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March 2003

Brush with Reality

Why we can still relate to the paintings of Carl Spitzweg

The paintings of Biedermeier artist Carl Spitzweg (1808–1885) are well known and well loved throughout the German-speaking world, so much so that they have become part of the common cultural vocabulary. Reproductions of Die Dachstube (The Garret, 1848–50), Der Bücherwurm (The Bookworm, 1850) or Aschermittwoch (Ash Wednesday, 1855–60) can be found on book covers, travel posters, calendars and advertisements. Spitzweg’s art has become so familiar, in fact, that it is surprising any German would bother to look at the originals. And yet the current exhibition of his work at the Haus der Kunst is packed with visitors and will probably remain so until it closes, on May 18.

The exhibition “Traveling and Roaming in Europe and the ‘Glückliche Winkel’ [Happy Corner]” comprises 200 paintings and 80 drawings created by Spitzweg on both real and imaginary journeys. The pictures are arranged thematically—“Journey to Italy,” “Wandering through Fairy Tales,” etc.—in 11 rooms. Though it is interesting to discover how well traveled the artist was and to become acquainted with lesser-known paintings, such as Orientalin, am Fenster sitzend (Oriental Woman Sitting at the Window, 1845–50) or Frauenbad in Dieppe (Ladies Bathing in Dieppe, 1857), the relationship between Spitzweg’s travels and his paintings is not the main focus of this exhibition.

The artist favored two seemingly mundane types of subject matter: romantic landscapes, often including a single figure, and humorous scenes taken from the lives of ordinary people. Yet the resulting pictures are not in the least mundane. Instead the artist produced luminous landscapes that make the viewer pine for a summer afternoon in an alpine meadow, while his clever and witty character studies, full of lovingly depicted anecdotal detail, elicit gleeful laughter even on second and third viewing. In Zwei Dirndl auf der Alm (Two Lasses in the Mountains, 1870–75) two young girls are seated on a grassy outcrop, looking out across a sunny plain to the horizon, while a bird hovers in the air close by. The calm of the moment, the sweeping panorama and the children’s contentment are perfectly captured. Spitzweg’s talent as a sensitive caricaturist, on the other hand, is beautifully exemplified by the porcine figure depicted in Der Witwer (The Widower, 1844). Dressed uncomfortably in black, the buttons of his coat strained to bursting, he sits on a stone bench in the hot sunshine. Clutching a handkerchief in one hand and holding a miniature of his dead wife loosely in the other, his gaze follows two comely young ladies walking past. The conflicting feelings of hope and despair emanating from the widower have such immediacy that the onlooker feels instantly drawn into the scene.

Perhaps it was Spitzweg’s own life, which encapsulated both great sorrow and joy, that allowed him to portray such figures as the widower so successfully. Born into a wealthy, middle-class family in Munich, his childhood, shared with two brothers, was happy and secure until the sudden death of his mother in 1819, when Spitzweg was 11. After attending high school, he decided to bow to the wishes of his father and become a pharmacist. During the six-year course of study both Spitzweg’s father and his elder brother died, leaving younger brother Eduard as his only immediate family. Financially independent, the young Carl decided to become a painter—a dream he had harbored since early boyhood—and in 1934 he set off for the Alps, armed with brushes and an easel, to begin his career as a painter. Spitzweg was an autodidact, learning to paint by trial and error, often enlisting the help of artist-friends, such as Moritz von Schwindt. He was also an astute businessman, who sent his pictures out to be sold at art societies all over Bavaria, not waiting, as other artists did, for customers to come knocking at his door.

Unlike many professional painters, who often succumb to new trends and schools of thought, Spitzweg, who did stray into experimentation now and again—the crude brushwork in Landschaft mit Figuren (Landscape with Figures, 1870) or the pen-and-ink details in Ankunft in Seeshaupt (Arrival in Seeshaupt, 1870) are examples—always managed to create works that are genuine, not derivative. Yet, the real reason for the painter’s enduring popularity lies in his ability to combine the real and the ideal in his pictures. The “Happy Corner” in the exhibition’s title refers to the paintings executed while Spitzweg was at home in Munich, where he lived at a number of different addresses in the vicinity of the Maximiliansplatz, from 1833 until his death. Here, in his home environment, content to be among people and places he knew, Spitzweg produced paintings such as Die Dachstube, so vivid and true that no postcard or catalogue could ever come close to reproducing the charm of the original.

“Traveling and Roaming in Europe” is showing at the Haus der Kunst until May 18. Open daily from 10 am to 10 pm.

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