Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 6, 2021
Christiane Hertel Siting China in Germany: Eighteenth-Century Chinoiserie and Its Modern Legacy University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2019. 304 pp.; 35 color ills.; 85 b/w ills. Cloth $124.95 (9780271082370)

Christiane Hertel’s new book, Siting China in Germany: Eighteenth-Century Chinoiserie and Its Modern Legacy, is both immensely important and highly unusual. An expert in early modern art and culture, the author presents a volume of critical essays that not only explore Chinese influences in the German lands but also offer an analysis of and argument for a distinct perception of China and a different engagement with Chinese import art in Germany, relative to the rest of Europe. Her account is based partially on the observation that because the German principalities had no East India companies and no direct access to East Asia, their knowledge of China was obtained through other European countries, such as the Netherlands, England, France, and Sweden. By putting German states at one remove from China, Hertel provides new perspective on the discussion of Sinophilia, and her consideration of contemporary literature by the great German thinkers likewise highlights how her multifaceted approach illuminates a cultural phenomenon that we thought we knew well. Hertel not only challenges long-established assumptions of authors before her but also selects the subject matter for her four-part book in such a way that different academic disciplines interact to construct a modern view of German collectors and their engagements with Chinese art and culture.

Chapter 1 focuses on a siting of China in eighteenth-century Germany. Influenced by French architecture and, even more, Dutch chinoiserie interiors and imports coming through the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (Dutch East India Company, est. 1602), German princes assembled cabinets for Asian and, increasingly, German porcelain. These influences came by way of a network of European nobility and enterprising merchants and designers. The phenomenon is not entirely unique, but Germany’s dependence on indirect, European contacts is hugely significant—not just for its acquisition of precious Asian ceramics but also for its early move toward local manufacture of both porcelain and the exuberant cabinets and palaces constructed to house it. Here, Hertel describes two important extant Porzellanschlösser (porcelain castles)—in Rastatt (1710–25) and Dresden (1727–36)—and, in addition to foreign precursors such as the Trianon de Porcelain at Versailles, names early German cabinets at the Oranienburg and Charlottenburg palaces.

With reference to Ernst Bloch’s The Rococo of Fate (1918/30) and Jan Luiken’s Het leerzaam Huisraad (1711), Hertel analyzes the performative role of porcelain, especially in Dresden, concluding that porcelain chinoiserie influenced interiors, such as at Rastatt, “indirectly and by implication” (34). She suggests that “if in Dresden material transformation of raw resources into artifice began in the alchemical and scientific endeavour of porcelain’s reinvention, at Favorite [Palace, near Rastatt] the relation between raw material [such as porcelain] and artifice was represented in the configuration of materially different components that function as iconographic and compositional elements and thereby contribute to a decorative programme” (35). To illustrate her point—and by describing at Favorite first the Green Room in the apartment of Ludwig Georg Simpert, margrave of Baden-Baden, and then the Mirror Cabinet in Margravine Sibylla Augusta’s wing—Hertel zooms in on the “Chinese Feast,” a decorative theme achieved entirely in porcelain.

In chapter 2, Hertel analyzes the gardens, the buildings, and the contemporary eighteenth-century descriptions (such as by Friedrich Christoph Schminke) and depictions (including paintings by Johann Heinrich Tischbein) of Wilhelmshöhe in Kassel, with its “Bavarian-French” architecture and chinois pavilions within the vast and monumental parks belonging to the Hesse-Kassel family. The author compares the “rustic-georgic” Wilhelmshöhe to Mulang, with its chinois fermes ornées: the latter incorporated Chinese and African elements and exhibits an emerging “coexistence of chinoiserie and neoclassicism” that accompanied the formal changes in courtly style at the classical Bavarian-French Wilhelmsthal Palace and its Entenhäuser, Chinese pavilions used as duck houses (57).

This juxtaposition leads Hertel to discuss the palace buildings (the Chineserhütten) and their decoration, as well as the palace’s assumed content, particularly David Roentgen’s large, formerly Hesse-owned chinoiserie-decorated clock; here we are at the core of an interesting analysis that (without mentioning the cultural connotation of “Mandarin ducks”), once again, makes use of different media and different academic and philosophical positions, such as Johann Christoph Gottsched’s Hessens Kleinode (1753) and C. C. L. Hirschfeld’s Theory of Garden Art (1779–85), to describe an important local development of interest in Chinese design elements in both objets d’art and architecture. The author describes the significant influence of Hirschfeld, William Chambers, and Heinrich Christoph Jussow on the designs, and she explains how a foreign (here Chinese) structure dominates the surrounding landscape without overdoing artificiality. Hirschfeld, like Chambers, is said to value China by comparison to Greece and Rome, and thereby in terms of Neoclassicism, by which China, when it comes to gardens, ranked favorably relative to Europe.

Chapter 3 is short and its focus, the reemergence of chinoiserie in the bourgeois interior, predictable. Hertel describes the connections between Romanticism and chinoiserie. Less familiar to eighteenth-century specialists will be the discussion of Pillnitz Castle in Dresden, as exemplifying a transitional period that suspends, so the author argues, the segregation of the Chinese and the European elements in favor of an easy fusion of Chinese and Italian architectural elements, as seen in Christian Friedrich Schuricht’s pavilion of 1804. What we may have previously considered characteristic of a continuous interest in chinoiserie during the long eighteenth century is here explained in terms of a singular approach and stylistic vocabulary that is visual proof of Dresden’s Romanticism—undoubtedly convincing, especially when the architectural structure is decorated with Johann Ludwig Giesel’s romantic chinoiserie wall paintings, which show the influence of contemporary prints after watercolors of The Emperor of China’s Gardens (1793) by William Alexander. Giesel’s paintings are, then, no “eclectic mash-up of William Alexander’s China with Bernardo Bellotto’s Dresden”—the latter’s famous panoramic views of the Elbe River were another strong example of ongoing Italian influence—but rather a skillful mediation of styles and fashions, a “successful, if playful, search for equivalences,” and a further development, one might add, of the juxtapositioning of Chinese and European or African culture Hertel describes earlier in her volume (128–29). Giesel’s practice thus also resonates with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s approach to translating foreign texts, as a process of selection, appropriation, and estrangement that leads to a “Germanizing” of the original—here, Chinese designs known through English and Dutch sources as well as Italian and French designs that all ultimately come together to characterize this form of Romanticism.

Chapter 4 is devoted to twentieth-century writers and scholars, namely Thomas Mann, Béla Balázs, Adolf Reichwein, and Ernst Scheyer, and their views on chinoiserie. Hertel states that the former two, out of concern with both their own writing and contemporary German culture, as they saw it, express a negative opinion of Chinese influences, whereas the latter two developed a “position on chinoiserie as a phenomenon of cultural-political receptivity, which, in turn, changed cultural thought”—albeit also predominantly negatively (135). Goethe’s skeptical remarks on chinoiserie in gardens and architecture—for example, his statement that it is too foreign and that it “must have a disadvantageous influence on the person engaged in it”—bring Hertel to her own concluding question, as to whether chinois commissions “express[ed] concerns of the day” (184). An answer is presented in the findings that in Dresden, material excess and the idea of cultural longevity made porcelain successful, and that large collections of porcelain sculpture (and the means to preserve them) and knowledge about China demonstrated sophisticated connoisseurship and lasting prosperity.

In Kassel, the architecture and decorative themes express material wealth and knowledge of foreign cultures, while the juxtapositioning of styles introduces cultural fragility—chinoiserie’s meddling with Neoclassicism and Romanticism. But “chinoiserie’s afterlife was a particularly productive cultural phenomenon,” part of a “cultural bridging” (184–85). The author highlights this point by referring back to the discussion of Thomas Mann’s work and her conclusion that “China and chinoiserie serve to heighten and disrupt this [Mann’s] Identifikationspiel” (identification game; 185). This identity crisis, one may add, was amplified by the fact that Germany was highly influenced by chinois culture and longed for Chinese and imitation products during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and that it subsequently got firsthand knowledge of and, indeed, cultural influence from China during its short colonial presence there at the turn of the twentieth century.

Hertel’s interdisciplinary study is a thought-provoking interpretation of Chinese influence and chinoiserie in German court culture and bourgeois circles. Her findings are diverse and multifaceted, and they present an unprecedented drawing out of fine-grained historical and cultural differences. Unfortunately, some discussions, like those concerning the connections between architecture and object (e.g., between buildings and ceramics in Dresden) and between text and image, are difficult to follow. And the printing of the few color illustrations as separate signatures in the middle of the book is inconvenient for the reader. Overall, however, scholars of chinoiserie will greatly benefit from Hertel’s study and from its conclusion, which pulls together four chapters that do not necessarily seem to have been conceived as one narrative but may have started out as separate projects. It whets the appetite for more of Hertel’s scholarship.

Florian Knothe
University of Hong Kong