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Night on the Brocken

Nicholas Alfrey, 2013

There is an episode in Heinrich Heine’s Harz Journey in which two young men, staying in the hostelry at the summit of the Brocken and overcome by the strong feelings aroused by the sublime situation, throw open what they take to be the window of their room and begin to declaim passionate eulogies to the night, the stars and the moon. But under the influence, too, of an evening’s drinking, they have opened the doors of a large wardrobe instead, and their poetic effusions are addressed only to its limited recess.

Heine, the self-styled ‘last Romantic’, had an acute sense of the absurdities to which the tendency could lead. His sceptical tone is notably absent, however, from the most recent survey of Romantic art and its legacy, Dark Romanticism, an exhibition organised by the Städel Museum, Frankfurt, as part of a wider project on the ‘Romantic Impulse’. The curators have gone back for their thesis to a once-influential text by Mario Praz, first published in Italy in 1930, translated into English as The Romantic Agony in 1933 and only published in German in 1963, when the phrase ‘dark Romanticism’ appeared as the book’s subtitle. They have taken this as the point of departure for an investigation into the themes of fear, dreams and desire in European art, tracing the influence of Romanticism on the Symbolism and Decadence of the later nineteenth century and its resurgence in Surrealism, here given a specifically gothic inflection.

This version of Romanticism is presented as the antithesis of Enlightenment enquiry, emphasising rather the irrational, the fascination of disturbing tales, the lure of the night, the limitations of knowledge. Landscape, though not the natural world, is acknowledged as an important strand of artistic endeavour, but usually taking the form of a faintly sinister backdrop: a mountain fortress, towers on the Rhine, haunted forests, moonlit wastes, melancholy shores. The curators admit that Romanticism is a phenomenon open to many other readings, but their determination to take us on a ‘dark ride’ leaves us with an impression of the imagination narrowing down to the pursuit of the morbid and the bizarre. Ultimately, this conception of Romanticism has limited resonance for future artists.

Dark Romanticism ended at its second venue, the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, on 9th June 2013, only a few days before the opening of Sense and Sensibility: Landscape and the Contemporary Romantic at the Kunstverein Springhornhof. But the dialogue implied here between past and present attitudes rests on a more open and generous sense of what Romanticism was, and why it might still be of interest. This includes the recognition that science, technology and intellectual curiosity were an integral part of the Romantic project. It also means an acceptance of irony, humour and doubt, and a sense of the absurd. And it recognizes that the Romantics’ quest for authenticity of feeling is complicated by their need to produce artistic commodities for a competitive marketplace, and that original responses to natural phenomena, scenery and experience are increasingly difficult to tell apart from those that are highly conventionalised and second-hand.

Heine is perhaps a more appropriate figure to invoke in this context than the exponents of Dark Romanticism. The pilgrimage to the summit of the Brocken is the objective of every aspiring person of feeling, but the fact that there is already a hotel up there creates a new difficulty. He recounts how his yearning for coffee at breakfast was greater than his desire to watch the dawn from the mountain, and so he sits reading the visitors’ book instead. He is dismayed by the clichés it contains, however, and soon has to listen to the enthusiastic account of one of his companions, who describes the spectacle of the sun dispelling the nocturnal mists as a great battle between spirits. He concludes that he knows nothing about nature’s phantasmal display, and the only experience that he could affirm on oath is the taste of black coffee.

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In this exploration of the affinities between Romanticism, landscape and contemporary practice, two themes stand out: the pursuit of knowledge and the making of journeys. Some of the fields of knowledge in question would be recognizable to scientists of the Romantic era, but others represent new domains. Many journeys are undertaken here, including several to the kind of remote locations once associated with the Sublime, but they do not always lead to the outcome that was anticipated.

Martin John Callanan’s work engages most directly with scientific methods: his A Planetary Order (Terrestrial Cloud Globe) utilizes the complex apparatus of state-backed meteorological data collection to model a single moment in the atmospheric history of the planet. The cloud cover as recorded by six cloud-monitoring satellites is mapped on to a globe, a physical (rather than virtual) object created by means of cutting-edge digital manufacturing technology. It is the counterpart to Constable’s cloud studies for the age of IT, but whereas for Constable clouds were ‘the chief organ of sentiment’ in a picture, they can now be visualised as forming an entire global regime. The piece gains a touching, almost absurd, quality of understatement through the disparity of its unassuming physical presence and the prodigious depth and scope of the knowledge it encapsulates.

Munan Øvrelid’s project takes us from world cloud systems frozen in a single moment to the mathematical plotting of the activities of birds around a feeder through a whole winter. The observations that are the basis for both graph and its transposition into artistic form are not produced by remote agencies such as satellites, however, but by the artist’s own father. The work thus deals not only with human interaction with birdlife, but with a personal relationship, and the intersection of different life trajectories in a mountain retreat.

Katie Paterson’s work collapses the distance between the ordinary world and what is scarcely imaginable. As the World Turns consists of a once-commonplace object, a record player, playing an over-familiar classic, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. The turntable has been modified, however, so that instead of rotating at 33rpm it now turns at the same speed as the earth. Although the movement is imperceptible, the music inaudible and the object itself unspectacular, a cosmic dimension is brought within a domestic compass. ‘The contest of invention and harmony’ was the title originally given by Vivaldi to the set

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of concertos of which the Four Seasons is a part: Paterson has shifted this piece of Baroque ingenuity into a new register, making an already superseded audio technology into a conduit for the sublime.

Rebecca Partridge’s installation combines photorealist paintings with a three-dimensional form in ceramic, a cubed tetrahedron, mounted on a plinth. The latter relates to another strand of her practice, geometrical abstract paintings informed by her interest in synaesthesia and her readings in neuroaesthetics, putting one in mind of Goethe’s researches into the emotional properties of colour (which are, co-incidentally, currently on display to revelatory effect in another ambitious survey of German Romantic art, De L’Allemagne at the Musée du Louvre). In the installation here, the image of a tree in one painting recalls a key motif of Romantic nature worship, while the other, By the Sea, makes explicit reference to Friedrich’s The Monk by the Sea, a painting Heinrich von Kleist found so disturbing in its monotony and boundlessness that to look at it made one feel ‘as if one’s eyelids had been cut away’. The curators of Dark Romanticism exploit this idea as a pretext for their own cut from Friedrich to the opening images of Bunuel and Dali’s Un Chien Andalou; the juxtaposition made by Partridge, on the other hand, is more oblique and affirmative, in that the ceramic form in front of the painting suggests a head looking out over the sea.

Simon Faithful has undertaken many journeys in connection with his work, both in order to make it and as a source of his subject matter. Aurora Borealis (unseen) derives from an expedition to the arctic, and includes footage shot at the Sodankylä Geophysical Observatory above the Arctic Circle in Finland where the artist spent two weeks hoping to witness the northern lights. They never appeared, a circumstance which Heine would doubtless have appreciated. The footage shows reflections in a human eye in which we see mysterious scientific monitoring apparatus in the midst of remote pine forests, curiously reminiscent, incidentally, of the way in which the summit of the Brocken had been colonized by dense technological clutter after the mid twentieth-century.

Runo Largomasino’s Crucero del Norte alludes to a more personal journey in which he retraces, by the same means, the long bus journey from Argentina to Brazil undertaken by his father in the year before the artist was born. The twenty four photographic papers which he exposed to the sun on arrival in Rio form an oblique reference to the experience, and to the memory of exile that lies behind it. These ‘sun drawings’ are a reminder of the experiments conducted by Tom Wedgewood, friend and patron of Coleridge, and the chemist Humphry Davy, in which they exposed objects to sunlight, but were unable to find a way of fixing the resulting image. Photography might be regarded as a concept of Romanticism, therefore, even though the practice only developed later.

Corinna Schnitt’s film Von einer Welt shows a journey of erotic failure in an archetypal Romantic landscape, an Alpine meadow with forests and mountains beyond. A lonely male figure comes across a dozen nude women lying in the grass, but despite his efforts, they remain impassive, entirely beyond communication. This flat inversion of a dream scenario has something of the absurd about it, underlined by the extract from Habermas’s Theory of Communicative Action, written in subtitles, shifting the register from the sensory to that of abstract reflection. In Richard T. Walker’s film the hierarchy of relevance, by contrast, a yearning solitary figure seems overwhelmed by the wilderness landscape itself. In voice-over we hear, in third person, his perplexed thoughts as to how he might ignore the intense beauty of individual details ‘in order to find comfort in the picturesque splendour of the landscape as whole; but it was nowhere to be seen’. His dilemma is resolved through a ‘song of distraction’ as he serenades the landscape with music of inexpressible melancholy.

Randi Nygård and Benja Sachau have both made sculptural objects that play on the disparity of the immense scientific knowledge available to us and our uncertainty about the world in both its material and intangible aspects. Sachau’s work alludes to ancient beliefs about re-birth and non-existence, while Nygård’s book-sculpture takes two illustrated volumes, one dealing with the brain, the other with climate change, cutting into and intercutting them, so that images, commentaries and order are confounded. Another work combines mirrors, parts of which have been rendered transparent rather than reflective, and fractured images of clouds, mountains, meadows and flowers (the over-familiar Romantic repertoire).

Guy Allott uses the medium of painting to present an imaginary monument, a modernist geometrical abstraction which may be unfinished, since there are parts still lying on the ground, or it may be neglected or abandoned. Some of its flat planes are pierced with holes and some are transparent, revealing a desolate mountain landscape beyond. It suggests a science-fictional version of the enigmatic desert monument to Ozymandias in Shelley’s famous poem: the idiom of modernism may be obsolete, but the legacy of its even more remote predecessor, Romanticism, still compels attention.