to be described mathematically seemed capable of explaining all changes observable in the physical world.
Newton's discoveries formed the foundation of a mechanical universe of
forces, pressures and counter-pressures, tensions, oscillations and waves, which
through the scientific progress of the following two centuries took on an ever
more complex and subtle structure. By the mid-nineteenth century there seemed to
be no natural process that could not be described in terms of everyday
experience, illustrated by a concrete model, and predicted using the incredibly
accurate laws of Newtonian mechanics. Only towards the end of the century did
certain deviations from these laws become apparent, which seemed minor but
proved so fundamental that the entire structure of Newtonian mechanics was set
This development began with the discovery and study of electromagnetic phenomena involving a previously unknown manner of force that could not be described within the mechanistic model.
Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell, the discoverers of these forces, replaced the very concept of force with the far more subtle concept of a force field, and proved that force fields could be studied apart from material bodies. Their theory of electrodynamics culminated in the realization that light is a rapidly alternating electromagnetic field spreading through space in the form of waves. The discovery of x-rays (in 1895 by W.C. Röntgen) and of radioactivity (in 1898 by Marie and Pierre Curie) finally effected the breakthrough to microphysics, which, along with quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity, opened a new chapter in the history of science.
Thanks to its spectacular successes, in the eighteenth century physics became
the model for all of the natural sciences. Its methods and criteria were
not only adopted by chemistry, biology, and medicine, but also influenced philosophy.
John Locke (1632-1704), a contemporary of Newton's, was the first to attempt to observe human individual and social behavior as an object of natural science. In his most important work, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, he rejected the contemporary doctrine of innate (a priori) ideas and instead explained consciousness as an originally blank slate (tabula rasa) that over time accumulates experience and acquires an individual form. As sources of experience, Locke accepts only external perception (sensation) and internal self-observation (reflection). He rejects the idea of supernatural revelation and understands God as a creator standing outside the world, who abandons that world after its creation to the natural forces that He made for it, and subsequently does not intervene in its development.
In this way Locke laid the foundations for the philosophy of Enlightenment that spread over the whole of Europe in the eighteenth century, and established the view of people and of the world that prevailed until the late nineteenth century.
The exponents of the Enlightenment saw reason as the faculty that makes humans human, that enables people to think logically and act morally; the Enlightenment philosophers believed in constant progress towards the good and the perfect, both for the individual and for society. They viewed social structures as arising from agreements devised for the benefit of individuals and for the general good. They championed individual rights and consequently called for limits on state power and the separation of political powers. Enlightenment thought demanded tolerance, the equality of all men before the law, the freedom of the individual to express his opinion, the sovereignty of the people, and the idea of popular representation. The American Declaration of Independence, the French Revolution and the Liberalism of the nineteenth century were defined substantively by the thought of the Enlightenment.
"Sapere aude! Dare to make use of your mind!" was the motto, according to Kant, of this intellectual movement, a call to Man to use reason in escaping his self-imposed immaturity.
From these postulates followed a critique, based on the model of scientific knowledge, of all authoritarian and irrational forms of thinking, including the Christian belief in the Revelation, and all forms of metaphysics and superstition. This attitude finally led to a practical atheism that conceived of God as (perhaps) existing, but which felt no need to wonder about His (supposed) demands on humanity.
Given freedom and the autonomy of thought, the rule of reason seemed
certain. But even amid the flowering of the Enlightenment, this overconfident
idea was subjected to doubt from two different camps. In 1750, the French
philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) published his Discours
sur la science et les arts (A Discourse on the Sciences and the
Arts), wherein he praises the happy and natural original state of
humankind, which was lost through socialization and science. He followed
this with a treatise that was similarly critical of culture, Discours
sur l'origine et les fondements de l'inégalité parmi les hommes,
(Discourse on the Origin of Inequality), in which he demands
the natural equality of men. Finally, in 1762, he published both of his
main works, Le Contrat social (The Social Contract)
and Emile. In the first, Rousseau replaces his once-praised figure
of the free natural man with the politically mature citizen, who subordinates
the expression of his natural freedom to the general interest and thus
contributes to the creation of an ideal State. In Emile, a textbook
on education in the form of a novel, Rousseau explores, in a highly unusual
fashion for the time, the nature of a child. He rejects any use of force
in upbringing, and instead advocates that adults should exercise cautious
permissiveness at the same time as gently guiding a child's natural (and
therefore good) qualities and faculties.
Rousseau's political views and his theory of man's natural goodness contributed significantly to the formation of revolutionary ideas in his time, and in this sense reflected the spirit of the Enlightenment. But he rejected its most important article of faith; in pleading for the "right of the feeling soul" and placing "heart and emotion" above "reason," he anticipated the demands of French Romanticism and the German Sturm-und-Drang.
The creed of the Enlightenment was shaken a second time by, paradoxically,
one of its most committed exponents-the German philosopher Immanuel Kant
(1724-1804). Rousseau was content to place the ideal hierarchy of reason and
feeling on its head; Kant set out to identify, through critical, enlightened
examination, the very sources and limits of our knowledge.
His pathbreaking main work, Die Kritik der reinen Vernunft (Critique of Pure Reason), published in 1787, examines the way in which sensory stimuli are processed by reason into perceptions, placed into greater contexts, and finally connected into insights. Our sensory organs register mere stimuli. It is only when the smells and sounds, the feelings and tastes, and the stimuli of light that flow from the senses reach the brain that they are processed into the perception of an exterior reality.13 In accomplishing that, reason uses its sense of space and time. It attributes perceptions as they occur to external causes according to its inherent principle of causality, and assigns them their place in space and time, i.e. it ascribes them to this or that place or object, to the present or the past.
The sense of space and time and the principle of causality that reason employs are innate to it (as integral elements of its organization). These functional forms are not derived from experience, but they are a priori (they precede any experience).
The world as we know it therefore represents a kind of construction. It is a product of our own making. The object that we perceive is an appearance ('Erscheinung'), consisting just as much of the feelings of our sensory organs and the functional forms of our reason as of the original thing underlying the perception. We cannot know this thing in itself, i.e. independently of our own perception of it. Kant is not at all denying the existence of a world independent of our perception, but he disputes that we can know it as itself; we know only, as he writes, its appearances, i.e. the ideas that these effect in us by affecting our senses. Our experience is defined through the forms of our powers of cognition. At another point: What may be the nature of objects considered as things in themselves and without reference to the receptivity of our sensibility is quite unknown to us. We know nothing more than our own mode of perceiving them, which is peculiar to us and which, though not of necessity pertaining to every animated being, is so to the whole human race.14 In Kant's Copernican revolution to the subject, as he called it, consciousness is not dependent on objects: rather objects are dependent on the a priori structure of consciousness.
This rationally substantiated relativization of everything known represents surely the most significant product of Enlightenment thought; still, with his Critique Kant rocked the self-concept of the Enlightenment even more dramatically than Rousseau. The entire philosophy of the nineteenth century revolved around his writings. The first thinker to add anything truly new was Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), in my opinion the most important philosopher of the nineteenth century.15 His interpretation of the 'thing in itself' succeeded in bringing together the essential discoveries and philosophic insights of his time into one great synthesis-and in anticipating the leading ideas and insights of Modernism.
Schopenhauer has gone down in history as a philosopher of pessimism,
as the herald of a deeply negative view of the world. In his view, human
desire is infinite, its fulfillment limited, resembling always the
alms thrown to the beggar, allowing him to scratch by that he may extend
his misery to another day.16 Satisfaction, or everything commonly
called happiness, is in his opinion always defined negatively, as the
avoidance of shortage, sacrifice, or suffering. But as soon as need and
suffering grant to man a respite, boredom sets in, encouraging new endeavors
and new sufferings. The highest wisdom thus lies in reducing one's own
needs and desires, in cutting down one's own wanting to a minimum, for
the less the will is stirred, the less suffering.17
This pessimistic view of human existence, which Schopenhauer expounds astutely, with countless examples, biting ridicule, and sarcastic humor in a highly appealing and persuasive fashion, contributed greatly to his late popularity, but is ultimately an inessential addition to his pioneering philosophic vision, which he condensed into a short formula in the title of his main work, published in 1818: Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (The World as Will and Idea).
What first strikes the reader of this book is its style. Dispensing with
the metaphysical excesses and confusing abstractions with which Fichte, Schelling and Hegel attempt to blur or get around the limits on philosophic speculation as discerned by Kant, Schopenhauer forwards unambiguous formulations, clarity of thought, and an admirable sense of order.
He begins with the Kantian teaching that the external world is known to us only through the mediation of our sensory stimuli and the innate functioning of our reason, and admits the fundamental incomprehensibility of the 'thing in itself', but he believes he has found the way towards solving this metaphysical riddle.
His work begins with the sentence: The world is my idea ("Die Welt ist meine Vorstellung"). This truth applies to each living and knowing being, who knows no sun and no earth, but always only an eye that sees a sun, a hand that feels an earth.18 Everything that exists in our cognition, this whole world, is an object for a subject, a view of the viewer, in a word: idea. We see here already, Schopenhauer believes, that the essence of things can never be approached from the outside: as much as we might explore, we gain nothing more than images and names. We resemble a man walking around a castle, looking pointlessly for an entrance and in the meantime sketching the facades.19
There is only one point from which we may be able to penetrate into the interior of the world. That point is the cognitive subject. The subject of cognition, which appears as an individual through its identity with the body, receives this body in two completely different ways: first as an idea […] as an object among objects, subordinated to the laws of objects; second, however, in an entirely different way, as a thing known directly to everyone, and signified by the word will. […] The action of the body is nothing other than the objectification, i.e. the becoming apparent, of an act of the will. […] The will is the thing-in-itself of the body.20
The dual cognition that I have of my own being, externally as body and internally as will, gives me a view into it, not as an idea, but "in itself," such as is lacking with regard to the essence and effect of all other real objects. It provides the key to the being of every appearance in Nature-in that we assume that all objects must be the same in their being as the thing which we recognize in ourselves as will. In the involuntary functions of our body or in the instincts of animals, it may furthermore be seen that will also acts blindly, i.e. when not guided by cognition. Not just wanting and deciding, in the narrowest sense, but also striving, wishing, fleeing, hoping, fearing, loving, hating, in short, all that directly constitutes our own well-being and woe, our pleasure and reluctance, is clearly only tendency of the will, is stirring, is modification of wanting and not wanting, is simply that which, when it has an external effect, presents itself as an actual act of will. Reflection along this line of thought finally leads us to also recognize that the energy that germinates and vegetates in the plant, yes, the energy by which the crystal shoots up, the energy that turns the magnet to the north pole, […] yes, in the end, even the gravity so irresistibly striving within all matter, attracting the stone to the earth and the earth to the sun […] are all only different in appearance, but in their innermost being are the same as the thing […] more directly and intimately and completely familiar than all else, that, where it most obviously emerges, is called will. […]21
The will as the thing in itself is completely different from its appearance and completely free of all forms of that appearance, which after all it only enters by appearing. […] It is further free from all variety, 22
With the will as the 'thing in itself', Schopenhauer anticipates the essence both of Einstein's equation of matter and energy and of Freud's concept of drives and the unconscious. Whereas all previous philosophers espied the essence of the human being in consciousness, Schopenhauer declares, eighty years before the founder of psychoanalysis: Consciousness is the mere surface of our mind, from which, as with the earth, we do not know the interior, but only the shell. […] Therefore we often cannot give account of the origins of our deepest thoughts: they are the product of our mysterious interior. Judgements, sudden ideas, decisions rise unexpectedly from those depths, to our own surprise.23 It is the will that holds together all thoughts and ideas as means towards its purposes […] dominates attention and holds the reins of motive […] will is what we mean whenever we say 'I' in a pronouncement. Will is the true, last point of unity of consciousness, the ribbon tying together all of its functions and acts: but will does not itself belong to intellect, for it is only its root, its origin and ruler.24
Freud was well aware of, and respectfully acknowledged, the pioneering achievements of his forerunner. Probably very few people can have realized, he wrote in 1917, the momentous significance for science and life of the recognition of unconscious mental processes. It was not psycho-analysis, however, let us hasten to add, which first took this step. There are famous philosophers who may be cited as forerunners-above all the great thinker Schopenhauer, whose unconscious 'Will' is equivalent to the mental instincts of psycho-analysis. It was this same thinker, moreover, who in words of unforgettable impressiveness admonished mankind of the importance, still so greatly under-estimated by it, of its sexual craving.25
Schopenhauer's work went unnoticed for many years. Only in the final years of his life was he granted acknowledgement and late fame. As already mentioned, however, this was primarily due to his pessimistic world-view, i.e. the evaluative, ideal orientation of his work, and not to his profound decoding of the 'thing in itself'.
Far greater interest was roused by the spectacular discoveries and conclusions
of the English biologist Charles Darwin (1809-1882), who published his
study, The Origin of Species, in 1859 (one year before Schopenhauer's
death) and, in doing so, entered an area of knowledge hitherto reserved
exclusively for theology.
The idea of biological evolution was not new, and by the 1850s it was very much in the air. Discussion on the subject had not let up since 1809 when Jean Lamarck put forward his theory by which higher life forms (Lamarck still excluded human beings from consideration) had evolved from lower life-forms through the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Herbert Spencer further spurred the debate in 1852 with his "evolutionary hypothesis." Darwin's work was of a different order, however. Departing from the ambiguous ideas and unsupported hypotheses of his forerunners, he presented a complete, richly substantiated theory that explained the course of evolution as a result of the Natural Selection and preservation of those species advantaged in the Struggle for Existence, with concrete illustrations of the process.
This was followed, in 1871, by the publication of The Descent of Man: as epochal in its significance as the Copernican theory was in its time. It collapsed two of the pillars on which the reigning view of humanity had rested. Darwin dared to approach the question of human origins via science, instead of religion; furthermore, like Copernicus, he cast doubt on an important feature of his contemporaries' idealized self-concept, announcing that the human being was not created by God, but descended from apes.
Despite all the critiques and efforts to refute it, Darwin's theory proved incontestable on rational grounds, and thus, for many, put an end to the religious myth of creation. At the same time, the idea of god-like, autonomous individuals was toppled. Human beings were seen in their natural contingency, as a link in a long chain of life-forms; they were comprehended as the function of anonymous, impersonal forces, and thus once and for all deprived of any special status in the cosmos.
The demystification of the human being begun by Darwin was continued by the
economic and social theory of Karl Marx (1818-1883). This was also based on
If Darwin destroyed the illusion of the divine origin of humankind, Marx in his main work, Das Kapital, attempted to prove that the self-determination of mind and the divine origin of moral laws and social structures were fictions, that human beings were intellectually and materially defined by the particular economic relations under which they lived.
The division of labor and the linking of relations of production to particular forms of ownership constitute, according to Marx, an objective structural framework that effects an unequal distribution of goods and of access to social wealth. Thus arise different classes with different social interests. In capitalist society these are (next to the middle class and the peasants, who are of less consequence) primarily the bourgeoisie (industrial capitalists and property owners) and the proletariat (wage workers). Their social difference consists in the ownership of the means of production by the bourgeoisie; the proletariat by contrast possesses only its labor-power. It is therefore forced to offer this labor power as a commodity and to be exploited by the bourgeoisie, which buys this commodity for less than its actual value. The structure and dynamics of these economic relations and the associated exploitation of the working class is substantiated, justified and legalized through an ideological superstructure of religion, morality, and law.
This superstructure conceals, according to Marx, the true prerequisites and conditions of the economic process, obscures the causes of the unequal distribution of power and property, and generates the false consciousness that prevents the proletariat from rising up against the class of owners.
Marx understands capitalist economic and social organization as a temporary phase in a logical progression that will necessarily lead to a classless society. He demands the education and politicization of the masses, for that is the decisive precondition for changing the reigning conditions: Let the ruling classes tremble at a communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working men of all countries, unite!26
Darwin and Marx exercised a lasting influence on their contemporaries'
religious and social self-concept. By advancing scientific analyses of the
biological and social contingency of human existence, their theses laid out the
prerequisites for a complete and rationally supportable view of the world. For
the first time in the history of humanity, scientifically-based ideologies arose
to fill the spiritual vacuum of the fin de siècle, and the Social Darwinists and
Marxists, with positively missionary zeal, set about persuading the world of the
truth of their respective views.
The Enlightenment had clearly won: God was dead. The god-man was apparently about to disappear along with him. The last attempt to prevent his downfall was undertaken by Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900).
Nietzsche did not write in the accustomed fashion of philosophers. The work that gained him his fame around the turn of the century, Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spake Zarathustra), published in 1883-1885, does not expound a logical or rational thesis derived from inference, or argue on the basis of confirmable facts, but proclaims a new gospel in the form of a long prose poem that captures the reader, not only by content, but through the brilliance, suggestive force, and hypnotic effect of its language. Nietzsche describes the creative exhilaration from which the work emerged as revelation, in the sense that something which profoundly convulses and upsets one becomes suddenly visible and audible with indescribable certainty and accuracy. […] One hears-one does not seek; one takes-one does not ask who gives: a thought suddenly flashes up like lightning, it comes with necessity, without faltering-I have never had any choice in the matter. […] Everything happens quite involuntarily, as if in a tempestuous outburst of freedom, of absoluteness, of power and divinity.27
Nietzsche rejects both the determinism of the natural sciences favored by the Darwinists and the precepts of equality expounded by democracy, socialism, and Christianity: in their place he sets up the theory of the superman, of eternal recurrence and the will to power.
The song of Zarathustra aims at the "reversal of all values": Christian "slave morality" gives way to a "master morality," in which will, power and (biological) health are posited as the "good," humility, altruism, and weakness as the "bad." Belief in an afterlife is transformed into "amor fati", into an unconditional affirmation of this life; instead of serving God on earth, man should realize the superman:
What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal: what is lovable in man is that he is an over-going and a down-going. I love those who do not know how to live except as down-goers, for they are the over-goers.
I love the great despisers, for they are the great adorers and the arrows of longing for the other shore.
I love those who do not first seek a reason beyond the stars for going down and being sacrifices, but sacrifice themselves to the earth, that the earth of the Superman may hereafter arrive.28
Nietzsche himself considered Zarathustra his masterpiece: If all the spirit and goodness of every great soul were collected together, the whole could not create a single one of Zarathustra's discourses.29 At first he stood alone in this bragging self-overestimation: his long prose poem would only be celebrated as one of the great literary works of the nineteenth century by posterity. In Zarathustra, the outgoing age found the mirror that reflected the desired self-image; the great success accorded this work at the turn of the century rested largely in the possibility it offered thousands to feel this outburst of freedom, of absoluteness, of power and divinity and take themselves for the superman. In the same way it would later be misused by the National Socialists.
Zarathustra was followed in 1886 by Jenseits von Gut und Böse, (Beyond Good and Evil), in 1887 by Zur Genealogie der Moral (On the Genealogy of Morals), and in 1888 by Die Götzen-Dämmerung (Twilight of the Idols). Der Antichrist (The Antichrist) and Der Wille zur Macht (The Will to Power) were published posthumously. These works, in which Nietzsche sought to factually substantiate his gospel and show it as the consequence of an inevitable historic development-Why I am a destiny!-combine deep psychological insights, brilliant interpretations and subtle observations with dogmatic assertions, unconditional generalizations, provocative exaggerations and a global condemnation of Christianity into a hymnal incantation of Nietzsche's own uniqueness and magnificence.
Only with some considerable effort does this ecstatic self-excess conceal the inner cry of a tender and sensitive individual filled with an insatiable desire for love and affection, disappointed by himself, his faith and ideals, nursing his deeply wounded narcissism: the loneliness and despair of a self falling apart. Nietzsche's work displays unlimited contempt for weakness and powerlessness-for the fears and sufferings of people caught in the fabric of a faith drained of all meaning-but all the time this contempt is ultimately aimed at himself. It speaks with the cruel voice of his own, puritanical super-ego, against which he sets up the figure of the superman. What I am not, that to me is God and virtue!
In January 1889, Nietzsche collapsed on the street in Turin. Alarmed by confused letters, which the creator of Zarathustra alternately signed as "Dionysos" or "The Crucified," his friend Overbeck hurried to Turin and brought him back to Basel. From there Nietzsche was taken to the psychiatric clinic of the University of Jena, and, after his condition stabilized, was delivered into his mother's care-and after her death, his sister's. He died, still mentally deranged, on April 25, 1900.
By then his work had achieved its widespread effect. Nietzsche became the idol of countless artists and intellectuals who thought to recognize in his tragic fate an allegory of their own greatness and powerlessness. His aristocratic individualism became the model for the deeply unsettled European intellectual elite; to a certain extent he also inspired a movement that set out to take over the vacated role of the church. In the charged field between science, philosophy, religion, and political and social utopia, a culturally critical, militant mysticism formed, that laid claim to having found the answers to all questions.
The Esoteric View of the World
The political, economic, social and scientific revolutions of the outgoing
nineteenth century had robbed the people of that time of all their main methods
In the moment when humanity believed it had taken hold of reality-
of the world-in its imagination and in practice, the yawning expanse of
an unknown under-world opened up at the turn of the century. In the moment of proud certainty, existing knowledge was confronted with its shortcomings, reason with its limits, the reigning religious postulates and social institutions with their dubiousness. People felt themselves part of
a world with an order that was beyond their comprehension, that did not reveal itself in visible reality, but was hidden behind it. The new sciences explored the evolution of species, the biological foundations of life, the composition of matter, the nature of energy, the contingency of human cognition, and the structure of the social order; but to the lay person their findings were largely obscure. In the collective consciousness they were merely reflected as the idea of an all-encompassing, invisible reality underlying the world of appearances.
There arose, parallel to the new sciences, a wide variety of anti-materialist philosophies, esoteric doctrines and parareligious movements that held out to their initiates the prospect of perfect being and insight into ultimate realities. The many differences among these movements were basically insignificant compared to their general agreement on the decisive points: Mind and material are one; the universe is grasped as a unified, living substance, but in time and space its elemental force or principle of being reveals polar oppositions: male-female, light-dark, vertical-horizontal, positive-negative, etc. Material values and aims are scorned, as is rational scientific thought. The meaning of human existence is achieved in a progressive spiritualization leading to enlightenment and to a condition in which the individual melts together with the ultimate truth, with the Eternal. Finally, all of these teachings and all the knowledge that they impart are originally "secret," i.e. reserved for carefully selected adepts, who in turn are not allowed to betray the source of their knowledge.
The most influential of these movements was the Theosophical Society,
founded in 1875 by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky in New York. Blavatsky's
main work, The Secret Doctrine, published in 1888, ran to fifteen
hundred pages, and mixes every form of occultism, alchemy and spiritism
with elements of Indian, Persian, cabalist, and gnostic mysticism to create
a 'doctrine' that lays claim to synthesizing the common core of the great
world religions and the philosophical systems of all ages.30
The author develops a fantastic cosmology (with chapter headings such as: Primordial Substance and Divine Thought; the Mundane Egg; the Seven Powers of Nature; the Awakening of Kosmos; a Panoramic View of the Early Races; Giants, Civilizations and Submerged Continents Traced in History). In it she describes the evolution of the first five human races (including, after a one-eyed race, that of the three-eyed Cyclopes), the creation of animals, which follows that of people, and does not precede it, the appearance of several intermediate races of monsters, half animal, half human like the centaurs, the four-armed human creatures in those early days of the male-females, and even the double-faced ones.31
All this is presented with an imperturbable certainty, for, as Blavatsky writes: […] we have the accumulated testimony of the ages, with its unvarying evidence on every essential point, to support us in this; the Wisdom of the Ancients and universal tradition. […] Hence we believe in races of beings other than our own in far remote geological periods; in races of ethereal men, following incorporeal "Arupa," men, with form but no solid substance, giants who preceded us pigmies; in dynasties of divine beings, those Kings and Instructors of the Third Race in arts and sciences, compared with which our little modern science stands less chance than elementary arithmetic with geometry.32
The first volume of the Secret Doctrine concludes with a vehement attack on the science of that time. In a section with the sub-title "Science Confesses her Ignorance," statements by Mr. Huxley and Mr. Tyndall are quoted which, according to Blavatsky, confirm their deep-seated ignorance. In her view the whole structure of Modern Science is built on a kind of "mathematical abstraction" […] on effects, the shadowy and illusive will-o'-the-wisps of a something entirely unknown to and beyond the reach of Science. […] How little is known of the material universe, indeed, has now been suspected for years, on the very admissions of those men of science themselves.33
For the Theosophical Society, which spread all around the world within a few years, the Secret Doctrine was a kind of bible. It was further expanded upon by Annie Besant, who held the frequently schisming Society together as its leader from 1907 to 1933.
The movement found another pioneering leader in Rudolf Steiner, who led the German section of the Theosophical Society from 1902 until a falling out (over the proclamation of Krishnamurti as the new world teacher). As a result, Steiner left the Theosophical Society in 1913 and later on founded the Anthroposophical Society.
Although Steiner remained committed to Theosophical thought, in the attainment of his own higher knowledge he relied mainly upon imagination, inspiration and intuition, i.e. on his inner view. In the same way, his knowledge of the last things, of the nature of people, of the kingdoms of nature and the supernatural-spiritual worlds, is not derived from empirical study or logical consideration. Steiner eschews substantiating his statements and claims in any way at all, because those who spoke out of feeling their own 'inner sensory instrument' maturing within them, and were thus able to recognize the true nature of the human being, which is hidden from the outer senses […] who have grasped something of this hidden wisdom […] need no proof of it. And yet, according to Steiner, the enlightened must speak to everyone, since what they have to tell concerns each one of us. In fact, they know that without some knowledge of these things, no one can be human in the true sense of the word.34 This basic thought runs through the entire work of the new Messiah: only the "enlightened" person, who accepts the new message of salvation, is "real."
The complete works, published in the original by Rudolf Steiner Verlag (texts, letters, and the transcripts of nearly 6,000 lectures) cover over three hundred volumes, but despite the impressive length and momentous subject matter, this written legacy is extremely thin on thought. The same basic ideas, of the unity of all things and the spiritual penetration of all life, are evoked over and over. Steiner's observations always remain so general and vague that they may be interpreted arbitrarily, and preclude any critical analysis.
A concept as banal as the organization of the whole man into a physical, a spiritual, and an intellectual part (each of which breaks up into three further parts) is presented as follows: In order to comprehend the whole man, one must think of him as put together out of [three] components. […] The body builds itself up out of the world of physical matter in such wise that its construction is adapted to the requirements of the thinking ego. It is penetrated with life-force, and thereby becomes the etheric of life-body. As such it opens itself through the sense-organs towards the outer world and becomes the soul-body. This the sentient soul permeates and becomes a unity with. The sentient soul does not merely receive the impact of the outer world as sensations, it has its own inner life which it fertilizes through thinking, on the one hand, as it does through sensations on the other. It thus becomes the intellectual soul. It is able to do this by opening itself to intuitions from above, as it does to sensations from below. Thus it becomes the consciousness-soul. This is possible for it because the spirit-world builds into it the organ of intuition, just as the physical body builds for it the sense-organs. As the senses transmit to the human organism sensations by means of the soul-body, so does the spirit transmit to it intuitions through the organ of intuition. The Spirit-self is thereby linked to a unity with the consciousness-soul, just as the physical body is with the sentient soul in the soul-body. Consciousness-soul and Spirit-self form a unity. In this unity the Spirit-man lives as
Life-spirit, just as etheric body forms the bodily basis for the soul-body. And
as the physical body is enclosed in the physical skin, so is the Spirit-man in
the spirit-sheath. The members of the whole man are therefore as follows: physical body-ether-body or life-body-soul-body-sentient-soul-intellectual-soul-consciousness-soul-spirit-self-life-spirit-spirit-man.35
As further example of his thinking in the "humanities," Steiner describes the "Urbilder of all things and beings," which the "clairvoyant" may view in the "house of spirits." The Urbilder are creative beings, the master builders of everything that comes into existence in the physical and soul worlds. […] It is as if the specialized forms well up out of them - one form has hardly been created before its Urbild is ready to let the next one pour out […] often innumerable Urbilder work together so that some particular being can come to life in the soul world or the physical world.
In addition to what can be perceived by means of spiritual 'sight' in the country of spirit beings, the experience of spiritual 'hearing' must also be taken into account, for as soon as a clairvoyant ascends from the soul world into the spirit, the Urbilder also begin to resound. This resounding is a purely spiritual process that must be conceived of without any thought of physical sound. To an observer, it is like being in an ocean of sounds and tones in which the beings of the spiritual world are expressing themselves. Their interrelationships and the archetypal laws of their existence reveal themselves in the chords, harmonies, rhythms and melodies of this spiritual 'music,' which reveals to our spiritual 'ear' what reasoning in the physical world perceives as an idea or natural law.36
How to understand any of the above is a mystery. Steiner's 'vision'
ultimately relied on the absence of any form of 'reality test,' or of any
'interpretation' in the psychoanalytic sense. Whatever thoughts, ideas and
daydreams welled up in him, he took without question as factual, i.e. as a
reality that was generally true, objective, and autonomous.
He ultimately proclaimed a form of 'transmigration of souls', borrowed from Indian ideas and in harmony with Theosophy, by which the soul appears again after physical death in another human body, and continues doing so until it is sufficiently purified and spiritualized to allow its release from the 'wheel of births'. The searcher must tread upon the path of knowledge. After he learns how the truths of this world are intended, [he] is granted the so-called initiation by the great intellectual leading powers of the human race. […] The spring of mental insight now flows to him from a higher place. […] The riddles that the world poses are cast in a new light. From then on he no longer speaks with things shaped by spirit, but with the shaping spirit itself. In the moments of spiritual recognition, the personality only exists to serve as a conscious allegory of the eternal.37
As an "enlightened one," Steiner thought he knew everything, and accordingly
held lectures on every conceivable subject: the various Gospels, the Apocalypse
and the Second Coming of Christ, "occult" psychology, light, heat, astronomy,
mathematics, medicine, sound and healing eurythmics, economy, law, and
agriculture. He never ceased castigating the "agnosticism" of his time, and
especially the "materialist" science that spurned research into the "last
things" and the source of all being. Against his contemporaries' lives void of
meaning and poor in spirit, he pitted the all-embracing experiences
(all-embracing because they include supernatural reality) of self and world of
the enlightened and the initiated. But his suggestive, evocative descriptions of
these experiences remained extremely vague and eschewed every concrete,
confirmable, or comprehensible statement. Accordingly, Steiner's maxims of human
behavior hardly went beyond the most general and banal declarations of
Despite the absence of consistency in his thought and his tendency to the irrational, fantastic, and mystifying, Steiner gained many followers; with his strategy of interpreting all aspects of life in accordance with his doctrine, that is to say, holistically, he exercised a far-reaching influence upon the intellectual life of his era.38
Theosophy and Anthroposophy are merely the best-known and most widespread of
a large number of similar parareligious movements that appeared throughout the
Western world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As a group,
they represented an attempted alternative to the revolutionary discoveries of
modern science, which were very difficult to understand for the lay person.
These mystics wanted to push the new and the unknown back into the realm of
their own capacity for imagining and understanding, to overcome the onrushing
upheaval with a very traditional means of coping-that of subordination to
faith-and, furthermore, to withdraw "invisible reality" from the objectifying
clutches of logic, to re-incorporate it into a new, idealistic and
anthropocentric view of the world.
The two decisive features that placed all of these esoteric and pseudo-scientific doctrines into conflict with the emerging scientific view of the world were their opacity and their categorical exclusion of the vitalities of human existence. For Theosophists and Anthroposophists, the struggle for survival, the striving for power and wealth, sexuality and narcissism-i.e. the forces that Schopenhauer, Darwin, Marx and Freud see as the basis of the biological, social and individual development of human beings-do pose the root of all evil, but are otherwise ignored. These mystics' love was devoted exclusively to the spiritual realm, to the so-called supernatural.
Their texts, images and visions lacked the experiential level of the senses, and the force and fertility of instinctive impulses. Their repressed compulsiveness and denied narcissism were expressed only as symptoms, in the redundance, the bombast and affected manner of the language characterizing all of these doctrines. Behind the message of the "supernatural reality" and the "integrated person" there stood, despite everything, the divided nineteenth-century view of the world and of the human being, in which body and mind, energy and matter were comprehended as incompatible opposites
3. The Art of the 19th Century
The Position of the Artist in 19th-Century Paris
In the final decades of the 18th century, many artists were no longer allied
with former clients but worked instead in the free market. In Paris, London, and
other major European cities, large annual exhibitions were mounted by the royal
academies, where up-and-coming artists were trained. In time, these exhibitions
evolved into major social events that could ultimately make or break an artist.
Known as salons after the Parisian 'Salon des peintres français' they lent art a
new kind of public character despite the fact that participation was restricted
to members of the academies.
Following the victorious revolution, artistic training and the art trade in general became progressively more democratic. In 1791, the General Assembly in France curtailed a number of the Academy's privileges and granted all artists the right to exhibit at the Salon. This extremely liberal regime was of brief duration. As political structures consolidated, authoritarian rule was restored in the art world as well. The Académie des Beaux-Arts awarded the prestigious prize, the Prix de Rome, for a period of study at the Academy's studio in Rome and organized the exhibitions of the Salon. Although the new regulations still stipulated that anyone could submit paintings, only those who found favor with the rigorously academic selection panel, appointed by the Academy, were allowed to participate.
The loss of patronage and the increasingly competitive struggle to curry the favor of an anonymous public led both conservative and progressive artists to turn their backs on traditional pictorial subject matter. This move was fostered by the revolutionary mood that prevailed at the time and the new public's tacit expectations of art. Art was meant primarily to dispel the anxieties associated with profound social change and to offer a self-image and a model of the world that would meet the narcissistic needs of the contemporary bourgeoisie.
The burgeoning class of well-to-do citizens had buying power but little experience in matters of aesthetic taste. Gradually the gulf widened between official art, approved by the academies, and progressive artists who established new ideals, discovered new artistic themes, and developed new artistic means. Their work initially enjoyed scant recognition, the salons rejected it altogether, and only a small minority appreciated and purchased it. Thus, a basic feature of modernism emerged towards the end of the 19th century-the personal commitment of the artist, who took a spiritual and social stand. The artist thereby assumed the role and function of the interpreter, which the priest was no longer able to fulfill.
In carrying out their task, artists in those days had acquired an awareness of new horizons and artistic skills of unprecedented proportions. The outgoing 18th and early 19th centuries saw the publication of extensive historical writings on art, music, literature, philosophy, and religion, which enjoyed a relatively broad readership. For the first time, a detached historical approach made it possible to examine the most varied artistic creations of different epochs and to appreciate them without being affected by the bias of their underlying ideals.
This approach received additional impetus with the decision of the revolutionary government to found a public museum, the Musée de la République. In 1793, the former royal collection was moved to the 'Louvre' and made accessible to the public. Young artists were now able to study the work of the great masters at first hand without having to travel to Italy as before. Visits to the Louvre and regular copying of the great works became a standard requisite of artistic training. Through new means of transportation, the potential of reproduction, the rise of museums and academic training, the achievements, goals and ideals of artistic developments became generally accessible and provided the artists of the 19th century with a mental and artistic inventory, whose wealth was reflected, on one hand, in its diversity and technical excellence and, on the other, in the epigonic character of their production.
The introduction and perfection of new techniques of reproduction led to the regular practice of producing small-format prints of successful paintings, whose sales yielded considerable earnings for artists and dealers. The Goupil Gallery, for example, paid Dominique Ingres 24,000 francs for the reproduction rights to his famous Odalisque with a Slave, while the original painting had fetched a mere 1,200 francs.
The seminal experience shared by all of these artists was the onslaught of
steadily accelerating change in all areas of life. This historical upheaval was
perceived by contemporary society as both a chance and a threat; it was both
embraced and opposed. In painting the conflict between progressive and
conservative forces was reflected not only in the antagonism between
Neoclassicists and Romanticists or between Realists and Symbolists, but also
between progressive and traditional tendencies within these artistic movements.
The ambivalent attitude of artists in those days could often be observed in a
single work, in the contradiction between subject matter, the actual 'content'
of the message, and the style used to convey that message. The few artists who
avoided the contradiction often did so only in their late work. These were the
real trailblazers like Goya, Ingres, Delacroix, Daumier, and Courbet, who are
therefore ranked among the precursors of modernism.35
Corresponding to the spiritual attitudes espoused by artists in coming to terms with their shared experience of historical change, artistic developments in the 19th century can be divided into four main directions: Neoclassicism, Romanticism, Symbolism, and Realism.
Before going into these trends, I shall briefly outline the oeuvre and person of an artist who cannot be confined to any of them, for he anticipated essential aspects of all of them and united them into a comprehensive whole: Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, the most important forerunner of modernism and one of the greatest painters of all time.
Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828)
Although he was born in the first half of the 18th century, Goya may be
assigned to the 19th century because the oeuvre that we associate with his name
did not begin to take shape until after he became gravely ill and was afflicted
by deafness in 1792. Until then he had been in the employ of the royal tapestry
works in Madrid, for which he designed cartoons in a late Rococo style. In 1786
he was appointed court painter to the king, Charles IV. Had he succumbed to his
illness, he would probably be forgotten today, for his early work is virtually
indistinguishable from that of his indifferent contemporaries.
The change became apparent in the immediate wake of his illness. Without a commission, on his own initiative alone, Goya painted a series of small-format pictures. These he sent to his friend and patron Bernardo de Iriarte in January 1794, asking him to show them to the Academy. In order to occupy my imagination mortified by the contemplation of my sufferings […], he wrote in a covering letter, I devoted myself to painting a set of cabinet pictures in which I have managed to make observations for which there is normally no opportunity in commissioned works which give no scope for fantasy36 and invention.37
Three days later, Goya sent a second letter to advise of another painting he had just begun: […] it represents a yard with lunatics and two of them fighting completely naked while their warder beats them, and others in sacks (it is a scene which I saw in Zaragoza). I will send it to you when finished because it completes the set.38 This picture-the only one that can be conclusively identified thanks to the second letter39-confronts us for the first time with the dark forces that were to characterize the great Spaniard's oeuvre (fig. 1) from then on. Goya, now deaf, has emancipated himself from the role of court painter; he has begun to paint his own pictures.
The turning point in his oeuvre coincides not only with his illness. A few months earlier, before he lost his hearing, the victorious revolution had proclaimed the new French Republic. As a result, the spirit of Enlightenment spread through Spain as well. The liberals, los ilustrados, many of whom were friends of Goya's, became increasingly influential and by 1797 even occupied some cabinet posts. They dreamt of a new, open-minded, cosmopolitan Spain and sought sweeping reforms in education, religion, trade, industry, and agriculture. However, their efforts met with widespread resistance, ignorance and superstition, an uncooperative clergy and the still powerful Inquisition. Their stay in power was of brief duration.
At about this time, Goya, nearing fifty, turned away from the galant style of the Rococo. After completing the cabinet pictures, he produced the superb portraits, La Tirana, 1794 and La Marquesa de la solana, 1795 (fig. 2), and-after breaking off his love affair with the Duchess of Alba-the drawings for the Album de Madrid, 1796. At the same time, in his portraits of the royal family, Goya began to expose his sitters' weaknesses, meanness, and vices with merciless candor. These developments came to a climax in the set of etchings, Los Caprichos, which Goya published himself and offered for sale in an advertisement placed in the Diario de Madrid on February 6, 1799. The etchings clearly demonstrate Goya's liberation from the pressures and conventions involved in commissioned work; the court painter has given way to the great visionary and realist. With bitter mockery, he criticizes human foibles and the social, religious and political inequalities of his age: marriages of convenience and prostitution, avarice, bribery, and political intrigue, religious intolerance, superstition, and fanaticism. The well-known etching
El sueño de la razón produce monstruos (The Dream of Reason Produces Monsters), originally intended as the cover page of the set, seems like a dark prefiguration of future events (fig. 3).
Charles IV had joined forces with France against England but the ensuing war led to the destruction of the Spanish fleet at Trafalgar and gave Napoleon the opportunity to intervene in the politics and intrigues of the Spanish court. In 1807 French troops march into Spain and in 1808 a mass uprising forces the hated king to abdicate in favor of his son, Ferdinand VII. But Napoleon wastes no time. Within two weeks, he has deposed Ferdinand and crowned his own brother, Joseph Bonaparte, "King of Spain and India." Once again the people revolt and the terrible slaughter of May 2 at the Puerta del Sol is followed on May 3 by the execution of the insurgents in front of Moncloa Palace. Goya recorded these events six years later in his two famous paintings, Madrid, the Second of May and the Third of May (fig. 4). Napoleon occupies Spain with an army of 200,000 men and provokes a so-called war of liberation, which does not achieve its objective-the reinstatement of Ferdinand-until almost five years later when Napoleon is forced to abdicate. It is the first guerrilla war in history. The entire population rises in insurrection against the French occupation. The church, which considers all French people atheists and Napoleon the Antichrist, fights on the side of the rebels. Under the banner of faith, priests and monks call for murder and manslaughter, often actively participating in the carnage themselves.
Joseph I, placed on the throne by Napoleon, was undoubtedly the most progressive ruler Spain had ever had. But to no avail. The Spaniards want "their" Ferdinand back again. What mockery! "El Deseado," the Desired, is the byname given by the insurgents to this weak, insipid young man, totally beholden to Napoleon and leading a luxurious, wanton life in princely exile, utterly indifferent to the fate of his country. For the Liberals, the situation is full of contradictions. In a few brief days, Napoleon decrees an array of progressive laws for which the ilustrados have been fighting unsuccessfully for years: the tribunal of the Inquisition is abolished, the rights and privileges of the aristocracy are nullified, and the majority of the monasteries closed. Many of Goya's friends are among the afranciscados, the French loyalists; a few even become members of the government. But other friends support the rebels.
Goya continues to work for the court-though less than before and not as the First Painter-but he does not take sides. He is torn between the ideas of the revolution, the spiritual freedom it brings, and the desperate struggle of a people whose heroic but tragically ignorant and misguided opposition to French military rule ultimately defends an antiquated cause antagonistic to their own interests. Goya cannot remain aloof but neither can he identify with either of the two sides in this senseless conflict. He does take a stand, but it is the stand of an artist responding to the situation, to the business of war as a whole. Without a commission, only for himself and an intimate circle of friends, he creates a devastating series of pictures that record the violence and horror which are destroying his country. Most of them are now preserved in private collections in Madrid. Goya takes out the tools that he has not used for a decade-since the making of the Caprichos-and starts working on a set of etchings, Los Desastres de la Guerra, that is to become the most shattering indictment of war in the history of art: no embellishment of heroic deeds to glorify kings and generals, no praise of the mighty as in Velázquez' Surrender of Breda or David's exaltation of Napoleon, but rather the representation of human beings as the victims of fanaticism and brutality, of madness and frenzy, of faith and blind unreason-as victims of themselves. Nothing escapes his eye, nothing is glossed over, nothing idealized: murder and carnage, fire, executions, rape, hangings, people beheaded, impaled, and starving, mountains of corpses, prisons, insane asylums, despair, agony, people fleeing and dying, atrocities, penury, and anguish. These are the most shattering and frightful representations of what human beings can do to each other-Goya's response to the madness of history.40 (figs. 5, 6).
Goya undoubtedly planned to publish his etchings as soon as the opportunity arose. The time seemed appropriate when Wellington entered Madrid at the head of his army and routed the French. But with the return of Ferdinand the Desired, reactionary forces gained momentum and ushered in a renewed reign of terror, under which even the Inquisition reared its ugly head again. The publication of the Desastres had to be abandoned.
While officially executing royal commissions for the new rulers and making paintings and etchings on bullfighting, Goya was secretly completing the set of Desastres etchings. These final prints, known as the caprichos enfáticos (emphatic caprices or fantasies), are reminiscent of the Caprichos etchings and were aimed primarily at the stupidity and repressive intrigues of the Church.41 The artist was never to see the publication of his Desastres nor the subsequent cycle of Proverbios, probably the most powerful of his etchings (also known as Disparates, nonsense or absurdities). They were not published until 1863 and 1864, some 35 years after his death (figs. 7, 8).
After a near-fatal illness in 1819, the artist executed his so-called Black Paintings between 1820-23, painting them directly onto the walls of two large rooms in his country home, Quinta del Sordo. In these fantastic visions, in which the horrors of the Desastres de la Guerra and the Proverbios reach monumental proportions, Goya's indictment transcends the context of social protest. It penetrates deep into his own being and is directed toward the dark forces threatening to destroy the harmony of his soul from within. With this journey into the inferno, Goya's oeuvre reaches its climax (fig. 9).
In 1824, his safety endangered by the Inquisition, Goya received permission from Ferdinand to travel to France. After a two-month stay in Paris, where he saw the work of Ingres and Delacroix for the first time although he did not meet any of the painters there personally, the eighty-year-old artist settled down in Bordeaux with his considerably younger companion and their two children. Goya continues to work with undiminished energy. He devotes himself to the new medium of lithography, paints a number of astonishing miniatures on ivory, in which he takes up themes from his Black Paintings, and creates his last masterpieces, a portrait of his oldest son, Mariano Goya, and the Milkmaid of Bordeaux. He dies in 1828 at the age of 84.
Although the Symbolists consider Goya their predecessor and he is generally assigned to them or to the Romantics, the great Spaniard is very different from those who lay claim to him.
Goya confronts his age not with nostalgic yearning but as a realist. Instead of conjuring up the lost and bygone, he faces reality. He does not glorify illusion, but shows its loss. Never does he seek to lend loss or newly found
illusions the appearance of reality. Never once does he succumb to the temptation to give concrete, affirmative shape to an idealized sentiment. And yet his entire oeuvre exudes a passionate empathy, for he never fails to take a stand or profess his values and ideals.
His dispassionate realism redefines the inflated notion of the ideal. He evokes it by representing it in an entirely new, 'negative' form, shown-in keeping with its essence-not as reality, but as a challenge, an unfulfilled demand. This attitude toward the ideal, previously encountered only in the self-portraits of his great model, Rembrandt, precludes the least hint of idealization. In contrast to the irrealistic attitude that prevailed among most artists in the 19th century, Goya's work shows a relentless realism despite its much vaunted fantastic subject matter. Moreover, his incorruptible gaze pierces not only outward appearances but also the inner reality of the soul, which he explores with utmost intimacy and critical detachment.42 In the abysses of the soul that open up before him, he sees only the violated ideal. In one of the Desastres, a group of insurgents is driven to face a firing squad (fig. 6). The very essence of Goya's message is contained in the title No se puede mirar! (One cannot look!). The ideal can only be represented as something that is crushed underfoot. All the greater is the impact on the beholder of an impassioned protest against the unacceptable. This impact is underscored by the trenchant captions Goya appends to his etchings. He resorts in his art to the only remaining, credible representation or metaphor of the ideal, the negative, and is thereby the first to introduce a stylistic device of incisive influence in the 20th century: that of 'negative presence'.
Nonetheless, his painting is not engulfed in the bias of negativism. Though not rendered in external representation, the ideal does find fulfillment in the creative process. The significance of Goya's paintings and prints is not exhausted in their impassioned indictment. Despite the anguish and agony of his subject matter, their superb execution fulfills all the demands of our ego structures and our self: they are true, beautiful, spirited, and filled with a profound, unerring faith in the values of his own self. This faith is manifested in the boldness of design, in the incorruptibility of his artistic conscience, and in the fidelity to a spiritual canon that unites every facet of his art and all the progressive tendencies of modern times into an overarching and integral artistic creation-an overarching and integral testimonial to human existence.
Noble Sentiments and Human Grandeur: Neoclassicism and History Painting
In 19th century art Neoclassicism represents the most obvious if not the only
attempt to cope with a changing present by recurring to the values and
traditions of the past.
In the 17th century Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain had already attempted to revive the 'simplicity' and 'grandeur' of antiquity in their art. In the second half of the 18th century, the art theories postulated by the German archeologist Johann Winckelmann transformed their attitude into artistic doctrine; his belief that the ills of a world in decay could only be cured by returning to the beauty and formal rigor of Greek art, spread throughout all of Europe. Winckelmann's disciples, the painters Anton Raffael Mengs (fig. 10), Joseph Maria Vien (fig. 11), Angelica Kauffmann, and Jacques-Louis David, all of whom lived in Rome, took up the mythological and historical themes of Greco-Roman antiquity and based their compositions on the classical requirements of proportion and balance. Despite the perfection to which these artists aspired-paradoxically considering themselves progressive-their work remained uncreative and epigonic. At the heart of their endeavors lay the idea. They championed an ideal, but it did not spring from an integrated psychic structure that would challenge and counteract the instinctual drives and exhibitionist ambitions of the individual. The historicizing scenes with their obviously educational objective of serving as luminous examples did not mirror an inner reality but rather a detached fantasy: the narcissist dream of one's own purity, perfection, and timeless greatness. The ideal that informed this art was in fact that of a burgeoning merchant class in the throes of redefining the foundations of state, society, and culture without being able to cope with the new realities and their own recently acquired power.
The difference in concept between Classical and Neoclassical art essentially corresponds to that between ideal and idealism. The artists of Greek antiquity measured their exhibitionist ambitions against idealized standards that coincided with the demands of their ego structures and could therefore be integrated into the self in conformance with the needs of the ego. The striving for the real, the true, and the right was motivated by an inner need. The Neoclassicists, on the other hand, did not relate primarily to their own inner laws but rather to Classical art, and therefore to the results of such an inner orientation. Their values did not confront them as a challenging demand from within, but rather as an already formed model from without. Both the exhibitionist ambitions and idealized values of their art originated from a secondhand source and could therefore not be realized but only re-produced and proclaimed. The once integrated ideal had now become an externally idealized mental construct, an idea. In contrast to the ideal, the idea does not influence representation in dialectical interaction with other forces but rather becomes its sole subject matter. It does not call for realization but for avowal.
In 1785, this early Neoclassicism underwent a first reorienting shift in meaning through David's famous painting, The Oath of the Horatii (fig. 12). The painting depicts the solemn moment when Horatio, the head of an ancient Roman patrician family, has raised the swords on which his sons swear to fight their enemies, the Curati brothers, and if necessary to die for their fatherland. The viewer familiar with the legend knows that in the ensuing battle, they will kill their own sister's betrothed, for he is one of the Curati brothers. This may explain the marked contrast between the martial severity of father and sons and the pathos of the women grouped together in mourning to the right.
It is difficult for us today to understand the success of this painting in its time. The representation is stiff and labored, the life-sized figures look as if they had been carved out of stone, the colonnade in the background looks like a stage set-and yet the painting caused a sensation at the Parisian salon four years before the Revolution erupted in France. Not only form and style but above all the subject matter and the idea behind it met with enthusiastic acclaim. David had touched the nerve of the age. The scene was considered a metaphor: The Oath of the Horatii stood for Roman civic virtues, for the love of freedom and fatherland, heroism and self-sacrifice, stern resolve and stoic self-control. The austerity of pictorial treatment and complete lack of superfluous embellishment was interpreted as a protest against the sensuality and frivolity of an effete Rococo style. To the public, the work seemed to communicate a moral message in answer to their own hopes and expectations. Contemporaries considered it the most innovative and daring feat imaginable and hailed it as the most beautiful picture of the century.43
Following the victorious Revolution, Neoclassicism was declared the official style and David became the government expert in all matters of art. No French artist had ever exerted such an influence or wielded such power. He was the "artistic dictator of the Revolution" responsible for all artistic propaganda, for the organization of all the great festivities and ceremonies, the Academy with all its functions, and the entire system of exhibiting art.44 The art school that he founded rapidly became the leading atelier in Paris, dominating the guidelines of artistic education in all of Europe.
Artistic production, however, was already responding to changed circumstances. During the Revolution, themes from antiquity gave way to the representation of contemporary events. As such, that was nothing new. Art and architecture in earlier centuries also depicted current events, as shown in Trajan's Column, in Paolo Uccello's representation of The Battle of San Romano, or The Surrender of Breda by Diego Velázquez. However, the almost journalistic character of 19th century history painting set the genre off from its predecessors.
The first examples of this kind stem from the American painter, John Singleton Copley, who left for Europe in 1774 and settled in London. His three-meter wide canvas of The Collapse of the Earl of Chatham in the House of Lords, 7 July 1778 (fig. 13), painted in 1779-80, renders the dramatic event with unemotional matter-of-factness. To heighten the realism of his representation and specifically identify the Lords, Copley went to the trouble of making portraits of over fifty members of the House.
Copley's historical realism ushered in a new phase of representational art. Mythology and the history of antiquity were displaced by historical reportage. The genre fed into the demagogic intent of the rulers as well as the public's taste for sensationalism and the artist's craving for popularity, and legitimated all three aspects by the verisimilitude of its representations. History is arrested in a crucial moment and depicted with such extreme, illusionary naturalism that viewers feel as if they are part of the action. When such verisimilitude is united with the norms and principles of composition in classicism, the 'great event' becomes an ordered, surveyable, and comprehensible whole, thus enabling the viewer to take possession of it. History is imbibed and becomes part of the self, which thereby partakes of its lofty greatness. These history paintings thus acquired unprecedented political significance.
The representatives of the new order did not have to wait long for an opportunity to exploit this artistic potential. In 1793, when the young fanatic Charlotte Corday attacked one of the leaders of the Revolution, Jean-Paul Marat, and stabbed him to death in his bath, the authorities immediately summoned David to the scene of the crime so that he could make sketches of the terrible deed. These sketches formed the basis of the famous painting that shows Marat as a martyr (fig. 14). It is the most economical and perhaps most complex work David ever painted. While retaining classicist principles of composition, the painting is a unique blend of reportage, realistic portrait, and political manifesto.
David's subsequent output is decidedly weaker but of interest nonetheless, because it documents the social and political transformation that swept across France around the turn of the century. The ascetic rigor of both subject matter and composition in the Death of Marat embodied the ideals of the Revolution. After the Consulate was established, David, now Napoleon's official painter, portrayed the First Consul in a picture already suggestive of royalty, Bonaparte Crossing the Saint Bernard Pass (fig. 16), and seven years later he completed the monumental official portrait of the Coronation. Upon the Emperor's fall, David's art underwent another transformation. During the Restoration, when the countries of Europe were trying to reestablish pre-Revolutionary conditions, the artist, in exile in Brussels, turned away from contemporary events. Apart from doing commissioned portraits, he devoted himself to the illusionary world of a cloying and conventional antiquity (fig. 15).
Despite their divergence in composition and persuasion, these works share one salient feature; they all unconditionally serve the respective government in power. In consequence, many Neoclassical artists also share the fundamental trait of proclaiming ideals which they have failed to internalize. This failure is disavowed by means of an inner psychic defense mechanism of 'reversal'.45 This is manifest in a conspicuous characteristic of all Neoclassical art-the slavish adherence to external rules and the doctrinaire championship of normative principles. These are the very features that make Neoclassicism prestige art par excellence.
Herein lies the essence of the social and historical significance of Neoclassicism. As an attitude that dominated European art, it conveniently provided an overarching foe image, causing all progressive contemporary trends to unite in opposition. Its idealistic conservatism was used by all future-oriented artists as a springboard and constituted a diametrically opposed pole to their own position. All progressive developments in 19th century art can be understood as rebellion against artistic absolutism and the strictures of conservative maxims underlying Neoclassical doctrines.
Only one single artist towers above this consummate mediocrity, the French painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. He alone succeeded in genuinely incorporating the norms of antiquity-at least in some of his works-by impressing upon them the stamp of his person and his talent. His superb nudes and portraits (figs. 17, 18), his magnificent bathing scenes, and his masterful drawings (that were later to inspire Picasso) form an undeniable highlight in an otherwise uninspired period of Neoclassical painting. Ingres' formal purism prefigured corresponding tendencies of modernism and exercised a decisive influence on Degas, Seurat, and Cézanne.
Yearning and Passion: from History Painting to Romanticism
The French Revolution and the rise and fall of Napoleon unmistakably
demonstrated how ephemeral political institutions are, and how short-lived
'eternal values'. While the incorrigible European monarchies proceeded to
reappropriate their old privileges and to consolidate their refound power by
establishing a precarious political balance, already upset again in the
revolutions of 1848, scientific and technological advances profoundly altered
the economy, the politics, and the intellectual life of Europe and the New
World. Around the middle of the century, all forms of spiritual, economic and
social life were in flux: technology and industry had begun their march of
The people of the 19th century were convinced that they were living in a "great age." But the nascent scientific, technical, and economic foundations of the new reality were essentially abstract and therefore not interesting enough; they were not sufficiently compatible with traditional ideas of heroism and therefore exerted only an indirect influence on the prevailing self-image and worldview.46 People certainly sensed, but did not understand, the threatening reality of impending social and spiritual upheaval. The heroic consciousness of living in a time when all values were undergoing radical reevaluation lacked any genuine understanding of underlying historical developments. It remained unstructured and exhausted itself in registering the emotional side effects: a generally heightened but undifferentiated, collective euphoria coupled either with an optimistic, future-oriented or wistfully retrospective, but always diffuse and objectless attitude of anticipation. Being undefined, this consciousness also eluded pictorial interpretation.
During the years of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, politics and human destiny were closely intertwined.47 By comparison, the political developments of the next three decades no longer offered any excitement and grandeur. While art in an age of sweeping political reform showed a conservative bias and was intent on creating an aura of eternity and divine purpose, it now became the mouthpiece of a generation whose idealistic hopes had been dashed. As a result, art and those who made it turned their backs on politics and concrete reality. The artists of Romanticism escaped into an inner world of feeling and fantasy in which they had unrestricted power. This movement took different and even opposite directions in northern Europe (Germany and England) and in France.
Romanticism in France might be described as expressionist; in Germany and England as symbolist. The former is generally associated with progressive, the latter with conservative tendencies. According to Hauser, the distinction is not particularly fruitful. The decisive aspect of Romanticism does not consist of the political leanings of its adherents; the revolutionary enthusiasm of Romantic artists was as naive as their conservatism; the enthusiasm for popular representation and democracy as ingenuous and remote from an appreciation of the real motives behind the historical issues as their frenzied devotion to the Church and the Crown, to chivalry and feudalism. The characteristic feature of the movement was rather that all of these positions emanated from an irrational and nondialectical worldview.48
Although I wholeheartedly endorse Hauser's brilliantly formulated thoughts, I do believe that the distinction between progressive and conservative tendencies can be useful, specifically when not only the political but also the artistic attitudes of the artists in question are taken into account and examined in relation to each other.
Such examination demonstrates that irrationality forms the common basis of two different mental attitudes, which are correspondingly reflected in two different understandings of art. French Romanticists support the Revolution. Their art tends to show dramatic, turbulent subject matter and a dynamic, sensual mode of representation in which the process of composition carries increasing weight as the vehicle of meaning. Painting dissolves the drawing, the brushstroke becomes pastose and dynamic, and coloring acquires new meaning-a tendency that steadily gains momentum in the course of developments from Goya via Géricault, Delacroix, Courbet, and Daumier to Impressionism. To the extent that it prefigures the great achievements of modernism, French Romanticism stands for the progressive version of the movement not only politically but artistically as well.
In contrast, German and English Romanticists are not only political reactionaries but also continue to uphold the artistic canon of past epochs. Their works show static, serene subject matter and a narrative, deeply symbolic mode of representation. The drawing dominates, the brushstroke is invisible, the palette is generally muted, sometimes colorful, but never expressive. Given the literary connotations and the Neoclassical principles of composition, German and English Romanticism, both of which ultimately flow into Symbolism, stand for the conservative version of this artistic movement.
I do not wish to overemphasize the concordance between political and artistic attitudes but the difference between the two Romantic directions is unmistakable despite their common ground. In French Romanticism, we recognize an early form of Expressionism, and in German and English Romanticism an early form of Symbolism.
1. Violence and passion: expressionist Romanticism in France
The Romantic impulse can be traced back to the second half of the 18th
century. The painting Stormy Sea at Night (fig. 19) typifies
the shift in subject matter to such events as shipwrecks, blazes, or other
catastrophes at sea, with which the French artist Claude-Joseph Vernet49
satisfied the sensationalist needs of the visitors to the salons in London
and Paris. These paintings herald the tendency toward melodramatic exaggeration
that was to prevail throughout Europe in the wake of Napoleon's fall.
During the Restoration, painting gradually abandoned reference to historical reality and became increasingly anecdotal. Favorite topics included war, the rape of women, strife, the hunt, tempests and conflagrations, death and violence, destruction and decay.50 In history paintings, the rendition of fear, horror, violence, and passion took precedence over the historical significance of the actual events. This art found financial backing from a growing middle class who wanted to participate in culture but had not acquired the necessary spiritual or aesthetic skills. In demand were paintings that did not require a special knowledge of art and that basically relinquished the claim to an artistic reinvention of visible reality.
The most successful artists in those days-William Collins, Paul Delaroche, Alexandre Decamps, Léopold Robert, Horace Vernet, Ary Scheffler, Thomas Couture, Louis Boulanger, and many more-were masters of compelling composition and were highly skilled craftsmen but tended primarily to play to the gallery. They produced a polished, facile, showy art whose suggestive scenes of sentimentality and horror fed into needs that are gratified by popular cinema today. The pictures were all of a literary nature with an anecdotal, narrative character; their artistic qualities were spent in illusionist naturalism and the melodramatically overstated representation of events (figs. 20, 21).
The principles of Classicism were thereby inverted. The Neoclassicists had not integrated the ideal which they propagated; it did not form an inner, psychic structure but remained 'external'-a detached idea of enraptured grandeur; it was not artistically realized and fulfilled but only represented. The salon Romanticists, on the other hand, had not integrated their exhibitionist ambitions and their emotionality. Their paintings did not express real sensations, i.e. feelings or experiences of their own. The sentimental, terrifying, or adventurous scenes in their compositions actually concealed a painful lack of emotion, a threatening sense of emptiness. They glorified emotions and feigned sympathy, courage, and passion, as a vicarious pleasure for a bourgeoisie no longer capable of genuine feelings.
Romantic artists neither recognized nor understood what really troubled them: the anxiety provoked by social change and omnipresent feelings of alienation. Their genuine inner concerns remained without an object and unarticulated. They lacked formative ambitions and idealized structures that could have united and channeled their energies; and, above all, they lacked the pictorial idiom that could lend artistic expression to their own feelings and inner experiences. These artists thus remained dependent upon exotic, sensational, and momentous subject matter couched in a narrative mode of representation. Nothing seemed awesome, adventurous, or dramatic enough to express the depth, the uniqueness, and the grandeur of their feelings. But instead of being given immediate expression, these feelings were illustrated. The Romantics did not exhibit their ideals like the Neoclassicists; they idealized their exhibition. Only a few major exponents of this movement, notably Géricault and Delacroix, succeeded in compensating or, indeed, surmounting the contradictions of this attitude through the artistic integrity of their oeuvres.
Théodore Géricault (1791-1824) left behind an extremely small oeuvre in his
short life span. The painting that has ensured his enduring international fame
is based on an actual event. In July 1817 a French frigate transporting settlers
and soldiers to Senegal was stranded off the African coast. The officers and
their crew scrambled to safety in the few lifeboats available, leaving most of
the passengers to their fate. The travelers managed to make a raft on which 150
people ventured out to sea. After days of desperation and unspeakable privation,
a mere fifteen survivors were discovered and rescued by a passing ship. This
event, which caused a terrible scandal in France, has been immortalized in a
monumental painting that Géricault only began once he had carefully researched
the story and interviewed all of the survivors, much like an investigative
reporter today. The painting shows the moment (on the thirteenth day) when those
still clinging to life marshal the little strength they have left to signal a
ship that has just been sighted on the horizon.
The Raft of the Medusa (fig. 22) was already unusual in the choice of subject matter; it did not depict an ancient myth, an important historical event, a literary creation, or something of the artist's invention but rather a "true" and highly controversial current event whose protagonists were not exceptional beings but ordinary people. Equally unusual was the way in which Géricault transcended the documentary character of his representation: instead of obeying the convention of merely illustrating a dramatic event, he sought pictorial equivalents for the agony, the desperation, and the frantic spark of hope of the shipwrecked travelers, thereby raising the fait divers to the level of a general and compelling parable.
The menacing diagonal, which traverses the entire picture plane from the lower right to the upper left, ending where the dark sail melts into heavy, black, thunderous clouds, cuts across the rhythm of the weakly but frantically straining pyramid of human bodies that culminates in the figure of the black man signaling to the rescue ship. This figure stands for the battered, helpless masses whose hopes are forever being dashed. Towering boldly above the line of the horizon, the man directs our gaze toward the distant, barely visible sail, the focus of all hope, the goal of the sufferers' last ounce of strength.
The composition, the synthesizing modulation of light and dark, and the orchestrated movement all communicate a visual drama through purely sensual means of expression and design, completely independent of narrative content. The dynamics echo the course of the depicted event, assimilating its attendant affective impact in order to express it in synaesthetic terms and thus translate the anecdote into pictorial language. By obviously recurring to the artistic principles of Michelangelo's Last Judgment, Géricault not only set himself off against the salon Romanticism then in currency; he was also the first to seriously question the predominance of the classicist canon within the Parisian art scene of the 19th century.
This painting, which provoked displeasure at the Parisian Salon of 181951 exerted a profound influence on Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863), noticeable as early as 1822 in The Barque of Dante and Massacre at Chios. In contrast to Géricault, however, Delacroix was not primarily interested in the event itself and the historical realism of his representation, but rather in lending eroticizing expression to the turbulence, horror, and violence of its emotions. In later paintings, Liberty Leading the People and The Death of Sardanapalus (figs. 23, 24), Delacroix transported the emotional world of Romanticism to a higher and broader stage. These two paintings transcend the content of the actual, visible event. Despite their sensationalism (or perhaps even because of it), they achieve archetypal validity; the particulars of history are elevated to the universality of myth.
On a journey to North Africa in 1832, Delacroix discovered the Oriental world whose motifs were to determine his entire subsequent work and also that of many contemporaries (including Gustave Moreau and the Symbolists). The Orient, already invoked in Rembrandt's paintings of biblical motifs, now offered many new artists an alternative to the 'grand event' and the world of antiquity. But Orientalism also served as a means of avoiding the challenges of the age, which would have meant taking a stand and working to acquire insight into one's own self. These emotionally charged paintings do not reflect authentic, personal feelings, for the mind of the age was closed to its own emotionality. Its surrogate was the glorification of paganism. Whether clothed in the garb of antiquity or that of the Orient-and despite all idealization-this surrogate remained external, foreign, and undigested.
Unlike the majority of Orientalists Delacroix integrated and digested his exhibitionist ambitions and ideals inasmuch as he did not simply illustrate them but expressed them directly through his own painterly idiom. The second version (1847-49) of Femmes d'Algier ushers in his magnificent late work, whose powerful colors and painterly expressiveness enraptured the artists of dawning modernism and exerted an enduring influence on them. The literary aspect recedes into the background, especially in the small-format sketches and studies. Light and color dissolve the drawing and acquire an unprecedented autonomy-the subject matter becomes an integral part of the artistic whole (fig. 25).
The art of William Turner (1775-1851) demonstrates the same artistic prowess. His dramatically turbulent and Romantic rendition of Nature could be classified as an escape from reality. However, the purely painterly treatment, the use of rhythm, shape, light, and color render the forces and passions of Nature's drama with a personal immediacy that unmistakably transcends mere illustration. Turner's paintings do not convey the illusion of an adventure; they are an adventure. They embody an idea rather than simply proclaiming it. In this respect, Turner goes far beyond the idealistic attitude of his contemporaries and ranks, like Delacroix, among the great precursors of modernism (fig. 26).
2. Escapism and esoterics: 'irrealistic' Romanticism
While Neoclassicism yearned for grandeur and the values of antiquity, and French
Romanticism for passion and adventure, the yearning of certain artists
and artistic movements from northern Europe takes a different turn, focusing
on the loss of faith, the loss of meaning in life, and, ultimately, on
a new revelation.
These artists are resolutely opposed to the materialist and positivist tendencies of their age. They disdain the new world of machines and industry; they aspire to greater things, to higher art and spiritual values. Inasmuch as they have thereby lost their grip on reality, they might be called "painters of irreality," to rephrase the title of a study by Philippe Roberts-Jones (1978).
The earliest precursor of these Irrealists, the English poet, painter, and mystic William Blake (1757-1827), might be viewed as a psychological borderline case. A profoundly religious person, but also estranged from reality and Nature, he was at the complete mercy of his visions and fantasies. Today he would probably be described as a latent schizophrenic. He already suffered from hallucinations as a young child (at the age of four he saw the countenance of God at his father's window)52 and visions of angels or figures from the past tormented him in adulthood. He was convinced that deceased spirits guided his writing. In a letter to his patron Thomas Butts, from Felpham, of July 6, 1803, he declares, I dare not pretend to be any other than the Secretary, the Authors are in Eternity.53 Milton, Moses, and the Prophets appaeared to him in person and he desribed them as majestic shadows, gray, yet luminous and larger than ordinary people.54 For the most part, hisphets appeared to him in person and he described the art shows heavy-handed renditions of heavenly visions and (not very successful) attempts to mediate between eternity and temporality, purity and sin, and ultimately between reality and madness (fig. 27). His writings pursued similarly esoteric goals as indicated by the titles of his most important publications, the series of "Prophetic Books" and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
Incomparably more significant is the German painter Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840), who, like Blake, may also be considered a forerunner of Symbolism along with Carl Gustav Carus and Philipp Otto Runge (figs. 28-30). Friedrich takes his inspiration primarily from his own inner life which seems far more real to him than external reality. Charged with allegory and symbolism, his atmospheric, Romantic landscapes express the melancholy sensations of transience and eternity. They are imbued with ineffable longing. But here, too, the object of longing remains diffuse, a fantasy with no concrete shape. The light of the moon or the setting sun, radiating from the depth of his paintings, remains as undefined and unreal as the lonely, dark figures set off against it. Real-that is, really effective-in these pictures is only a melancholy refusal that gives expression to the remote and unknown; real is only the artist's own longing. Only the longing acquires form and is idealized, and not the object of longing. The ideal in Friedrich's case is no longer integrated into the self; it is no longer a self-evident part of his inner structure but rather something that is outside, diffuse, unfathomable, and irreal.
A far more questionable form of idealistic longing is found in the art of the so-called Nazarenes. Active in Rome around 1810-20, this group of German and Austrian artists aspired to a "new-German-religious-patriotic" art. Espousing a moral, religious lifestyle, they were derisively dubbed Nazarenes, a name they then adopted themselves. They looked to the past, with a preference for themes from biblical history and German heroic epics; their cloying representations of heroism were inspired by the early work of Raphael, but without showing the least hint of his artistic qualities. In these self-castigating images, we encounter not only the desperate search for a lost faith and a meaning gone astray but also an unmistakable tendency toward self-deception and kitsch.
This tendency also forms a salient feature of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, founded in London in 1848 by Dante Gabriel Rosetti (1828-82) and others. The Pre-Raphaelites called for what they saw as a spiritual depth in art plus a childlike return to the origins of art. Of the opinion that Raphael was not "pure" enough as an artist, they turned to his predecessors, painters of the early Renaissance like Perugino or Botticelli. Their art engaged an historicizing and costumed classicism with an anemic, intellectualized Romanticism. The supernatural figure of the "devout maiden with a lily" wanders through their images as a foil for the lascivious femme fatale, who was to be glorified by their successors (figs. 31, 32). They wanted to be not only painters but also poets, philosophers, and preferably even prophets. In retrospect, it is evident that they attained none of these goals.
In conclusion, the first half of the 19th century was characterized by the
opposition between Neoclassicism and Romanticism. While Neoclassical artists
championed the scale and form of Greco-Roman ideals, the Romantics gave voice to
profound longing (in Germany and England) or passion (in France). Despite the
contrasts between them, both artistic movements express the same basic
experience of an age that is drawing to a close: the loss of a narcissistic
balance, i.e. the loss of dependable values and of ambitions that do justice to
the needs of the ego.
The Neoclassicists sought to recover self-confidence by seeking identity in a return to the canon of antiquity, while the Romantics succumbed to a melancholy yearning for the past or attempted to escape their inner emptiness through ecstatic devotion to violence, passion, and adventure.
This art is still marked by the spirit of the modern age nearing its end: its expression is impassioned and full of pathos; the human being-elevated to tragic heights-is still the center of the world.55 The same tenets apply to Symbolism. Throughout Europe, this art movement forms the last attempt to artistically glorify the disintegrating self-image and worldview that informed the ambitions, hopes, and ideals of the modern age.
The Quest for Meaning: from Romanticism to Symbolism
The Symbolist movement, which spreads over almost all of Europe after 1870, culminates in the irrealistic tendencies of the 19th century and exerts a far-reaching influence until well into the 20th century. It comprises musicians, writers, and an extensive roster of painters. Although largely congruent in spirit, two discrete groups can be distinguished in terms of subject matter. The first, like the Pre-Raphaelites, glorifies the pure, the noble, and the sublime; the second, sin and sex, death and the devil.
1. The pure, the noble, and the sublime
The Symbolists share a consciousness, with the Pre-Raphaelites, of standing
at the end of an epoch and facing the dissolution of a civilization. But instead
of lamenting the fate of belonging to an aging culture, they associate the
concepts of old age and fatigue, over-cultivation and degeneration with the idea
of an intellectual nobility.56
An exhibitionist yearning, the display of one's own anxieties and escapist fantasies, the enthusiastic embrace of old, exhausted, and over-refined cultures like Hellenism or the late Roman Empire, a weariness of life and longing for death-these are the features common to German and English Romanticism and all Symbolist art.
Typically German manifestations of this intellectual attitude are embodied in the mysterious, foreboding atmosphere of the famous Island of the Dead by Arnold Böcklin (1827-1910) (fig. 33) and in the symbolist paintings of Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918) (fig. 34). More facile and lighter variations are found in the works of Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898) (fig. 35) or Paul Sérusier (1864-1927). The mood is all-pervasive; it resonates in the titles of paintings that bear eloquent witness to the intellectual, literary orientation of Symbolist art. They all address eternity and ultimacy: The Dream, The Thought, The Wave, The Sea, The Grove, The Night, The Kiss; countless Hymns to Joy, to the Sea, to Love; furthermore Silent Christ, The Lament of Orpheus, Ophelia, Evening of Antiquity, or even Love at the Fount of Life.
Symbolist artists saw themselves as priests. They proclaimed ascetic ideals and plumbed the mysteries of being and the depths of the soul; they shunned all that was concrete, natural, and rational in their quest for the unknown and the supra-sensuous. Many Symbolists thus sympathized with theosophy.57
The reactionary origins of their pseudo-religious speculations are manifest in the concluding sentences with which Sâr Péladan, the founder of Rosicrucianism, concludes his foreword to the catalogue of the first extensive showing of Symbolist art by Durand-Ruel in Paris (1892): Mankind, oh Savior, will always go to Mass when the priests are Bach, Beethoven, or Palestrina. Miserable moderns, you shall never prevail, St. George will always kill the monster, and genius, beauty, will always be God. Brethren in art, I give the war cry, let us form a holy band to redeem ideality. We are few against all, but the angels fight with us. We have no leader but the Old Masters shall lead the way to Paradise.58
Symbolism treats the work of art as a substitute for life; it is the true realization and consummation of a basically mundane, imperfect, and disappointing existence. Such determined rejection of the concrete experience of reality and all that is natural is reflected in the stilted artificiality and affectation of this esoteric art. Very few exponents of the Symbolist movement succeed in raising the message of their paintings from a literary, symbolic level to a painterly one.59 Seldom do the sensual and the spiritual come together to form a homogeneous unity, and equally rare is the encounter with a spiritual reality. The ideal in Symbolism always appears as something "entirely other." It is always embodied in a rarefied Nature-in a tree, a flower, a grove, in the sea, or the sun, but also in the moon, in sleep, dreams, or death. But above all, and over and over again, it takes the shape of a pure, chaste maiden (usually appareled in white, flowing garments), shown in a rapture of religious feeling, who may be standing motionless and mute in an idyllic landscape, utterly intoxicated by the scent of blossoms, or strolling about in a sacred grove with other maidens.
Never is the attempt made to do justice to the reality of these appearances. They are always treated symbolically; they always stand for something other, something distant and beyond human grasp-for the loss of meaning. Everything in this art breathes the spirit of the eternal and the sublime; everything looks forced and fake. In vain does an obtrusive pathos seek to disguise the inner emptiness of these works. The ideal, which the symbols are meant to embody, remains undefined, without an inner structure. Despite their trappings, the divine and the eternal have irrevocably lost all spiritual reality and thus the contours of their shape. I hear, but lack the faith, am dispossessed.60 Like Goethe's Faust, many Symbolist painters renounce the godly and succumb to the satanic in a last ditch attempt to salvage illusion and their idea of the absolute.
2. Sin and sex, death and the devil
The pious maiden with the lily and the pure, enraptured young woman gazing
into the distance now give way to the lascivious, perverse and wanton woman, the
personification of sin, the seductive femme fatale, who spells disaster by
dragging men of intellect into death and destruction.
This shift from sanctity to depravity reveals a central aspect of the spiritual crisis that undermines the self-image of the 19th century: the socially institutionalized denial of the instinctual and sexual dimension of human existence. The first cracks begin to appear in bourgeois hypocrisy, which is to encounter its most determined opponent at the turn of the century in Sigmund Freud. The forerunner of this development is the Swiss artist Johann Heinrich Füssli (1741-1825), who lived in London where he was known as Henry Fuseli. His art, like that of his friend William Blake, revolves around a world of dreams and the supernatural. But Fuseli replaces religious concerns with an explicitly erotic component. Sleeping women become victim to visions of horror in which they are beset by all manner of chimeras, of skeletons, animals or dwarfs; witches or fairies appear as harbingers of a fantastic twilight zone; insect women devour their mates like praying mantises. The artistic means of rendering these Symbolist images draw on both contemporary Neoclassicism and 16th century Mannerism, but their visionary fantasies border on Surrealism (fig. 36).
The counter-ideal of woman as morbidly sensuous and satanically attractive is glorified by the painters Gustave Moreau (1826-98), Félicien Rops (1833-98), Fernand Khnopff (1858-1921), Franz von Stuck (1863-1928), Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), and Aubrey Beardsley (1872-98) (figs. 37-41). However, their pictures lack the veiled ambiguity that informs Fuseli's compositions with such fascinating tension. The fantasies of these artists are as transparent and one-dimensional as their picture titles: Sin, The Voice of Evil, The Vanquished Demon, Death at the Ball, Sensuality, Hell, The Angel of Sodom, Judith, Salomé, or Galatea.
Far from confronting their sexuality and integrating it into their selves, these artists-as typical exponents of 19th century bourgeois society-project their repressed instinctual drives onto the image of the "sinful woman." Moreau describes his female idol as an unthinking being, mad on mystery and the unknown, smitten with evil in the form of perverse and diabolical seduction. […] Here are women whose soul has gone from them, waiting by the wayside for the lascivious goat to come by. […] Aloof and sombre women, in a dream of envy and unappeased pride.61
Joris Karl Huysmans, the author of the key Symbolist novel A rebours/Against the Grain, sees the figure of the new woman as the goddess of immortal Hysteria, the Curse of Beauty supreme above all other beauties, […] a monstrous Beast of the Apocalypse, indifferent, irresponsible, insensible, poisoning, like Helen of Troy of the old Classic fables, all who come hear her, all who see her, all who touch her.62
Despite the ambivalent embrace of amorality and perversion, this art is also buoyed by an idealist attitude and is thus spiritually akin to the Nazarenes and the Pre-Raphaelites as well as to the 'pure' variant of Symbolism. It does not confront the reality of sexuality but rather replaces it with the caricature of wishful fantasies.
In his discussion of Symbolist writers, Hauser describes the "decadents"-as the Symbolists proudly dubbed themselves-as hedonists with a bad conscience, sinners whose sexuality was completely dominated by the psychological puberty of the Romantics and who threw themselves remorsefully into the arms of the Catholic Church.63 To them, love is the essence of the forbidden, the irreparable fall of man, but Romantic satanism transforms this sinfulness itself into a source of lust: love is not only intrinsically evil, its highest pleasure consists precisely in the consciousness of doing evil. Hauser goes on to say that the sympathy for the prostitute, the femme fatale, and the great courtesan, exemplified by the figures of Messalina, Judith, Cleopatra, or Salomé, is the expression of the same inhibited, guilt-ridden relationship to love. The prostitute is the déracinée and the outlaw, the rebel who revolts not only against the institutional bourgeois form of love, but also against its 'natural' spiritual form. […] She is cold in the midst of the storms of passion, she is and remains the superior spectator of the lust that she awakens, she feels lonely and apathetic when others are enraptured and intoxicated-she is, in brief, the artist's female double. From this community of feeling and destiny arises the understanding which the artists of decadence show for her. They know how they prostitute themselves, how they surrender their most sacred feelings, and how cheaply they sell their secrets.64
The Symbolist courtship of sin and depravation can also be viewed in terms of Kohut's psychology of narcissism. While the attitude of the Nazarenes, the Pre-Raphaelites, and the "noble" Symbolists may be understood as the attempt to compensate the threatening loss of the self through the unsuccessful, compensatory hypercathexis (excessive investment of the narcissistic libido) of the idealized pole, the opposite tendency can be observed in the art of the "decadents" who seek to rescue the self through exhibition, through the display of their own fears and instinctual drives. To keep inner emptiness at bay, to recover lost feelings of inner tension and vitality, these artists resort to intense, eroticizing stimulation of any kind-to sensations of fear, horror, and lust. Asked about his artistic criteria, Verlaine, one of the most important Symbolist writers, concedes, Everything is beautiful and good no matter where it comes from nor how it has been achieved. Neoclassicists, Romantics, decadence, Symbolism, alliterationists, or, how shall I put it, obfuscators, if they only make me shudder, simply enrapture me, even, and perhaps above all, if […] I don't quite know why,-whatever the case, I get my money's worth.65
In general, the "decadent" Symbolists, like their "noble" compeers, do not succeed in lending their erotic imaginings and their sinful counter-ideals an autonomous painterly form. Their instinctual drives are not integrated into their own selves but remain severed ideas and, as such, exert only an indirect influence (through the choice of subject matter) rather than flowing into the painterly craft and finding direct expression in pure pictorial composition, gesture, and brushstroke. Their pictures are illustrative and narrative; nothing more. Significantly, small sketches whose painterly qualities upstage the importance of their subject matter are the most successful. Thus, Moreau's small, almost nonfigurative Ebauches testify to the great talent that this artist sacrifices to his neurotic fixations and lets slip altogether in the pompous intellectual Romanticism of his prestige painting.
While Classicists, Romantics, Pre-Raphaelites and Symbolists were glorifying
personal emotion and the unreal-the putatively spiritual-in their many and
various ways, a diametrically opposed development was running counter to these
tendencies. This led from Romantic landscape painting to the total abandonment
of transcendentalism and the rediscovery of visible reality.
In quest of a new metaphor for the eternal and the universal, for truth and life, the English painter John Constable (1776-1837) discovered-like the Dutch a century earlier-the beauty of the natural environment in which he lived. His art exerted a great influence on Delacroix and prompted the development of a new landscape romanticism whose foremost representatives were Camille Corot (1796-1875) and a group of young painters who had settled at Barbizon, near Fontainebleau, in the latter half of the 1840s (figs. 42-44).
The great precursors of this movement were the Dutch landscape painters of the 17th century. But the Dutch, because they construed what they painted primarily as a possession, emphasized the specific, objective, local character of their landscapes. By contrast, the painters of the new paysage intime sought to stress the universality of Nature. Their basic sentiment was a kind of Nature cult, their creative aim to engender a lyrical atmosphere, and their principal instrument tonality. All their landscapes were embedded in an atmospheric chiaroscuro replete with subtle nuances. There are no fixed lines in Nature, declared Corot. Nature hovers and floats. We ourselves hover and float. Vagueness is the peculiarity of life.66
Despite their pantheism, however, these painters were seldom prepared to paint Nature as it is, in other words, as something existing of and in itself. It was now enlivened, not by mythological or biblical figures, but by rustic charm-by agricultural laborers, walkers taking a rest, gypsies, and the like. Nature did not exist for its own sake, but for human beings.67 Also implicit in this glorification of Nature and the simplicity of rural life was an element of social criticism, directed primarily at modern industrial development and the hectic artificiality of urban life. It was not until the late 1860s that Gustave Courbet (1819-77), a friend of Corot's, took the decisive step: renouncing all romantic or polemical interpretations of Nature, he confined himself to depicting its visual appearance alone (figs. 47, 48).
Courbet was a man of the people, an ardent democrat, and an artist lacking any desire for bourgeois respectability.68 At the Salon of 1850, he aroused violent controversy with a huge picture of a village funeral and a smaller painting of two workmen breaking stones (fig. 45). The depiction of humble folk such as peasants and laborers was not new in itself. Genre paintings by Dutch masters of the 17th century enjoyed great popularity in France in Courbet's day, but they were all small in format. By portraying his peasants and laborers life-size, Courbet invested them with a dignity and importance hitherto reserved for exceptional events or 'the great'. He also refrained from any sentimental transfiguration or Romantic idealization of his subject matter-indeed, he had every right to claim that The Burial at Ornans had consigned Romanticism to the grave.69
Although a small minority of artists and critics voiced their admiration of The Burial, the general public and most of the official critics were shocked and disapproving. In 1853 the same fate attended The Bathers, depicting a woman whose naked body was blatantly at odds with the contemporary ideal of beauty (fig. 46). The critic, Delécluze, even declared that Courbet's bather was so monstrous that she would spoil a crocodile's appetite.
Two years before this scandal broke, the Académie had presented Courbet with a medal that assured the automatic acceptance of his work at future Salons. For that reason, and although his art was officially deprecated, he was represented by several works at almost every Salon until 1871, when he was arrested for his activities during the Commune. In 1855, the year of the Exposition Universelle, the jury accepted eleven of Courbet's submissions but rejected The Burial at Ornans and The Painter's Studio. He was so infuriated that-at his own expense-he erected a pavilion near the exhibition grounds where he showed these and other paintings. Mounted above the entrance was a large sign inscribed "Gustave Courbet-Le réalisme." This wording not only underlined his rejection of the idealistic bias that governed the painting of his day (Classicism and Romanticism) but also inaugurated a new artistic movement.70 He defined his creed in the following, celebrated words: I hold that painting is essentially a concrete art and does not consist of anything but the representation of real and existing things. It is a completely physical language using for words all visible objects. An abstract object, one which is invisible, non-existent, is not of the domain of painting.71
For Courbet, anything was worthy of depiction provided it could be deemed true and real. Reflected in this approach to art was a political credo. Courbet and his followers acted on the conviction that they were the champions of truth and outriders of the future. I am not only a socialist, he stated in a letter of 1851, but also a democrat and a republican, in a word, a partisan of revolution and, above all, a realist, that is, the sincere friend of the real truth.72 Conservative critics were well aware of this political dimension in the new artistic trend. They felt that Courbet's contempt for the aesthetic ideals of his time, which, despite revolution and social upheaval, had managed to survive, almost unchanged, until 1850, was tantamount to a protest against existing society, and that his peasants and laborers, his vulgar and unshapely middleclass women represented a call for a new vision of the human race and a new social order. Their charge that realism was entirely lacking in idealism and higher morality-that it wallowed in the ugly and abject and constituted a slavish imitation of Nature-was also directed largely against the political profession of faith that found expression in this kind of painting.73
The more Courbet's art matured and approached its artistic zenith, the more exclusively did he devote himself to landscapes and still lifes (fig. 47). He never idealized or exaggerated his subject matter, viewing it in a calmly objective manner that is altogether devoid of high-flown sentimentality. The soul of his works is to be found in their painterly craftsmanship, not in the motifs themselves. This approach he adopted from Caravaggio, Frans Hals, or Velázquez, wishing to record the commonplace in the style of those masters. At the same time, he perfected the tonality introduced by Corot. All his figures are coated in a fine patina, all his colors are muted and harmonious. All dissonance vanishes, everything is reduced to a few colors and basic shades. Despite their often trivial and profane themes, these pictures make a serious, almost solemn impression and radiate great inner serenity.
This artist has ceased to attach any ideal significance to what he depicts. Only the representation itself matters; only the representation is idealized, not its subject. The latter can be anything, as long as it is tackled with honesty. We encounter a similar approach in the painting of Édouard Manet (1832-83), but whereas Courbet located his everyday scenes in the provinces and sought his landscape motifs in the countryside, Manet's interest was centered wholly on life in the French capital.
Not only thematically but technically as well, Manet marks the transition from the modern era to modernism. This intermediate position between the two epochs finds its first expression in his celebrated Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe
of 1863 (fig. 50). Measuring some two meters by three, this painting shows a contemporary group of two men and two women picnicking in a clearing on the banks of a river or lake. One of the women is emerging from the water in the background while the other sits, stark naked, beside the two fully clothed men. Instead of conversing with her companions, she has turned away from them and is calmly regarding the beholder, who thus becomes a voyeur caught in flagrante.
Manet had completed his picture in time for the Salon of 1863, but the jury that year was exceptionally hidebound and conservative; it rejected 2,800 entries out of over 5,000, Manet's among them. He managed to show the painting nonetheless, because the indignant and disappointed artists prevailed upon Napoleon III to establish an alternative, juryless Salon in which they could exhibit their works.
Although Manet's Déjeuner was hung in the most remote part of this Salon des Refusés, it instantly became the focus of attention, attracting a spate of abuse and sarcastic comment. The general public found it shocking and indecent, while the critics accused Manet of deliberately provoking a scandal and offending the ordinary citizen. Yet Manet's Déjeuner was the modern paraphrase of a noted and much admired 16th century work that had never previously given offence. This was Giorgione's Fête Champêtre74 in which the Venetian master had depicted a similar group in the midst of an idyllic landscape: two fully clothed young gentlemen in the company of two naked women (fig. 49). The 16th century costumes enabled the Parisian bourgeoisie to regard the scene as "unreal" and, thus, as legitimate and innocuous. By transposing it into the present, however, Manet invested it with realism and thereby rendered it offensive: he had arrogated to himself and his own day privileges hitherto reserved for the artists of times gone by.
At the next Salon, Manet was represented by another female nude. This painting-his subsequently celebrated Olympia (fig. 52)-was likewise a modern transposition of a 16th century subject, namely, Titian's Venus of Urbino (fig. 51). By transforming the Roman goddess of love into a Parisian demi-mondaine, Manet aroused even more ire than he had with his Déjeuner. The provocative contrast between past and present was not confined to the difference in clothing and social status of the persons depicted; it also manifested itself in the painting's psychological effect and pictorial characteristics. Manet steadfastly refrained from romantically transfiguring or idealizing his subject. Its extremely down-to-earth treatment is emphasized, even more strongly than in Déjeuner, by the direct and calmly dispassionate way in which the naked woman regards her invisible beholder (i.e. the Salon visitor of the day). Her gaze amounts to a refusal to be somehow "significant"75 and thereby undermines the existing self-image of the modern era. This courtesan dispenses with her special status as a human being in the cosmos and becomes one thing among others.
People of the time were equally disconcerted by Manet's pictorial innovations, above all his complete renunciation of perspectival effects and modeling. Whereas Titian's masterpiece, with its melting chiaroscuros, positively draws the beholder into the depths of the room or tempts the eye to caress the divine hetaera's provocatively displayed body and roam over each of her opulent curves, Manet confronts us throughout with flat planes. The room is entirely without depth, the couch without breadth, and the reclining figure looks like a cut-out. The whole thing reminded the artist's contemporaries of playing card pictures or the folksy Images d'Épinal. Manet was accused of incompetence, vulgarity, and tastelessness. Even Courbet described Olympia as the Queen of Spades after her bath. Like most of his contemporaries, he had failed to perceive the trailblazing significance of this new painterly approach.
Manet forces us to look at his picture instead of into it. Not permitting us to lose ourselves in an illusory spatial depth, he compels us to look at the surface of the canvas; he wants to show not only a naked girl, but the application of the paint itself.76 His realism applies first and foremost to the reality of the picture, and to him this includes its genesis, which is to be made manifest and transparent. Most of his confrères, when finishing off their pictures, were at pains to smooth over every uneven brushstroke and eradicate all traces of the act of painting. Delacroix lamented: One always has to spoil a picture a little bit, in order to finish it. The last touches, which are given to bring about harmony among the parts, take away from the freshness. In order to appear before the public one has to cut away all the happy negligences which are the passion of the artist.77
Manet was unwilling to do this. Instead of continuing to strive for the "perfect execution" on which the Académie and the public insisted, he developed a swift, sketchy mode of painting that enabled him to capture the fleeting moment, the immediate "impression" made on him by a subject (fig. 53). Spontaneity, rhythm, and precise brushwork became his central concerns. The process of painting acquired as much importance as the subject matter.
Such was the attitude in which the artistic paradigm of modernism initially manifested itself between 1860 and 1870. Henceforward, the picture and its making formed the actual theme of painting.