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Hans Rosenhagen, "National Art in Berlin" (1897)

The academicism of Prussian court painter Anton von Werner (1843-1915) eschewed all modern currents in art. Both Wilhelm II and Werner rejected Social Realism, with its focus on downtrodden subjects, and Impressionism, whose stylistic innovations dissolved traditional academic painting techniques into a flurry of individual brushstrokes. By the turn of the century, however, art sanctioned by Berlin’s officialdom – which often meant Wilhelm himself – was being met with increasing derision and disregard. Here, critic Hans Rosenhagen takes aim at the academic establishment and its reluctance to embrace new forms of art, as evidenced by an exhibition organized by Werner in 1897.

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For quite some time Mr. von Werner has been considered the prototype of the artist whose level of self-confidence stands directly opposed to the value of his accomplishments, and who, for this reason, may seem somewhat ridiculous, and even more ridiculous the more he puts on airs. Such artists are to be found everywhere, and in general they add to the amusement of their colleagues without otherwise causing any harm. Mr. von Werner, however, does not belong to these harmless aspirants, because his position and situation give him and his actions a certain cover. To those who are more distant from his circles and have the justified expectation that the director of an academy should himself be an outstanding artist and an authority in matters of art, Mr. von Werner maintains his reputation of competence in all cases, even in those where he makes mistakes, and for this reason he is a great danger to the artistic life of Berlin. As long as Mr. Werner – who hates modern art like Lucifer hates the divinity that also encompasses him – was only boring his own students with his confused views about modern art, it was not necessary to take him seriously. His students themselves already took revenge on him in part by producing art that was even sorrier than his, and also by migrating out of opposition into the camp of the modern art proponents and becoming so extravagant in their external appearances that they seduced the remaining new generation of students at the academy into all sorts of artistic mischief. The fact that his own tirades against modern art drove young artists towards this art never occurred to Mr. von Werner. But now he is experiencing the need to reach a larger audience and to acquaint the whole beloved public with his views, to sow the seeds of violent opposition to modern art in the hearts of the most clueless observers. And it is indeed now time to subject his motives, his mistaken ideas, and his modes of combat to closer scrutiny – not to strengthen in him his illusions about his own importance, but rather to prove how thoughtlessly he approaches his audience and how clumsy the arguments are with which he attempts to influence their opinions. [ . . . ]

Mr. von Werner cultivates the custom of ending the academic year, which closes with an awards ceremony for the most talented students, with a lecture. For several years now he has allowed himself the pleasure on this occasion of railing against modern art and warning the students to stay away from it. These speeches have often provided the press with an excuse to make fun of him, but never before was the turf as fertile as the speech he gave this past July and then published in the Vossischen Zeitung, for the enlightenment of the “widest possible audience.” Judging from his own paintings, one could already see that the director of the academy understood little about modern art, but now he himself had proven unambiguously that, in fact, he knows absolutely nothing about it. In his speech he takes pains to make the case that not a single area of modern painting has produced anything that would compare favorably with the classic works of earlier great artists. To mention just a few of the names, he completely passes over the existence of Lenbach and Whistler; in the realm of landscape painting he seems never to have heard of Böcklin, Dill, or Schönleber, and in the area of animal depictions he makes no mention of Baisch or Zügel. Regarding the significance of Impressionism, as Manet, Degas, and Monet have shaped it, he has no

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