Blood, Soil, Paint (part I)
This is a continuation of a review on Romanticism. To read that, click here.
The core pillars of Romanticism are freedom (from tradition and religion), nature (submission to it as a key determinant of man and civilisation), individualism (the search of the interior for the character), and emotion (seeing subjectivity as universal and as a key principle for human comprehension of the world). Holger Birkholz (1) notes as key concepts in Romanticism freedom, nature, pre-history, mysticism, night, irony and universal poetry. To this we can add the strange and mysterious. “What attracts most is the unknown. The well known has no further attraction. The power of perception is in itself the greatest of charms.” The self-absorption is a legacy of Enlightenment philosophical investigations of the mind and personality. We can say that the unknown includes the aberrant, grotesque and macabre. The art of Henry Fuseli and other Romantics dwell on phenomena of dreams, madness and the demonic; it was the subject matter of Gothic fiction. The dramatic ruin and the process of decay – not least decay of the human body – elicited the sublime response and touched deep areas of feeling, which confounded the rationalism of the Enlightenment and symbolised the frailty of man and civilisation before the might of nature. Romantics asserted that logic and science did not explain the mysteries of the world and the human heart. The horror genre derives from the Gothic tale and picture, although elements of horror can be found as far back as the most ancient myths.
The rise of Romanticism comes as an outgrowth of – and a reaction against – Enlightenment thinking. Enlightenment empiricism undermined the foundations of traditionalism and Christianity through the scientific method, which opened up a space for the adventurous creator to turn to mythology and pre-history. Political liberalism centred the idea of individuality – both as civic principle and a field for personal exploration – which encouraged a rejection of traditional morality and community action in favour of scepticism and pursuit of individual self-knowledge. However, it was in some respects counter-Enlightenment in its emphasis on emotionality and subjectivity over metaphysics, primeval atavism over incremental progressivism, paganism over atheism and a rejection of industrialisation in favour of craft. Romanticism took as its site of deepest contemplation and source of truth the rural, pastoral – and even better, the untamed wilds – in deliberate rejection of the expanding towns and cities. William Wordsworth (1770-1850) may famously have discovered the transcendental by observing himself react to the world and he reached such an insight standing atop a mountain pass rather than looking across a town square.
Alexander Adams is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
A fundamental contradiction within Romanticism is its expression of a naturally aristocratic temperament whilst positing an egalitarian attitude to the value of man. While Romanticism in some senses backed the universalism of Enlightenment political thought, which saw no distinction in terms of class status among men as regards ability, capacity and worth, it venerated the free man. The free man was capable of fulfilling his potential but this required not only ability but time and opportunity for education and cultivation of taste. Yet this was understandably the domain of the aristocrat, who had such opportunities. As David Hume pointed out on in his essay on taste, only a few in society had the chance to develop cultivated taste through exposure to education and experience. It was the man who had developed his taste, recognised his own character through reflection and had chosen to risk all in action who was the ultimate embodiment of Romantic Man. Romanticism also adulated the man of action, again who was able to (in the case of Byron) afford to travel to a foreign land to fight in a war of ideals. Critically, it was the Romantic man of action who came to action through free will who was the greatest of heroes, not the man who was forced through circumstances to defend his family, kin and faith. It was often the man of noble character rather than of noble birth who was held up as an ideal, and he was more likely than not to have been a man distinguished rank. There seems an ambivalence among Romantics towards what would become called the Great Man theory of history.
The Romantics believed in heroic action but deprecated unearned social status; they acted in terms of the exceptional man of thought and action, but advocated in terms of the welfare of the common man. Even if there is no outright contradiction in these positions, it displays two separate areas of sympathy, not always complementary. It is commonly argued that the Romantics wished to present the life of the ordinary man and lift it up the realm of heroes.
Consider (as an example) the views of Romantic poet William Wordsworth. For him as a writer, country life and rustic subjects lent themselves to greater dignity in verse because they were more essential and less contaminated by false sophistication. “[In rustic subjects] the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language; because in that condition of life our elementary feelings co-exist in a state of greater simplicity, and, consequently, may be more accurately contemplated, and more forcibly communicated; because the manners of rural life germinate from those elementary feelings; and, from the necessary character of rural occupations, are more easily comprehended, and are more durable; and lastly, because in that condition the passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature.”(2) Rural life had generated an authentic language (which was both vernacular and ancient) that poets should adopt, instead of shunning it for ostentatious artificiality. “Accordingly, such a language, arising out of repeated experience and regular feelings, is a more permanent, and a far more philosophical language, than that which is frequently substituted for it by Poets […]” (op.cit.)
This veneration of the common is seen as an extension of the cult of egalitarianism, expounded by Enlightenment humanist thinkers, not least Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the rhetoric of the French Revolution. Rousseau’s ideas also reversed the Christian conception of man born sinful and guided to salvation through following the teachings of Christ, replacing that with a conception of man born good and made evil through the inequities of property and society. This egalitarianism and rejection of original sin (as the foundation of social relations) led to the humanistic contradiction of the Great Chain of Being, with men assigned their stations in life according to birth and circumstance, offering a vision of position determined primarily by merit and self-determination. The importance assigned the interior life of individuals contradicts the admonitions to serve and obey found in Christianity. Again, we see another deep dichotomy that made Romanticism so influential, long lasting and richly varied.
Romanticism responded to the breaking of the Great Chain of Being (or duty) by celebrating an alternative chain: blood loyalty, specifically national and ancestral. Instead of duty linked to roles – employee, serf, apprentice, master, partner, tenant, congregant, co-religionist, father, husband, son – which may or may not have been hereditary or otherwise involuntary, Romantic thinkers sought out connections (notional or actual) with kinsmen present and past. This latter aspect foregrounded a fascination with ancestors and prehistory. This was specifically disassociated with religious ties and went back to a time before Christianity and the current ruling royal house. There was a bond of blood that linked kinsmen together and back to their ancestors of prehistory. There was a wave of scenes of ancient history related to the native country rather than Hellenic or Roman history. The Enlightenment study of archaeology becomes a matter of national importance. Finding the truth of ancient people’s origins – obscured or erased by the universalist Christian religion – became a project essential for the definition of nationhood and kin. The idea of blood bonds superseded many of the established bonds of loyalty. This was important for leaders of nations set on self-determination as new boundaries were formed and new institutions and laws had to be derived in lands no longer dominated by authority of Church and monarch. This is not only philosophically congruent with an age of Romanticism (as part of the Enlightenment) but also a necessity from an organisational point of view, when established loyalties are suddenly weakened or severed.
[Image: Caspar David Friedrich, Dolmen in Autumn, 1820, oil on canvas]
Romantic poets meditate upon stone circles; Romantic painters depict ancient burial mounds. Both are a sign of a new engagement with pre-Christian stage of civilisation.
[Image: Thomas Gray, The Bard, 1837, London]
We find in the paintings of late Romantic English painter John Martin the figure of Merlin, the Welsh wizard who escaped English invaders.
[Image: John Martin, The Bard, c. 1817, oil on canvas, 127 x 101 cm, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven]
The age of Orientalism begins with Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt, providing more fodder for Enlightenment anthropology and comparative theology. Philology becomes an important branch of language scholarship, as academics used the study of word derivations and meanings to reconstruct paths of language and cultural transmission and to map cross-continental migration. The Rosetta Stone led to the first interpretation of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. Orientalism became a foundational part of philology and anthropologists used new discoveries in the Near East to confirm and disprove Biblical history. However scientific much of this work was, it was intimately tied to a nation’s self-image and its foundational myths and reflected Romantic and heroic origins that inspired pride among the people. Historians sought to confirm or debunk national myths of a Romantic character.
[Image: Description de l’Egypte, vol. I, Paris, 1809]
Painters took up Orientalist subjects – the hunt, the execution, the harem, the desert caravan – in ways that blended the living reality of life in the Near and Middle East with the region in the times of the ancients. This Romantic views of the Orient was a means by which European Christians defined themselves against an Eastern (mainly Muslim) inhabitants of Asia and Africa. The view of Orientals as at a lower and earlier stage of civilisation was a comparative measure and a staple of anthropological understanding of not just the course of humanity in general, but also of the West.
Orientalism derives from the scientism of Enlightenment and the scepticism about Christianity of Romanticism. It also ties into the nationalist project of the Napoleonic era, with the fear of the piratical Moor or the occupying Turk mingling with admiration for the martial spirit of the Ottoman, the hardiness of the Bedouin, the beauty of the houri and the architectural wonders of ancient Assyria and Egypt. The painter, poet and historian could drench themselves in the glories and barbarities of the Orient. Consider the Orientalist painting of Gêrome. Better still, consider the blank verse play of Lord Byron Sardanapalus (1821), describing the downfall of the last king of Nineveh, which was subsequently painted by Delacroix, in 1827.
[Image: Eugene Delacroix, The Death of Sardanapalus, 1827, oil on canvas, Louvre, Paris]
Assyria as being surveyed by European archaeologists in the period. History, archaeology, poetry and painting became arms of the Romantic-Enlightenment Orientalist movement, which sought to enlighten and enchant, and the results of which were used to nationalist ends of defining the other, defining the self, understanding history and justifying colonialism.
The anthropology of European explorers and colonisers allowed the extrapolation of conclusions about European peoples’ origins following observations of non-Western societies, finding in them aspects to praise as well as condemn. There is much debate about the notion of the noble savage. The nobility and the ferocity of the American Indian, Maori and Hawaiian was feared and admired and was equated with the qualities imagined among the ancient Celts, Gauls, Franks, Vikings and other ancient peoples of Europe. The subsequent taming of these untrammelled passions and rude customs, it was said by some, was both necessary for the progress of civilisation but also a lamentable diminishment. The Battle of Teutoburg Forest, in 9 AD, was the defeat of a Roman army under Publius Quinctilius Varus by an alliance of German tribes, which took place in the heart of the German lands. The battle was taken up in the Nineteenth Century as an emblem of Germanic distinction by German nationalists and supporters of a wider völkisch pan-Germanism, not least as it displayed an instance of the superiority of “uncivilised” German warriors over “civilised” (and civilising) Latin invaders.
The search for pre-Christendom bonds of kinship – both at home and abroad – became inextricably bound up with the political aim of establishing new communal ties and national foundational myths within Western states unmoored from previously accepted authority. In the final part, we will look at the way nationality, race and art have been tied together, especially with regard to Romanticism in northern countries.
(1) Staatliche Kunstammlungen Dresden (ed.), Dreams of Freedom: Romanticism in Russia and Germany, Hirmer Verlag, Munich, 2022, pp. 23-33
(2) William Wordsworth, “Preface”, The Lyrical Ballads, 1801/1802, London
To read a longer version of this essay, you can find it in the book “Blood, Soil, Paint”, available from Imperium Press: http://www.imperiumpress.org/shop/blood-soil-paint/
To read part II, become a paid subscriber to this account here.
This article uses material from the forthcoming course Foundations of Aesthetics, available for purchase from www.academic-agency.com.
Alexander Adams is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.