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Alte Nationalgalerie

Menzel's Extreme Realism

Curated by Michel Fried

We might begin by looking at one of Adolph Menzel’s most famous drawings, the superb Unmade Bed of around 1845. The official report on its medium reads: “black stone and stump on greenish-gray paper.” The drawing’s dimensions are modest, just over 22 x 35 cm. It belongs to the Kupferstichkabinett / Museum of Prints and Drawings of the National Museums in Berlin, as do all the drawings and gouaches in the present exhibition. And the question is: In light of this drawing, what does it mean to claim, as I would wish to, that Menzel was a great realist artist? Or indeed that, in the judgment of the French critic Edmond Duranty in 1880, Menzel practiced an art of “extreme realism”— a marvelously provocative term? Well, it clearly doesn’t mean that there ever existed an unmade bed that looked exactly like the one in the drawing, for the simple reason that no unmade bed that vivid with bodily feeling, that electrifyingly “alive” in every fold, every bulge, every contour, can be imagined as a possible object in the world. No doubt there was an unmade bed that Menzel was looking at when he made his drawing, and quite possibly it was a bed in which he had recently slept. But the unmade bed that took form on a piece of greenish-gray paper as he drew turned out to be something sharply independent of the “original,” not simply because it was a depiction rather than the thing itself but also (and for our purposes more importantly) because of the intense empathy with which the artist saw and felt his way into his motif, and which in effect he “projected” into his drawing. This is why Unmade Bed is as spellbinding as it is—why it is so difficult, once one has begun to allow oneself to truly see it, which is to say to respond to the empathic cues with which it is so charged, to tear one’s gaze away, even to look at the other works on the wall nearby. Put slightly differently, Menzel’s drawing does not so much depict a corner of reality with uncanny accuracy (though of course it does that too) as establish a new, extremely compelling, all but physical connection with reality as such—one might almost say it produces the reality it ostensibly records. (My phrasing here reflects the thoughts of Kathrin Rhomberg about a major theme of this Berlin Biennale. By no means coincidentally, it was her idea to include a selection of works by Menzel for the occasion.) In short, if Unmade Bed were the only drawing by Menzel to come down to us, it would be enough to establish him as a draftsman of truly stunning originality.

But of course it is far from the only such drawing to come down to us. On the contrary, in the Museum of Prints and Drawings in Berlin alone there are roughly seven thousand drawings, along with scores of small sketchbooks in which Menzel all his life drew continually. And then there are hundreds of oil paintings, gouaches, and watercolors, many of which are no less original than his finest drawings (though it is often said that Menzel was first and foremost a draftsman; that is both true and an oversimplification)—and which are no less infused with bodily significance.

Take for example the magisterial gouache, Crown Prince Frederick Pays a Visit to the Painter Pesne on his Scaffold at Rheinsberg (1861), a work of almost exactly the same dimensions as Unmade Bed, though in obvious respects much more ambitious. It depicts Frederick while still crown prince, in the company 
of the architect Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff, climbing unseen stairs to visit the painter Antoine Pesne who has been decorating the ceiling of the Rheinsdorf Castle ballroom with the allegory of Apollo chasing the Night. On the lower of two scaffolds, a violinist, head bent to his instrument, loses himself in the music he is making (he is shown beating time with his foot), while on the upper scaffold, which we see from beneath, the artist seems to be dancing with a scantily dressed woman, presumably his model. To the left of the musician, an assistant is absorbed in cleaning a palette, and between the two men there is a chair (based on Menzel’s own, it turns out) on which rests a small wine glass. Through the windows we glimpse foliage and intuit the larger setting of the building on its grounds. The execution of the gouache is dazzling, extraordinary, not to be believed—at once immensely detailed and yet somehow broad, even free, in its treatment of the whole (we have the sense of being shown a world). I can think of no artist in all modernity that could even have remotely approached such a tour de force of vision and technique. And make no mistake—this is a distinctly modern work despite its historical subject matter. In fact I regard it virtually as a “real allegory” (Gustave Courbet’s term for his Atelier du peintre of 1855) of Menzel’s intensely bodily enterprise: think of the music filling the room, Frederick and his companions so persuasively climbing stairs that although not depicted are nevertheless imaginatively “present”, the different levels of the scaffold which we as viewers must negotiate, the dancing artist clutching palette and brushes in his left hand as he engages in a sexually charged pas de deux with his not unwilling model, and (to the model’s right) toppling brushes suggesting a certain happy disorder. (We are positively invited to imagine the sounds of the artist’s shod feet on the uneven boards.) There is even a reminder of the body as Körper in the fallen manikin on the left.

Just how personal Menzel’s stake was in his ravishing Crown Prince gouache can be gauged from a remarkable pencil drawing with watercolor additions in the present exhibition, Menzel as Dancing Painter (1861), which depicts Menzel himself gripping a paintbrush between his teeth (photographs show us Menzel sometimes gripped a second pencil while drawing with a first) and holding in his left hand not just a palette like the one being cleaned in the gouache but also more than a dozen brushes, an improbable bouquet springing out from between his fingers that all but cries out to be read metaphorically. (“Menzel in Ecstasy” might be another title for this work.) But even apart from the drawing, truly appreciating Menzel’s accomplishment requires a willingness 
to acknowledge that his brilliant gouache, despite its modest dimensions and its execution in a “lesser” medium, represents a pictorial achievement fully
 as worthy of our admiration as the work of his much more famous French contemporaries. 
I don’t know how much more it is necessary to say by way of introduction, 
but it seems pertinent to observe that Menzel’s nonpareil empathic gifts also somehow made him the century’s unequalled recorder of the sight of death and decay, as in two searing drawings with watercolor of recently killed soldiers following a battle in the 1866 war between Prussia and Austria (one of these watercolors is in this exhibition), and above all in the astonishing drawings—works of horror, beauty, and exact measurement indissolubly mixed—of the corpses of Frederician officers in the vault beneath the Garrison Church in Berlin (1873). (The fallen manikin in the Crown Prince gouache might be taken as a first draft for these.)
 If the works Kathrin Rhomberg and I have been privileged to hang at the Alte Nationalgalerie / Old National Gallery convey a sense of Menzel’s transcendant gifts as a draughtsman and a painter in gouache and watercolor along with an intuition of his intensely empathic vision of reality, we will have succeeded in our aim.

Text: Michael Fried, 2010

The exhibition Menzel’s Extreme Realism was a collaboration between the Alte Nationalgalerie and the Kupferstichkabinett of the National Museums in Berlin.