ART EXHIBITIONS / Prepare for the German evasion: The Hayward's grand new show of Romantic art covers a lot of ground but leaves many questions unanswered

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AS PART of the Deutsche Romantik festival the Hayward Gallery presents 'The Romantic Spirit in German Art 1790-1990'. This is the extremely large exhibition that was seen in two parts at the Edinburgh Festival. Though still a big show, it has been abbreviated and tightened for the London venue. All but the last part looks very good, proving yet again that the maligned Hayward can accommodate and enhance art of all sorts. The last part isn't the Hayward's fault, for it's dominated by Joseph Beuys, who would look bad anywhere.

And yet a promise of the exhibition is that Beuys is the legitimate heir of the German romantic artists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The idea is that he shares their gloomy and apocalyptic concerns because he is of the same nationality. So we are asked to consider his The End of the Twentieth Century, which consists of 31 basalt rocks, randomly placed on the gallery floor, in the same way that we look at Caspar David Friedrich's mysterious but precise landscapes of the 1820s. Well, this is possible, but it doesn't get us very far, or not if we want enlightenment. Friedrich made paintings of high quality. Beuys wasn't a painter, nor in truth a sculptor. His inert stone logs are a dull substitute for real sculptural form.

In a similar way Beuys's drawings, little more than doodles, are now likened to the precise botanical illustrations of the early romantic period. The comparison is unbelievable. Beuys's works on paper have so little intrinsic merit that I feel offended to be told that they are part of a great tradition. The Hayward exhibition, despite its intentions, proves that such a tradition has long since collapsed. We see that recent German painting (there's no real sculpture in the show) has become unthinkingly self-indulgent.

Even the most convincing of recent German painters, Anselm Kiefer, drowns in solipsistic expressiveness. No doubt that he has something. The Stairs is a genuinely monumental work. Seraphim is also of a high order, a black and menacing invention that isn't melodramatic, keeps the surface of the canvas in continual change and suggests the work of natural as well as human forces. In Ways of Worldly Wisdom, however, Kiefer appears to think that he can throw anything into his picture, and that the result would therefore be augmented. It doesn't work out that way.

This painting has tortured references to German history, Fascism and the Holocaust. Inevitably, the format and the contents of the exhibition raise the question: what went wrong with German art, and why is it still wrong? And just as inevitably the answer lies in Fascism and Hitler's destruction of international modernism. No German artist whose career began during or after Fascism has any of the spirit or accomplishment of the painters who began work in Germany before 1933. A link between the generations is Willi Baumeister, who was in artistic Paris before the First World War and has a nice abstract painting of 1955 in the Hayward. But he's the only link, and I see no later painting that is comparable with the achievements of Kandinsky, Klee, Marc, Schlommer, or even the early Max Ernst.

To the credit of its organisers, this exhibition shows art of the Third Reich, though not very much of it, and they admit that such work is the corruption of a romanticism that they admire and believe to be still active in German culture. They do not say that this romanticism, by its very nature, is open to such corruption. Fascist art proves this to be so. The modernist painters I've just named - who are precisely the least romantic in the whole exhibition and indeed could be interpreted as anti-romantic - aimed at art of such integrity that it could not possibly be perverted. For this reason their art was burnt, they were expelled from Germany and some were killed.

Soil, blood, the family, the seasons, heroism and warfare, rural rather than urban life: these are some of the themes of Fascist art that were prefigured in romanticism. Individual freedom, social progress, aesthetic radicalism, the possibilities of new cities and architecture, internationalism: here were, before Hitler, themes that lay behind the canvases of early modernist art. Maybe I exaggerate such differences in modern German culture. None the less they existed, are still important, and are rather subdued in the Hayward show.

I have commented on the exhibition in counter- clockwise fashion, from the later work towards the earlier. The Hayward installation forces you to do the opposite. The visitor must go to the top floor, then down through a sequence of small rooms before encountering wider spaces that include, for instance, Sigmar Polke's foolish, over-large Lanterna Magica, 13 paintings on transparent polyester fabric made into a sort of installation / house, and then a mezzanine given to Beuys's drawings and a view of his basalt blunderings on your way out. I recommend more time in the earlier part of the display, which gives crisp introductions to a number of German movements or groupings.

These include 'Romanticism', as defined by Philipp Otto Runge and his botanical series The Times of Day; 'Symbolic Landscape', exemplified by Friedrich, Lossing and Schinkel; and 'Elemental Forces', in which we find a thrilling little set of works by Henry Fuseli. He was Swiss, moved to London at the turn of the 18th century when in his twenties and died in Putney, but I'm not fussy about finding him in a survey of German art. Then we have more of these mini-exhibitions devoted to 'Community and Solitude', 'Utopias of the Past', 'Longing for the South', 'Symbolist Fantasies' and 'The Nation and the People'.

Here we find such interesting people as Johann Anton Ramboux, Georg Friedrick Korsting, Friedrich Overbeck and Peter van Cornelius, none of them familiar in Britain. We see how each has a place in the course of German art. Yet, as these mini-exhibitions march on towards our own century, we also recognise that the modernist Germans played their part in European and even American art. Our horizons are lifted even though the thrust of the exhibition is to keep German art of a piece and, dare I say it, provincial. Fascism, with all its imperial ambitions, was provincial in spirit. International modern art had better aspirations for the world as a whole. That is a reason why we value the Bauhaus, Klee, Kandinsky and others, all of whose work is rather devalued in this grand but evasive exhibition.

Hayward Gallery, SE1, 071-261 0127, to 8 Jan.

(Photographs omitted)