Aryan Hard Bodies, Gothic Churches Pervade Louvre Show

German paintings are rare birds in French museums.

French have long believed that Germans are born musicians and thinkers; fine art is not their strong suit.

The pioneering 1978 exhibition “Paris-Berlin” at the Pompidou Center reminded French curators of the glaring gaps in their collections, and they have since been doing their best to make up for past sins.

The Louvre has, at long last, woken up to the challenge. Until now, fans of German art had little more to see than two remote galleries of works mostly from the 15th and 16th centuries.

“De l’Allemagne 1800-1939” runs through June 24. It was among shows affected briefly last week when staff staged a strike over security. The show features some 200 paintings, drawings, prints and photographs, is the Louvre’s first serious attempt to come to grips with the visual arts from the other side of the Rhine.

The title pays homage to Germaine de Stael’s 1813 book “De l’Allemagne,” which fundamentally shaped Germany’s image in France. The opinionated lady described the Germans as a people of Romantic poets and unworldly philosophers, not particularly well versed in the social graces yet peaceful and honest.

Idealized Image

That idealized image dominates the first, larger part of the exhibition. Here we find Carl Blechen’s Gothic church ruins, Leo von Klenze’s Greek temples, Moritz von Schwind’s fairy-tale fantasies and the dreamy pieties of the so-called Nazarenes who were inspired by early Italian paintings and eventually moved to Rome.

Caspar David Friedrich, the supreme master of the Romantic landscape, has a room all for himself.

The show opens with Johann Heinrich Tischbein’s famous portrait of Goethe in the Roman Campagna. Later, Goethe reappears with drawings of insects and clouds and his “Farbenlehre” (Theory of Color) in which he tried to refute Newton’s “Optics.”

Politics is not completely absent. Several pictures of the unfinished Cologne Cathedral remind us that for many it was a symbol for another unfinished business: When the construction work was resumed in 1842 after more than four centuries, the event was celebrated as a major step toward the unification of Germany.

Poets, Warmongers

The unification after Prussia’s victory in 1871 of the Franco-German war, radically changed Germany’s image in France. The harmless poets and professors morphed into brutal warmongers. World Wars I and II did little to improve that image.

That’s where the exhibition begins to derail. To revive the old cliches of the dangerous undercurrents in the German national characters was, of course, out of the question. The show discreetly refers to the Apollonian and the Dionysian side of the German soul.

An excerpt from Leni Riefenstahl’s film “Olympia” a documentary of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games and a celebration of the Aryan body (and race), hints at the dreadful consequences Dionysian impulses can have.

The show has little to say about the more than seven decades between Friedrich’s death in 1840 and World War I. Anselm Feuerbach’s monumental women, Hans von Marees’s muscular men, Arnold Bocklin’s metaphysical landscapes and Adolph Menzel’s “The Steel Mill” -- that’s about it.

Missed Expression

Max Liebermann and the Berlin Secession, the Worpswede School, the Jugendstil and the groups of Expressionist artists, Die Brucke and Der Blaue Reiter, are nowhere to be seen.

Instead, we suddenly find ourselves in the trenches of the Western Front. Otto Dix’s terrifying etchings of the horrors of war hang next to Kathe Kollwitz’s lithographs of mourning mothers and widows: Her son Peter was killed in World War I, her eldest grandson in World War II.

The 1920s aren’t treated any better. The Bauhaus appears only indirectly in the form of a few watercolors and drawings by Paul Klee.

That won’t do. The first part of the show, despite its confusing order, is a fascinating though by no means exhaustive survey of German art in the first half of the 19th century. The second part is a mess.

One can only hope that other museums pick up the thread where the Louvre ran out of steam.

“Die l’Allemagne 1800-1939” runs through June 24. Information:

(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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