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13.02.05, Paret and Thieme, Myth and Modernity

13.02.05, Paret and Thieme, Myth and Modernity

In 1922 and 1923, the German sculptor, printmaker, and playwright Ernst Barlach completed a series of seventeen large charcoal drawings illustrating the last, violent part of the medieval Song of the Nibelungen, from the arrival of Hagen and the Nibelungen at the court of Etzel and Kriemhild until Kriemhild's beheading of Hagen, the murderer of her first husband, Siegfried. In 2009, these drawings were shown together with Barlach's illustrations of Goethe's Faust at the Princeton University Museum of Art. This slender, readable book, a case study co-authored by the eminent historian Peter Paret, emeritus member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and Helga Thieme, an art historian at the Ernst Barlach Foundation in Güstrow, Germany, follows up on that exhibition. It seeks to understand this particular work of art, as an embodiment of ideology, constituted within and responding to a long cultural tradition and broad field of political representations in modern Germany.

These drawings are far from the artist's best known work. When art historians think of Barlach, it is above all as a modernist sculptor whose departure from academic classicism and other fashionable forms of stylization was catalyzed by a brief sojourn in Russia in 1906, whose work was incorporated after 1911 into the burgeoning contemporary discourse of the Gothic as a visionary and Germanic art, and whose unorthodox war memorials of the late 1920s became the target of many right-wing agitators. However, Paret and Thieme suggest that Barlach's illustrations of the Song of the Nibelungen are particularly significant and merit close scholarly attention for two reasons: the light they shed on late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century German political culture and the information they provide about the politics of their producer. In the first of the book's three chapters, the authors discuss the question of political culture, focusing on the medieval epic's complex, ambivalent narrative and characters and then drawing attention to its reception by modern German politicians and artists, who often represented the poem as an assertion of the values of unquestioning loyalty and the willingness to fight to the death: Nibelungentreue. Understood in this reductive, distorted way, the story became a myth that could be woven into the discourse of national identity and instrumentalized by the leaders of the German state. In 1909, for instance, Reich Chancellor Bernhard von Bülow famously referred to the Nibelungen in a speech underscoring the strength of the alliance between Austria and Germany. In the 1940s, a division of SS troops was named after them. The study of Barlach's drawings thus adds to the already extensive literature on how, from the years of the struggle against Napoleon until the years of the National Socialist dictatorship, artists, critics, curators, preservationists, and political ideologues incorporated medieval art, artifacts, and architecture into an imagined national community.

In the second and third chapters, Paret and Thieme develop their main argument, turning to Barlach's politics. The second chapter, "An Artist of and against his Time," offers a succinct history of Barlach's work, career, and political ideology with a particular focus on the drawings and sculptures he made during and after the First World War, which the authors characterize as uncompromising and unfailingly original expressions of an undogmatic, anti-authoritarian, liberal artist entirely committed to the freedom of art, profoundly attuned to the tragic nature of individual human existence, and deeply moved by the grief produced by war. The third chapter, "Celebration and Rejection of a Myth," describes the extent of Barlach's interest in the story and advances an interpretation of the seventeen drawings that corresponds to the account of Barlach presented in the preceding chapter. Paret and Thieme explore several aspects of the series--Barlach's decision not to show Kriemhild's death, the artist's particular interest in the episode of Volker and Hagen watching over their companions one night, stylistic shifts and physiognomic exaggerations--all in order to build their case that the drawings' ambiguous mixture of brutal episodes and comic elements stripped the epic of its "ideological additions" and thus resisted the nationalist interpretations prevalent between 1871 and 1945. These unidealizing pictures, according to Paret and Thieme, offered no simple, unequivocal inspiration or models to be emulated. They instead represented complex, ambivalent individuals making decisions for powerful, irrational reasons rather than abstract figures driven helplessly by fate. Such realistic, anti-mythical drawings sought to explore and to accentuate the disturbing thematics of the poem, the authors contend, thus implicitly challenging the story's distortion by partisan agendas and political mobilization. Resisting the shackles of nationalist ideology, they became part of "the great choir of reason and humanity that we can hear above the ideological combats of these years" (120). Though hidden from public view, they transcended the vulgarization of the epic in the Weimar Republic's mass culture and then stood against the barbarism of the Third Reich.

The impressive assurance with which this book makes its case will be unsurprising to those who know Paret's scholarly contributions to the political history of early-twentieth-century German modernism in the visual arts, from his early study on the Berlin Secession (1980) to his recent monograph on Barlach (2007). The book's strong affirmation of Barlach as an extraordinary humanist thinker and creative artist, evident everywhere in its use of the traditional vocabulary of modernist critical approval--originality, daring, and the like--will be equally familiar. Paret has consistently championed the moderate modernism of the genteel, cosmopolitan Berlin Secession against both the intransigent extremism of the Expressionist and post-Expressionist avant-gardes, on the one hand, and especially the increasingly strident anti-modernism of the Imperial and National Socialist states, on the other. Barlach emerges here, as in Paret's first book on him, as an emblematic, even heroic protagonist of that liberal art world, a bastion of tolerance in an increasingly brutal world.

This presentation of the artist is certainly not unfounded. There is no question about Barlach's rejection after the First World War of all forms of radicalism, dogmatism, and philistinism across the political spectrum, though National Socialism eventually became the primary object of the artist's distaste, bemusement, and critique. Unlike Emil Nolde, another important figure when it comes to the modern reception of the Middle Ages, Barlach's letters and writings contain no traces of anti-Semitism, and only between the years 1914 and 1918 does one find any evidence of patriotic chauvinism. To be sure, Barlach made powerfully moving and challenging art, even if his archaicizing work was never as artistically radical as Constantin Brancusi's contemporaneous forms of modernist primitivism.

Yet Paret's and Thieme's celebration of Barlach as a paragon of liberal, modernist intellectual and artistic virtue is bound to elicit a critical response from at least two quarters. For instance, anyone interested in the kind of questions raised and arguments made by feminist scholars and critics will be unhappy about the authors' limited, inconclusive discussion of Barlach's representation of gender in these drawings, which end with two harrowing depictions of Kriemhild's decapitation of Hagen rather than her own death by the sword. In the years that Barlach returned to the illustration of the Song of the Nibelungen, women had received the vote in Germany, changing gender roles and identities were the subjects of intense debate and anxiety, and sexual violence--the rape and murder of women by men--was a fashionable subject among many avant-garde artists. One might justifiably expect that Barlach's drawings should be analyzed in relation to these modern conditions and cultural phenomena, not to mention to other traditional art-historical iconographies of heroic, violent female figures and to his own evidently difficult personal relationships with women.

Furthermore, in light of the growing awareness of the manifold, not always simply antagonistic relationships between German modernism in the visual arts, illiberal cultural critique, and anti-democratic politics, one can pose from a social-art-historical perspective a number of questions left unasked by the authors about the way in which these drawings materialize political ideology. One might, for instance, explore more probingly the degree to which the initial emergence of Barlach's interest in the epic--among other kinds of Nordic, Germanic, and medieval art and literature--between 1907 and 1909 was a product of his critique of Imperial bourgeois culture and his concomitant identification with "barbarism," which reached its peak during the years of his close friendship with the well-known modernist critic and radical nationalist dissident Arthur Moeller van den Bruck. (Moeller and Barlach were mutual friends of Reinhard Piper, who is now best known as the publisher of important modernist texts and print portfolios, but was also apparently an admirer of the famous völkisch cultural critic Julius Langbehn.) One certainly would expect a book about the meaning of these drawings to discuss not only their maker's private intentions, insofar as they can be discerned, but also their public reception. One is hence disappointed to find no consideration of the exhibition of several of the illustrations in the Nationalgalerie in Berlin during the months after Hitler's appointment as Reich Chancellor. One also misses any analysis, or even the mere mention, of the sympathetic way in which the drawings were characterized in an important essay published in 1935 by the conservative revolutionary intellectual and art critic Paul Fechter, who since 1912 had been a prolific and prominent supporter of German Expressionism in völkisch terms. (Fechter's essay introduced a volume of Barlach's drawings, including reproductions of seven of the Nibelung illustrations, that was published by Piper, but was suppressed by the state in 1936.) All this thus leads to the conclusion that Myth and Modernity is a useful, thought-provoking book that is well worth the read for students of German modernism or of the modern imagination of the Middle Ages, but one that insufficiently challenges the persistent myths of individual artistic genius and modernist progressiveness that hinder the radical historical understanding of the social production of twentieth-century art.