EXHIBITIONS / The first of the Romantics: German art has long been neglected in this country. But two new shows, the first of several opening this summer, may prove a revelation to British eyes

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AFTER THE spring exhibitions that were part of the Spanish Festival, galleries are now looking towards Germany. An important event this summer will be the Royal Scottish Academy's 'The Romantic Spirit in German Art 1790-1990', which will transfer to the Hayward after its appearance at the Edinburgh Festival. In London, two new shows look at the earlier manifestations of that spirit. 'Caspar David Friedrich to Ferdinand Hodler: A Romantic Tradition' is in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery, while 'German Printmaking in the Age of Goethe' fills the large and hushed spaces of the British Museum's prints and drawings gallery.

Somewhat to my surprise, I preferred the British Museum show. At the National there are a number of lovely paintings and every wall of the exhibition tells us something unfamiliar about German art, so neglected in this country. However, this display never touches the heights of northern Romanticism and becomes weaker as it reaches the boundaries of modern art. The exhibition peters out in its final stages. So too does the show at the British Museum, which ends with those worthy but unconvincing artists of the Nazarene group. It's none the less a better account of the German spirit.

That is because its main themes concern culture and learning. These prints are less about Romanticism than enlightenment. Time and again they celebrate the life of the mind. I don't say it's a great work of art, but Carl Russ's etching Xenocrates and Phryne (1811) is worth consideration. Russ was the son of a poor Bohemian family and for all his life was a workman artist. Yet his classical knowledge was remarkable and his library that of an aristocratic connoisseur. It is said that he preferred to buy books rather than clothes. This print shows a famous courtesan of Athens in the days after Plato. She had wagered that she could defeat the self-control of the philosopher Xenocrates. As we can see, his studies meant more than her enchantments.

The National Gallery pictures all come from the Oskar Reinhart Foundation in Winterthur, Switzerland. Reinhart's riches came from commerce and he spent his money on art. In terms of sheer quality, his French paintings are better than the German ones now in Trafalgar Square. But he could not admire modern art and this side of his collection ends with Picasso before Cubism. Reinhart's enthusiasm for historic German art was stimulated by the important 1906 Berlin Centenary Exhibition, which brought neglected painters to public attention. Eventually he bought many of the paintings that were in the 1906 show, so at the National Gallery is a view of German 19th-century art as it appeared to a relatively conservative collector at the turn of the century.

Reinhart especially relished Caspar David Friedrich's landscape painting. Friedrich's Chalk Cliffs on Rugen (1818-19) is easily the most interesting of the collection's German pictures, in part because its meanings are elusive. The picture dates from the painter's honeymoon walking tour on the island of Rugen in 1818. Friedrich and his bride were accompanied by his brother. But are these the three people portrayed? Why has the figure on the right such antiquated costume? What have the two people in contemporary dress discovered at the bottom of the cliffs? Historians agree that here is an allegory of life, and the picture's obscure message is the more tantalising because of the light, delicate and lucid manner in which it is painted, rather like a much enlarged miniature.

Characteristically, Friedrich's art symbolises the human soul in contemplation of scenery that suggests the transitory nature of human life. A Romantic commonplace; yet we are seldom disappointed by his night scenes, lonely fir trees, mysterious boats in moonlit ports. If his painting were more diverse it would not be so potent. Goethe, who wished for a more exact and transparent art, criticised his 'gloomily religious allegories'. Friedrich remains untouched by such censures, even though he is a trademark artist and easily imitated. Pleasant though they are, Caspar Wolf, Johan Christian Dahl, Joseph Anton Koch, Carl Blechen, Friedrich Wasmann, Ferdinand Waldmuller and others all lack Friedrich's power.

Such artists did form a national school, especially since they sought to portray German (and Swiss) rural life and manners. But it was hard to create an utterly German style. Painters were caught between the contradictory influences of Italian classicism and Dutch descriptiveness. Then, by the mid-century, a more prosaic realism - in itself a decent ambition for art of the time - made gifted painters seem rather ordinary. Alas, Germany could never produce a Courbet. This is a dispiriting message of the Reinhart collection.

So one is attracted to individual and peculiar minor artists. A discovery of the 1906 show was Georg Kersting and he's the revelation of the present exhibition. Man Reading by Lamplight (1814) is an interior that, by its capacity for implication, expands to the limits of the known world, and perhaps beyond. When were bookshelves ever painted with such weightiness? You can't tell if they're menacing or beckoning. This picture, with its unnatural greens and hints of possession, is Byronic and Faustian. Interesting that Goethe supported the destitute Kersting - though possibly not enough, for only a dozen paintings are known from his hand.

The beautiful catalogue of the British Museum exhibition (pounds 15.95 from the British Museum bookshops, pounds 19.95 elsewhere) by Antony Griffiths and Frances Carey will be a permanent contribution to the understanding of Goethe, both here and in Germany. I recommend this correctly illustrated book, especially since there is no good general introduction to Goethe in print, or not in English. Griffiths' and Carey's tribute to a great European mind emphasises that he owed much to visual artists. Their prints became a part of his own liberal spirit. And Goethe's magnificent shrewdness about contemporary creative life was a product of his interest in art. I don't think we can say this about any writer of our own time, in Britain or elsewhere.

'Caspar David Friedrich to Ferdinand Hodler', National Gallery, 071-839 3321, to 4 Sept. 'German Printmaking in the Age of Goethe', British Museum, 071-636 1555, to 11 Sept.

(Photographs omitted)