GHDI logo

Wilhelm II, "True Art" (1901)

This speech on “true art” evinces the social and cultural conservatism of Wilhelm II (1859-1941). As German emperor and public figure, Wilhelm never hesitated to make his opinions known. The 1901 unveiling of the last monument on Berlin's Siegesallee provided him with a welcome opportunity to criticize new developments in art. Wilhelm regarded art as a natural “law” that adhered to immutable standards of beauty, the antecedents of which were found in antiquity and the Renaissance. In keeping with the sentiment of the time, he saw art as an edifying and pedagogical tool to be used to improve society. However, his disapproval of artistic innovation – as seen in movements such as French Impressionism and Social Realism – shows that he favored an art that encouraged tradition (and one particular view of tradition) rather than experimentation.

print version     return to document list last document in previous chapter      next document

page 1 of 3

[ . . . ] the thought fills me with pride and happiness today that Berlin stands before all the world with artists who are able to produce something of such magnificence. It shows that the Berlin school of sculpture is at a level which even the Renaissance could not possibly have surpassed. And I think all of you will humbly agree that the working example of Reinhold Begas and his conception – based, as it is, on a knowledge of antiquity – served for many of you as a guiding light in solving the great task before you.

Here, one could also draw a parallel between our age and the great artistic accomplishments of the Middle Ages and the Italians, for those works were likewise commissioned by the sovereign and art-loving ruler, who also chose the master artists. The master, in turn, attracted young followers from whose ranks certain schools then developed.

Now, gentlemen, the Pergamon Museum also opened at the very same time today in Berlin. I also view this as an important chapter in the history of art and as a good omen and a fortuitous coincidence. What presents itself to the awestruck public in those rooms is of such bounteous beauty as to surpass the imagination.

How does art fair in general in the world? It takes its examples [and] creates from the great wellspring of mother nature, and this wellspring, that is to say, mother nature, despite her tremendous, apparently unbounded, infinite freedom, nevertheless functions according to the eternal laws that the Creator Himself has imposed and which can never be surpassed or violated without endangering world progress.

So it goes with art. At the very sight of the glorious vestiges of the classical age one is overcome by the feeling that here reigns an eternal, ever steady law, the law of beauty and harmony, [the law] of aesthetics. This law was made manifest by the ancients in such a surprising and magnificent manner, in such perfect form, that we – with all our modern sensibilities and all of our technical ability – still say of an especially worthy achievement: “That is almost as good as 1900 years ago.”

first page < previous   |   next > last page