Saturday, May 03, 2008

Johann Joachim Winckelman and Mengs: the Apostles of German Neo-Classicism

MENGS, Anton Raphael
(b. 1728, Aussig, d. 1779, Rome)
Portrait of Johann Joachim Winckelman 1761-62
Oil on canvas, 64 x 49 cm
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Both Mengs and Winckelman were Catholic converts. Both resided in Rome. Both attained high positions in the Establishment of Rome.

Winckelman was librarian first to Cardinal Archinto, and then later, to Cardinal Albani in Rome, and also in charge of the latter`s antiquities. Albani was one of the leading eighteenth-century collectors in Europe. Thus, Winckelmann was one of the principal figures in circles interested in classical antiquity in the city.

Winckelman is now celebrated as the Father of Modern Archaeology and Art History.

Winckelmann used his scholarship as a tool in the construction of a theory. He argued that a modern artist could become great only by imitating the works of classical Greece. Only by this means could he acquire a more perfect knowledge of beauty than was possible by studying nature itself.

He said: “The Greeks alone ...seem to have thrown forth beauty as a potter makes his pot”

The characteristics of mannerist, baroque, and rococo art were generally, but not consistently, anathema to the neo-classicists.

Winckelmann thought Mengs the greatest of modern painters.

Their relationship was very close.

Would Mengs's paintings have been very different without Winckelmann's theories? Did Winckelmann formulate his own theories of art, or did he have substantial help from Mengs, who also was a writer on art and the history of art?

But Mengs`s reputation was overthrown by the triumph of Romanticism. The importance of feeling and emotion are lacking in many of Mengs paintings.

Both Mengs and Winckelmann`s theories became a new orthodoxy which seemed to inhibit the development of new ideas.

Thus in 1801, Henry Fuseli, in his Introduction to Lectures on Painting, could write:

"The verdicts of Mengs and Winckelmann became the oracles of Antiquaries, Dilettanti and artists from the Pyrenees to the utmost North of Europe . . . Winckelmann was the parasite of the fragments that fell from the conversation or the tablets of Mengs ... To him Germany owes the shackles of her artists, and the narrow limits of their aim; from him they have learnt to substitute the means for the end, and by a hopeless chase after what they call beauty, to lose what alone can make beauty interesting, expression and mind."

This type of criticism is still common currency. For instance, the art historian Robert Hughes said in his book Goya:

"Mengs is one of those artists who enjoyed, in life, a fame and power that seem totally inexplicable after his death, and it extended all over Europe, not just provincial Spain. Stolid, correct, devoid of charm, insipid where strength was needed, dogmatic where fancy might have helped, thumped into shape as a ‘prodigy’ by a failed-artist father and relentlessly promoted by the theorist of Neoclassicism, Winckelmann, whose leaden flights of pederastic dogma make even the longueurs of modern ‘queer theory’ look almost sprightly — Mengs was one of the supreme bores of European civilisation."