Winckelmann, Sulzer, Füssli, Mengs

… were artists and/or theorists who had something to say about art and who were important/conductive in intellectually institutionalising a discourse about art and aesthetics – as an autonomous subject – in Germany in the 18th and 19th century, respectively at the time of era-defining genius Goethe. Their writings are largely out of print. What did they say?

Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768), offspring of a shoemaker who loved art and especially the ancient Greeks, had a difficult life for many years and he had to live in humble circumstances. The hardships he faced as a scholar (shittily equipped libraries which were, in addition to that, accessible only one hour a day) are beyond our imagination: Acknowledge the effort behind his undertakings and bow down! – Notably in his main work Geschichte der Kunst des Altertums he lay the foundation of regarding the ancient Greeks as the most perfect people and their art as the most perfect art – and indeed ancient Egypt or the Etruscans, which he also discussed, weren´t exactly of such caliber. He attributed this to specific climatic and geographic conditions and to the Periclean democracy and, in doing so, tried to understand the emergence of art out of a greater social context. According to Winckelmann the end of art is beauty, and the ancient Greeks were the most harmonious of men. – Winckelmann´s legacy, and his work itself, was ambiguous. On the one hand he said that the ideal of Greek art could never be reached again, on the other hand he lay foundations for classicism which tries to imitate the Greeks. This was to come in a more formal, and anemic, fashion, but also fresh, original and abyssal-ethereal as e.g. in the case of the good Hölderlin. While Winckelmann resented anemic academic pedanticism his writings seem hard going by today´s standards. Originality and genius were, more or less, foreign categories to Winckelmann, but he also lived before the Geniezeit in Germany – his thoughts were more revolving around the collective genius of a people and about conditions under which great art can arise.

Anton Raphael Mengs (1728-1779) was an eminent classicist painter and nicknamed as the „German Raphael“. His Gedanken über die Schönheit und über den Geschmack in der Malerey (1762) was used as a „textbook“ in many academies. Also Mengs says that the end of art is beauty – as beauty is a tangible expression of perfection (which is, in itself, intangible and only to be found in God). Beauty is achieved as the artist tries to imitate nature and as the artist is carefully selective not to display more or less in his paintings than nature would require. By careful selection, he may create art that is even more beautiful than nature! While also affirmative of the notion that the Greeks are the apex (because they had direct access to the ideal whereas all others only can have an indirect access to the ideal), Mengs is discussing three artists in detail: Raphael, Corregio, and Titian, and he announces that, on the whole, Raphael is the greatest of them (while the others may be the leaders in specific areas e.g. Titian concerning colour) because Raphael is the greatest and well-rounded of individuals, including the „downside“ of Raphael only being able to confront also malice and triviality in the human realm with generosity and greatheartedness (i.e. a bit inappropriately). – Mengs himself confronted less criticism than Winckelmann or Sulzer and, as a great artist, also appeared as a somehow more monolithic figure. His notion of the true artist imitating nature is somehow understandable as true creativity appears natural, stemming out of itself, relatively immune to the diktat of culture and the expectations of the audience, and powerful, overflowing and diverse. Therein, it creates its own harmony.

Johann Georg Sulzer (1720-1779) was a theologian, a philosopher and a man of stupendous erudition. His Allgemeine Theorie der Schönen Künste (1771-1774) was designed to be both a theoretical work as well as an encyclopedia about everything related to art and aesthetics, it contains ca. 900 articles and ranges from music and poetry to architecture and garden art. Sulzer says art is about adding beauty to things (stemming out of an aesthetic drive in man) and that the end of art is moral purification and betterment of mankind – he dismisses a cult of pure reason and says that the (educational) power of art lies in its sensuality and the power with which it adresses the senses and the emotions i.e. the whole of man (although Sulzer does not seem to have a well-formulated theory about that). Sulzer speaks of the genius and says the chief characteristic of the genius is enormous sensitivity and ability to be affected by and to get immersed into things. – The most prominent critique directed at Sulzer came from Goethe: Goethe dismissed the notion that art can be a main vehicle for the betterment of mankind – art originates from the „fire within the artist“ i.e. from the artist´s self expression and happens relatively independent from the (self-unconscious) audience. Of course Goethe was not entirely dismissive about the audience, but – in contrast to the democratic Sulzer – he favored the conaisseur of art over the general audience (which may be natural and unspoiled but, in fact, neither very understanding nor commited).

Johann Heinrich Füssli (1741-1825), who called himself Henry Fuseli when he was an emigrant in England, was a painter, poet and professor at the Royal Academy of Arts. His Aphorisms, Chiefly Relative to the Fine Arts are condensations of his lectures. Confronted with the French Revolution and its aftermath, Füssli became dismissive of the notion that art could do a lot about true refinement of humanity. While he was a fan of the ancient Greeks (as the only people who were able/lucky enough to truly authentically relate to ideals), he was also aware that art is also/mainly about reacting to the challenges posed by the contemporary. As a painter Füssli often made reference to nightmares, horror and otherworldly stuff, as a theorist he emphasised the importance of expression in art (Winckelmann said that an artwork is/should be about expressing beauty/ideal but also about expression (Ausdruck) i.e. the emanation of the (beautiful) subject within circumstances – and he somehow favored the „static“ element of beauty/ideal over the „dynamic“ (quasi-contaminative) of expression: Füssli was inclined to think otherwise). The Aphorisms are a cool document, and they´re insightful also concerning the genius whose qualities are discussed at length. Füssli also thought the highest instance is (not a classicist ideal but) nature – in its infinity (i.e. also containing supposedly nasty elements), and that the genius is someone who is able to profoundly understand/imitate certain aspects of nature (where beauty and the ideal is one element but nothing art should be restricted to). Claims about the „death of art“ or cultural decay prominent at, more or less, every time, can be effectively countered by proclaiming that with every great genius art starts anew (and that due to the infinity of nature there is acutally no competition between them, just an ever ongoing growth and illumination of infinite nature). Hahahahaha! That will feel good.