So it is, and to a surprising extent, with The Romantic Spirit in German Art 1790-1990, now showing in Edinburgh. At the outset, this indisputably big exhibition promises a correspondingly grand curatorial design. Here we have about 250 pictures (very few sculptures) divided between two galleries. At the Royal Scottish Academy we begin with Caspar David Friedrich and his elusively significant landscapes, and follow a family tree of Romantic developments through the medievalist 'Nazarene' group, on to fin de siecle symbolists like Bocklin and Hodler, then into the modern age with the primitivism of Kirchner, Franz Marc's holy horses and Kandinsky's mystical abstractions, on, on, through the Bauhaus and a little bit of surrealism and a very little bit of Third Reich art, and out into post-war abstraction (Wols, Nay), and then you have to walk over to the Fruitmarket Gallery for the final update - a selection of works by Beuys, Kiefer, Baselitz, Richter et al.
At this point you may wonder, what does this leave out? The answer is, not a great deal, but mainly some mid-19th- century names I've never heard of, and the Neue Sachlichkeit artists of the 1920s. More than that, it scarcely needs to leave out anything. The exhibition's wall captions help you to make connections according to a number of recurring themes: the solitary individual, the precise observation of natural forms, the sublime landscape, an interest in arcane symbolism, in childish and primitive and folkish things, a longing for the past, utopian visions of the future. And this works. But how could it fail?
Look at Philipp Otto Runge for instance, a younger contemporary of Friedrich, and one of this show's revelations. Doesn't the fascination with complex symbolic schemes shown in his four diagram-pictures The Times of Day find an echo in Paul Klee's sign-languages over a century later? Or look at Carl Wilhelm Kolbe. Isn't there a line between his precise studies of grotesquely overgrown vegetation and Max Ernst's forests? Yes, yes, you are persuaded. And look, solitary individuals abound, lonely wanderers, deep-staring self-portraits - with Victor Emil Janssen's angular, shirt-off self-examination teetering between anxiety and comedy. But then, what wouldn't, at a push, be an example of one of those themes? It's not that 'Romanticism' is an interpretative straitjacket. The concept as it's applied here is so protean and plural that just about everything could come under it.
This is hardly avoidable. It is a notorious problem with any invocation of the word. At the start of the 19th century, people were already complaining that it seemed to mean practically anything. And it's quite possible to argue that the whole of Western culture over the past 200 years is, one way or another, a case of 'Romanticism', and with no end in sight. Camille Paglia has recently speculated that 'it's not going to be broken until our first encounters with creatures from outer space. Then suddenly we will look outward towards distant galaxies.' Even then, isn't an interest in distant galaxies a 'romantic' sort of thing?
To put the problem more specifically. If the focus is on Romantic art - supposing it definable - why stick with Germany? If Germany, why stick with Romantic? If Romanticism, why even stick with the visual arts? Come to that, why make 1790 the starting point? (Doesn't Durer display many of the qualities here called 'Romantic'?) None of the categories involved is stable. The selection of works will necessarily be arbitrary.
Best then to take it as such. Best not to worry too much about a unifying 'Romantic spirit' somehow instantiated in every work. Best not to nit-pick about inclusions and exclusions - why this, why not that? It is clearly a good thing that pictures are moved around the world. Much German art hasn't been seen here. And if it takes a windy rubric like The Romantic Spirit to get a half-decent showing for Runge - there's also two of his hideously forceful portraits of children, and a beautiful diagram illustrating his colour theories - well, it's a sledge- hammer to a nut, but fair enough.
We are back with a miscellany, though, and more than in most concept shows viewers are free to pick their own highlights, mix their own themes. I can only give my own. How good it is, for example, to see the engraver Max Klinger's proto-Freudian dream-sequence, The Glove from 1881. How interesting, but not really satisfactory, to have a halfway reconstruction of Kurt Schwitters's MERZbau, a sort of crooked-house grotto made in Hanover in the Twenties and later destroyed. But beyond single instances, there seem to me to be two tightly focused and desirable exhibitions lurking in this large loose one. The first would be achieved simply by excising everything after about 1830, to concentrate intensively on the first wave: more Runge, more Kolbe (only two prints here), not much more Fuseli (generally better in reproduction), above all much more Friedrich.
The second potential show could be called rudely 'Mumbo Jumbo in Modern Art.' It wouldn't be confined to German art. But it would dwell on something which is certainly implicit here - the still rather secret history of Modernism, where the stress is less on formal experiment and more on the influence of mysticism, spiritualism, alchemy. There's a lot of scholarship in this field, but it hasn't (I think) had the kind of full public exposure that a big exhibition would afford. But look for instance at the Bauhaus artist Oskar Schlemmer's picture of Man in the Sphere of Ideas. It's half like a technological blueprint of the human machine, half like a chakra-chart of spiritual energy centres. There are few early 20th-century artists who aren't implicated in these tendencies.
Which prompts the thought that one thing many artists in this exhibition do have in common is a more than artistic ambition for their work. Friedrich intended his pictures to effect some sort of religious conversion. Joseph Beuys hoped to spark off a spiritual / political revolution. There's a lot of work here that asks you to believe something. But the present show, though it certainly tries to construct a history of art which is not based merely on 'style', doesn't quite take the strain of this. And what I find dispiriting is that having decided to make German Romanticism its cause, it doesn't have anything it badly wants to say about it - except that there was a lot of it around, and there still is. This strikes me as art history on autopilot. Merely to establish a connection or continuity between works of art widely separate in time is to consider the job well done. And ideas are just interesting things you link up with each other.
But perhaps it does want to say one thing, namely that German Romanticism is basically OK. It's not, that is, irredeemably tainted by its connections with Nazism. This is a tricky point, because generally the show is keen to make any connections it can lay its hands on, and they would be all too easy to find in Nazi- favoured art. Many of the themes are loud and clear. But on this occasion disconnection is the priority - achieved by simply showing as little of the stuff as possible. The exhibition is out of its depth. It can hardly claim that the art of the Third Reich was an inauthentic or perverse expression of Romanticism, since elsewhere almost anything qualifies. It can hardly say that the pictures are generally too bad to show, since there are many other things included whose status is only 'representative'. And it can hardly argue that these works are, in themselves, demonstrably evil. For is
everything else on view demonstrably
Even to consider the point, the show would have to re-think its premises, to engage with the question of belief. As I said, the question is latent throughout. But the crux of Nazism makes it unignorable. And perhaps there is no active way that a conventional exhibition of pictures can raise this issue, can make you consider your assent to a work of art. But this open-minded, all-in overview, though well worth seeing, comes absolutely nowhere near.
For details, see below