Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 24, 2018
Cordula Grewe The Nazarenes: Romantic Avant-Garde and the Art of the Concept University Park: Penn State University Press, 2015. 400 pp.; 74 color ills.; 14 b/w ills. Cloth $89.95 (9780271064147)

Two art students get fed up with their teachers, hang together, and start making art on their own. They quit school, move to a hipper city, change hairstyles, and form an art commune. One of the duo dies young, the other marries, and their followers drift away, settle down, go commercial, and generally become the next generation’s object of loathing. The story would be banal were it not so early in the history of art. Founded in Vienna on July 10, 1809, by its “master” Friedrich Overbeck and “priest” Franz Pforr, the Brotherhood of St. Luke—nicknamed the Nazarenes because of their Jesus haircuts—set the pattern for secessions afterward, even if few remember or can fathom the movement’s artistic tabula rasa. The Nazarenes rebelled through a quasi-religious devotion to the past. Their precocious “end of art history” went hand in hand with a burdened consciousness of art’s history and with the dawning of the Age of History. The most prominent Nazarene paintings do not hang in museums, but are painted on museums, those unnoticed allegories of Kunstgeschichte in the halls, ceilings, and staircases of public art collections. Cordula Grewe’s magnificent book seeks to pluck these works from obscurity by resurrecting their huge but forgotten aims.

In 1810, the principal Lukasbrüder—Overbeck, Pforr, Ludwig Vogel, and Johann Konrad Hottinger—moved to Rome to claim the city’s art as their inheritance and to escape Vienna under Napoleon’s occupation. New rules prevented foreign students (Overbeck and Pforr were German) from studying in Austria’s Academy of Fine Arts. But Napoleon also embodied everything the fraternity despised: Enlightenment universalism, the triumph of reason over feeling, the extinction of cultural diversity, the attack on Christianity, and the seizure of church property through secularization. Enmity of the Nazarenes as Germans toward the French played a role, although German national identity was more the historical offspring of the face-off with France. Napoleon’s self-coronation in 1804 in the presence of the pope symbolized the end of medieval Europe, yet at precisely that moment a new image of the Middle Ages was born. This new image was not thoroughly idealizing. The German Romantics resurrected that buried epoch not as a universal norm but instead as the local, nontransferable history that made them different, that made them German.

In Rome the fraternity moved into San Isidoro, an Irish Franciscan monastery secularized after French occupation. In this deconsecrated territory, but with some monks still encamped there, the painters adopted monastic practices, eating communally, working and praying on the rhythm of liturgical time, wearing monkish clothing, and adopting a coiffure that gave the movement its name. The gestures look backward and forward. Religiously inspired, they are secularizations: the artist as priest, the atelier as chapel, the museum as church, etc. Nazarene collectivism was Janus-faced, as well. Aimed at constituting itself as a new society, it modeled itself on the integration of artist and community that seemed the hallmark of the Middle Ages, yet its purpose was to model a future where artists could be both individual and belong. Also vanguard was the Nazarene understanding of the past. There had been earlier artistic revivals, especially in Rome. But in these, the past was recovered as timeless norm. The Middle Ages meant something different to the Nazarenes than classical antiquity meant to Renaissance painters, academic art theory, or Neoclassicism. The repudiated “dark” epoch between antiquity and its rebirth, the Middle Ages was a patently time-bound model for a particular historical people, the Germans, who were what they had become through their specific, contingent development. Instead of a universal history there would be histories in the plural, with art reflecting and creating difference. Henceforth, art would develop not by following normative rules but by looking back, or elsewhere, for other Others, both historical and geographic—the Gothic, Japan, Tahiti, Africa. Marked by historical consciousness, modernism also detached itself from history through exotic appropriations.

Grewe subtitled her book Romantic Avant-Garde and the Art of the Concept, advertising the Nazarenes as the original artistic modernists. With them began artistic secession as a collective act. With them began the displacement of artistry from material expressions to abstraction and idea—theirs was a Conceptual art avant la lettre. Grewe backs up these and other momentous claims by writing the most penetrating treatment of this important movement in any language. Profusely illustrated, beautifully produced, and a pleasure to read, The Nazarenes is at once a global analysis of these artists’ creations and aims, and a wide-ranging polemic about the field of art history today. Retrieving the Nazarenes’ originally revolutionary intentions, Grewe seeks to expose art history’s powerful prejudices against this movement, prejudices that reveal the hidden role of taste in the discipline’s construction of its object.

Grewe fights an uphill battle. However precocious its concepts, Nazarene art still looks irretrievably retrograde to the eyes of most people in our profession: saccharine subjects treated in a style so slick that even its models suffer. Raphael’s perfection has never quite recovered from these too-perfect emulators. Grewe confronts this legacy head on. She notes that, for more than a century, the discipline of art history has prided itself on being value free. It understands artifacts in their time, rather than judging them by present standards. But in the case of the art produced during these two centuries of value-free art history, historians are peculiarly swayed by taste, and at all levels, from which artists are deemed worthy of serious study to which art historians deserve promotion to tenure. It is impossible to imagine a student being dissuaded from dissertating on, say, Jerg Ratgeb because of that sixteenth-century painter’s rebarbative style, yet there are whole areas of modern art production that could be toxic for a career. Curiously, taste-based judgment as criterion for which artists are worthy of historical analysis begins to set in for art dating from around the period when taste was banned from historical analysis. Modern value-free art history has its origins in the culture of the Nazarenes, which celebrated the historical contingency of style and of taste, but as targets of unreflective negative criticism, the Nazarenes are also the earliest movement not treated by this standard.           

Among the early criticisms leveled at the Nazarenes was that they were a sterile “art historical” kind of art. Imitating older styles, painting a pseudo-Raphael one day and a pseudo-Dürer another, they were the first to have no style of their own. This confounded historical analysis and foreshadowed the modern divorce of art from life. Grewe historicizes this description. She notes that one of their earliest detractors, the Left Hegelian Friedrich Theodor Vischer, understood the Nazarenes “art about art” to mean “act of reflection.” Meant negatively, Vischer’s characterization allows Grewe to relate what seem superficial paintings to the high criticism of Friedrich Schlegel and to Immanuel Kant’s Copernican Revolution. The epigonal character of Nazarene artworks, the sense they give of being images of images of images, suddenly becomes an effect actively pursued. Intended to be thought-images (Denkbilder), they invite thinking about the nature of the image itself. What seemed aesthetic poverty (flatness, lifelessness, stiltedness) becomes a strategy of abstraction. Granted, the thoughts the Nazarenes entertain are at odds with our secular discipline, since they center on the restoration of the Christian faith. But Grewe reminds us that there have always been reactionary avant-gardes, and that reenchantment—the return of magic to a demystified world—is among the Nazarenes’ vanguard endeavors.

Grewe’s account is original and convincing. Understood as conceptual art, the Lucasbrüder’s historicist fantasies become harbingers of appropriation as a key strategy in contemporary art. The dream of merging artistic style with lifestyle in order to create an unalienated political order prefigures future utopias of both the Left and Right. And the trouble art historians have with the Nazarenes derives from contradictions in the discipline, in its combination of historical neutrality and redemptive promise. This brief review cannot do justice to this book’s accomplishments. It is a testament to it that new questions arise. Grewe devotes several pages to Peter Cornelius’s huge Last Judgment, made for King Ludwig of Bavaria in homage to Michelangelo. She elucidates why instead of updating or outdoing the Sistine fresco, Cornelius reverts to its medieval roots, flattening and deadening what Michelangelo made corporeal and alive. But within this Denkbild, Cornelius’s figures gesture histrionically, like bad actors in a period drama circa 1840. This disruptive intrusion of the contemporary is even stronger in the fairytale paintings of Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, not discussed by Grewe, which trumpet their artificiality. Such shifts from concept to anecdote might be chalked up to the movement’s waning energies, but they also relate to a central artistic device. Grewe devotes many pages to Romantic allegory but says nothing about Romantic irony. This was a missed opportunity. Irony is, after all, a species of allegory. It says one thing and means something else, though its valence is different, particularly in the political sphere, since it leads to indecision, not transcendence. Irony pervades Romantic art criticism—think of Clemens Brentano, Ludwig Tieck, and Heinrich von Kleist’s readings of Caspar David Friedrich—and it clearly energized the art of Karl Blechen and later of Adolf von Menzel.

Irony can also act as a defense against the most common criticism of Nazarene art: that it is kitsch. The charge is as old as the word itself, coined to describe debased imitations of the Old Masters available to the masses in mass-produced form. The proximity between engravings after Raphael and Raphael-inspired Nazarene artworks makes it hard for art history to turn back the clock and see, instead of kitsch, the avant-garde. Irony might help to make that transition, if only because the seed of irony planted in German Romanticism flowers in that leading strain of avant-garde today, ironic kitsch. Grewe is right. Without the Nazarenes, an understanding of modern art is incomplete. 

Joseph Leo Koerner
Thomas Professor of History of Art and Architecture, Harvard University