Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 6, 2001
James J. Sheehan Museums in the German Art World: From the End of the Old Regime to the Rise of Modernism Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. 271 pp.; 31 b/w ills. Cloth $35.00 (0195135725)

This is a remarkably brief book about a vast subject. While most museum histories are monographs or catalogues, James Sheehan’s elegant survey presents the rise and fall of the monumental German art museums, including their eighteenth-century origins, along with appropriate fragments of their philosophical and historical context. For German-reading scholars interested in the German art world and its museums, the book covers a more or less familiar terrain in a more than familiar manner, although the condensed format and many observations are the author’s own. The fact, however, that the text is not translated but originally produced in English signals its aspirations to address non-German readers about foreign matters. I have no doubt that it will succeed in introducing this fascinating, but by no means exhausted, topic to an international audience. It may even serve as a timely corrective to the narrow preoccupation with the French nineteenth-century art world within most art-history curricula.

According to the Introduction, the organization of the book is roughly chronological, but so is, more importantly, the argument of the book, in so far as it has one. Four structurally similiar chapters trace “the history of art museums in the German states from the second half of the eighteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth” (xi). It is obviously central to this inquiry that there is a coherent history, and not just histories, of German art museums that are outlined from the princely cabinet of curiosities to the modernist halls of exhibitions that characterize the art museums of the 1910s. Some recognition, at least, of the by now well-established, Foucault-inspired critical museology, attentive to epistemic differences between such institutions of power and knowledge, at the expense of frictionless coherencies of influence, would certainly have strengthened Sheehan’s differing contribution.

Chapter 1, on the “Eighteenth-Century Origins” (of the quintessential nineteenth-century German art museum, with which this account culminates), provides the groundwork for the narrative and hints at the author’s working procedure. It begins like a textbook on some basic aesthetic ideas of Sulzer, Kant, and Winckelmann, in particular on the dual mission of art to transmit beauty as well as virtue, and to instruct and delight. Next, a more sociological section links aesthetic matters to the public sphere, introducing the interesting issue of the gradual public accessibility and reception of the princely art collections. Both of these themes resurface again later on. Among the galleries and early museums with which the chapter closes is the Museum Fridericianum in Kassel, which was inaugurated in 1779. Because it combined natural objects alongside scientific and artistic exhibits, the museum is characterized as “a transitional building” (37), as if this museum, or any, was identical with its architecture, and as if this intriguing institution could only be understood in terms of what it had not yet become.

Chapter 2 covers “Museums and the Age of Revolution, 1789-1830,” including, for example, Schiller’s conservative response to the upheavals in Paris, and the most important German museums influenced by the Louvre: the Glyptothek in Munich and, especially, Schinkel’s Museum in Berlin. Visitors to both of these places were offered a visible history of art, which is to say that works of art were displayed in roughly chronological sequence. Although Sheehan pays due attention to display modes and hanging conventions, from the scholarly to the aesthetic, a finer analysis or deconstruction of such pseudo-polar alternatives would have been welcome.

We then enter “The Museum Age, 1830-1880.” This is the boom period of the monumental museum that spread all over Europe.This type of museum was based upon a substructure of historicism, aesthetics, Bildung ideology, and national sentiments. Two prominent examples of such institutions are reproduced on the cover and the title page of this book: Karl Louis Preusser’s painting of visitors in Gottfried Semper’s Dresden Gemäldegalerie (1847-55), followed by a photograph of the now-destroyed Raphaelesque loggia, decorated by Peter Cornelius, of the Alte Pinakothek in Munich (1826-36), designed by Leo von Klenze. Foregrounded in and on both of these museums was the lure of the Renaissance as a virtually all-purpose phenomenon: “When then nineteenth century aspired to build a monumental architecture that could celebrate and dignify all sorts of political, economic, and cultural attainments, the Renaissance offered the perfect source of inspiration” (135). It was not just a matter of inspiration, of course, but of identification or sense of spiritual affinity as well—at least post-Burckhardt. The Renaissance was much more than a style or an art-historical period: As the first phase of the contemporary era, it appeared to be the aged face of modernity. A closer look at the transformation from such an imagination of contemporaneity in Renaissance attire into Jugendstil and avant-garde abstraction would have been extremely interesting—and could possibly support a book of its own. Sheehan’s comments on the Renaissance vogue toward the 1880s are unfortunately restricted to attitudes towards the past.

The concluding chapter on “Museums and Modernism, 1880-1914,” in which the now-established museum type is faced with criticism and reconstruction, begins with Nietzsche’s famous denunciation of literally “life”-threatening historicism. Although museums, as the author mentions repeatedly, not only reflect ideas and artistic tastes but actively participate in shaping them, museums toward the end of the nineteenth century had failed to shape anything artistically except fatigue and disgust with the styles of old. This paved the way for reformers and redefinitions of art, including important reevaluations of its links to craft and non-Western imagery. Less familar than this story is Sheehan’s vivid presentation of the most successful museum directors of the period: Wilhelm Bode, Hugo von Tschudi, and Alfred Lichtwark.

It may be regretted that the last chapter is sparingly illustrated, but the author, a historian by profession, does very little with his illustrations anyway. The magnificient visual worlds that the monumental museums constitute and contain are only dealt with in summary. A final point of argument with this chapter regards the concluding section on “The Decline of Monumentality.” Following the general picture about this historical epoch, museums, too, were cleansed successively of their historical decor and eclectic iconography to be born again as white shells for autonomous art. What I would like to question is simply this: Why this should be interpreted as a decline of monumentality? Is not the white or light space of the modernist museum, as a precondition and necessary environment for the display and delectation of singular masterpieces, more, and not less, sublime, infinite, pretentious, and overdetermined—in short, monumental—than the bourgeois interior decorations of the retired museums?

What accounts, finally, for the book’s “highly accessible” character—and I agree with the comment from the dust jacket —is its thoroughly traditional perspective. Very little here, whether in terms of language, composition, or analysis, comes as a surprise, given, of course, the traditionalist (or humanist) expectations triggered by the descriptive title and overall layout. Facts and theories are recounted but never theorized and rarely problematized; empirical description is its own reward, and never a basis for criticism or interpretation. The implicit philosophy of history, in the wide sense of the word, is unfashionably idealist. Each chapter begins with a few ideas that are ultimately reflected in the museum buildings. Some of the best sections deal with contextual aspects, such as public access, patronage, museum administration, and biographical presentations. These reservations aside, I must confess, also, that many of the interconnections made in this narrative between the museums and the sociopolitical and cultural environments in which they were fashioned do give rise to “Aha!” experiences and new insights. I had only hoped to find more eye-opening readings and less sound but predictable summaries, which is also to acknowledge, if not to apologize for, my perhaps unfair and limited reading of a fine piece of work.

Dan Karlholm
Stockholm University