When the Pyramid at the Louvre was being built in the 1980s, they also built a large underground exposition space called the Hall Napoléon, which is now used for temporary exhibitions. The exhibition I saw there in May 2013 was called De l’Allemagne (= About Germany), 1800-1939, from Friedrich to Beckmann.
The title De l’Allemagne was not chosen by accident, because that was the title of a well-known book (actually three volumes, when it was first published) by Madame de Staël from the early 19th century, giving a comprehensive introduction to German literature, philosophy, arts and sciences for French readers, who at the time typically knew nothing about the hodge-podge of kingdoms, duchies and margraviates that were later consolidated into the country of Germany.
The reason Madame de Staël (1766-1817) was so knowledgeable about Germany was that she had been exiled from France by the Emperor Napoléon I, who also prevented the publication of her books as long as he was in power. So it is slightly ironical that the title of her book was used for an exhibition in a hall named after Napoléon.
To avoid queuing at the entrance, I bought an advance ticket the day before at the fnac store at 136 Rue de Rennes in Montparnasse. The ticket cost twelve Euros plus a commission of 1.60 that I gladly paid. For three more Euros I could have bought a combination ticket for the exhibition and the rest of the Louvre, but I had read that there were over two hundred pictures in the exhibition alone, which I figured would be enough for one day. When I bought the ticket I had to tell them the day and time I wanted to come. The ticket was only valid for admittance in the half hour after the allotted time, but after that I could stay as long as I wanted to.
On my ticket it said I should enter by the Priority Entrance of the Pyramid, which meant that I could walk right past a long line of people and didn’t even have to put my backpack through the scanning machine. I just had to open my backpack and let a young lady glance inside. All she saw was my bicycle helmet, but that evidently convinced her I was a trustworthy person, so she waved me through.
The goal of this exhibition was to place the two hundred German artworks “in the intellectual context of their time” and confront them “with the writings of great thinkers, chief among whom is Goethe.”
This was an ambitious and certainly well-intentioned project, developed jointly by French and German curators. Nonetheless, some German reviewers were outraged and claimed the exhibition was warming up old clichés and prejudices about Germany. They said it was trying to show that all of German thought and art led directly to Hitler’s dictatorship. Other German reviewers disagreed with this, as did French reviewers and the director of the Louvre.
So I wanted to see for myself what all the fuss was about. Since I am neither French nor German I consider myself a neutral observer in this case, but I am by no means an amateur in the French sense of the word, meaning well-informed and competent in artistic matters; rather I am an amateur in the English sense of the word, which means roughly the opposite.
Be that as it may, my opinion after seeing the exhibition De l’Allemagne is that it was rather spotty (no wonder, since it tried to cover a period of 139 years) but certainly not anti-German. The fuss in the German press merely shows how touchy some German critics are, but has little to do with the exhibition itself.
My main criticism of the exhibition is that one rather unimportant artist was over-represented, namely Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840). Dozens of his paintings were on display (more than by any other single artist), including several large romanticized alpine landscapes that looked to me like a Disneyland vision of the Bavarian Alps, stretched vertically as some photo editing programs do if you click the wrong option.
The posters and banners advertising the exhibition showed part of a mountain landscape by a different German artist, Carl Gustav Carus (1789-1869).
I did learn something interesting about Caspar David Friedrich from the exhibition, however. It seems that Goethe, who always had a lively interest in the Natural Sciences, once suggested to Friedrich that he paint a series of pictures showing different kinds of clouds (cumulus, stratus, cirrus, etc.), following a system of classification that had recently been developed in England. Friedrich declined, saying that Nature for him was a matter of subjective impressions, not systematic observation.
So much for Goethe’s (lack of) influence on nineteenth century German painting.
The first painting in the exhibition, by the way, was a famous one called “Goethe in the Roman Compagna” by Johann Tischbein (1751-1829) — on loan from the Städel Museum in Frankfurt.
Most of the other paintings in the exhibition were also on loan from various German museums, along with a few from Vienna and Saint Petersburg. Most of these paintings had never been shown in France before.
What I liked best about the exhibition was the section at the end where they showed a selection of paintings by Max Beckmann (1884-1950). For the Nazis, Beckmann was a prime example of what they considered degenerate art. In April 1933, as soon as the Nazis were in power, Beckmann was fired from his position as a professor at the Städel School in Frankfurt, and his paintings were systematically removed from German museums over the next few years.
Somehow the critics of the Louvre exhibition seem not to have noticed that the anti-Nazi Beckmann was so prominently represented.
Location, aerial view and photo of the Louvre on monumentum.fr.
My photos in this post are from 2013. I revised the text in 2018.
See also: Musée Charles X in the Louvre.