Romanticism but no wickedness

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THE NEW exhibition at the National Gallery, 'Caspar David Friedrich to Ferdinand Hodler: A Romantic Tradition', is a reminder of the insights and pleasures to be gained from certain areas of minor art. One cannot live exclusively on masterpieces, although some collections have aspired only to contain them. I never visit the Frick Collection in New York without delight, or without a shiver at the thought of the utter wickedness of the man behind the fortune that acquired it.

In the Frick, nothing is not a masterpiece. The very best advice has been sought and the very best pictures purchased. Then, as a quick afterthought, the very, very best sculpture was added, to help furnish the rooms. You retire awestruck.

Another version of the extremely high-flying collection, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, has masterpieces to match the best of the Frick, but also a fair amount of tat or semi- tat which has been preserved along with the old arrangement of pictures, sculpture and furniture, and so you feel permitted to make your own distinctions. The taste that formed the Gardner seems to have far more gusto than that which amassed the Frick. Faintly fallible gusto, but gusto nevertheless.

The paintings in the National's exhibition come from the Oskar Reinhart Foundation in Winterthur, Switzerland. Reinhart had apparently firm views on art, his main interest lying in the French 19th century. But he was also absorbed by the German romantic tradition, and it is mostly from this part of his collection that the exhibition is drawn.

It is a tradition without towering geniuses in the manner of, say, Delacroix, but a tradition nevertheless with great depth of field and great resonances. German romantic painting may not rank with German romantic music, but it proceeds from a similar sensibility.

People who respond to Schubert will tend to respond to the Biedermeier interior and people who like Biedermeier will respond to many of the paintings in this exhibition. But I don't think people who like Beethoven would agree that Caspar David Friedrich was Beethoven's match in his chosen field of endeavor.

The Friedrich paintings have a luminosity and charm, which is sustained for as long as one can concentrate on the total effect. It is when one comes closer to examine the means by which the effect was achieved that the vibrancy of the whole is dissipated and the crudeness of the means revealed.

Friedrich has this in common with another very popular painter, Edward Hopper, that his works look particularly good in reproduction. Favourites for record sleeves, favourites for postcards - for the good reason that their undoubted drama is best viewed from a distance.

There's another artist responsible for a classic postcard who is on view at the National, Carl Spitzweg. The painting behind the postcard (not in this exhibition) is of an old man in a leaky garret sitting in bed with an umbrella up. The purpose is to amuse, and it seems sad that most paintings that amuse us forfeit thereby their right to be taken seriously.

Spitzweg is represented in this exhibition by a couple of paintings, one of which offers a 19th-century view of 18th-century city life - two tottering old men walk home at night through a moonlit city, clearly deep in conversation after a good night at the tavern. The catalogue tells us that Spitzweg was well versed in the art of Daumier, Grandville, Gavarni and Dore. But he turned it into something merely funny and sweet.

More to my purpose are those paintings which reflect the impact of Italy on the artists of northern Europe. I always warm to these. I have a strong sympathy for those painters and sculptors who managed to get away from, say, Copenhagen life, or life in small-town Germany, and buzz off down to Rome, and find an education there.

Every nation has a version of this. The Germans did so most famously. They brought back the Italian style, expanding Munich to make it look like an improved version of Florence, with the Loggia dei Lanzi turning into the Feldherrnhalle. They had their own precursors of the pre-Raphaelites in the Nazarenes. And they loved painting the Italian landscape.

What came back from Rome was not only an artistic impulse. Geoffrey Grigson tells us (in a rare but excellent book of his called Gardenage) that 'when the Danish sculptor Thorwaldsen died in 1844, they brought back his statuary from Rome to Copenhagen. Seeds fell out of the straw and grass in which the statues were packed, and 25 Italian species were found growing a year later. Some became naturalised around Copenhagen, some were preserved and specially cultivated in Thorwaldsen's memory.'

That sense of reverence for the South infuses many of the pictures at the National exhibition. But in order to get south, normally speaking, you had to go through the Alps. The 18th-century paintings here by Caspar Wolf show an interest in geology and the formation of the Swiss glaciers that comes both from a new sense of the sublime (the beauty that moves us to fear) and that new sense of nature which fed both art and science in the 19th century. You wouldn't say these are supreme examples of the art of painting. But they are supremely interesting paintings, from a point of view which embraces the history of sensibility.

Reinhart does not seem to have been a prophet among collectors, his interest stopping at Picasso's Blue Period. (Reinhart died in 1965.) He didn't want anything to do with Klee or any living artist apart from his friends.

This makes him seem less of a connoisseur than those who, with expert help, formed great collections of blockbusters. But Reinhart's interests have this claim on our attention, that they appear to be his own, their limits consciously set by his knowledge and taste.

Given the dosh and good advice, any fool can fork out for a Raphael. Given rather less dosh, but a personal interest in a particular, usually neglected, line of art, a person could do something really worthwhile. The reason these pictures are in London is that their museum in Winterthur is being renovated. I'm looking forward to visiting Winterthur as soon as those renovations are complete.