The Bavarian Rococo Church: Between Faith and Aestheticism by Karsten Harries
Published 1983: First Edition / Hardcover / Very Good Condition / Profusely Illustrated throughout
Original grey marbled cloth with purple and gilt and pictorial dust jacket. 282 clean and bright unmarked pages. Dust jacket rubbed with time and chipped along the edges.
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In our approach to art we are the heirs of the Enlightenment. The "aesthetic" treatises of the eighteenth century helped to establish a distinctly modern understanding of works of art as occasions for an enjoyment that is its own justification. Beauty is divorced from truth, art from the sacred. Only as long as the work of art is governed by the demands of its own aesthetic perfection does it remain pure: art, earlier in the Service of religion, morality, or society, becomes "art for art's sake. The term aesthetics itself belongs to this period, for we owe it to Alexander Gottlieb Baumgartens Reflections an Poetry of 1735. Speculations, however, did not cause the shift to the aesthetic approach. The aesthetic literature of the eighteenth century is part of a transformation that is more immediately grasped in the changes of the art of the period. In this study I examine only one example of these changes: the evolution and eventual disintegration of the Bavarian rococo church, more especially of its style. Yet this transformation sheds light an both the essence and the origin of the aesthetic approach and on the confused situation of the arts today.
Given my interest in the emergence of the aesthetic attitude, why the Bavarian rococo church? Why indeed the rococo at all? Why not turn to the work of late eighteenth century architects like Ledoux or Boullée? As Emil Kaufmann has shown, a distinctly modern approach does indeed govern the architecture of the French Revolution. But just because it does, we have to look back further to understand the transformation that this approach presupposes. What attracted me to the rococo was the fact that, as the last of the great period styles, it occupies the threshold to our own aesthetic culture. Yet many of the points that matter most to me could have been made equally well discussing some other aspect of eighteenth century art-ornamental engravings, for example, or garden architecture. I chose the Bavarian rococo church because of its precarious position between the Italian baroque and the French rococo, between the enduring culture of the Counter Reformation and an already quite modern aestheticism. Tinged with skepticism, the Bavarian rococo is no longer able to take quite seriously the pathos and rhetoric of the baroque, yet refuses to give them up; so it plays with them. The playful character of the rococo church manifests itself above all in its borrowed ornament. Nowhere did rocaille, defined by the asymmetry of its shell forms, develop more exuberantly than in Bavaria, until finally it emancipated itself from its merely ornamental character, shed its subservient rote, and approached the Status of an autonomous abstract art. But autonomous ornament would seem to be a contradiction in terms. Where ornament strives for autonomy, it dies as ornament. It is precisely its tendency toward aesthetic autonomy that makes rocaille an ornament to end ornament. Just as there is a sense in which style can be said to have died with the rococo, so is there a sense in which ornament can be said to have died with rocaille. With it died also the traditional approach to architecture and to art. It is all too easy to make such assertions. They must be supported by an examination of the buildings themselves. Careful description should yield those features of the Bavarian rococo church that determine its particular style and help us to relate it to and at the same time to distinguish it from both the French rococo and the Italian baroque. But how do we determine a style? The concept of style is problematic. We speak of the style of an artist, a group, a school, a country, a period. In each case to speak of a style is to suggest that different works of art are related, not as parts of a larger whole, but as variations an an unknown theme, originating in the Same force or feeling, which in turn manifests itself in a common formal "language." To call the Bavarian rococo a distinct style is to suggest that its creations refer us to something like a distinct artistic intention. Following Alois Riegl, we may want to speak of a distinct Kunstwollen. But the concept of a Kunstwollen is even more problematic than that of style. Riegl's term is of course a metaphor. Human beings intend or will; but how can we understand the artistic intention manifesting itself in a period style? Who or what intends? To speak of a Kunstwollen suggests an ideal artist who haunts and allows us to understand the work of particular artists. Our construction of such ideal types is always governed by our presuppositions. Depending an their interests and prejudices, different interpreters will arrive at different determinations of the artistic intention and thus at different classifications of artistic phenomena. Consider the term baroque. Burckhardt still saw in the baroque little more than a late and degenerate phase of Renaissance: baroque architecture speaks the Same language as the Renaissance, but in a crude dialect that overturns the established grammar. And Burckhardt was not alone with his estimate. Only in the last decades of the nineteenth century, beginning with such works as Cornelius Gurlitt's Geschichte des Barockstils in Italien (1887) and Heinrich Wölfflin's Renaissance und Barock (1888) was the baroque recognized as a style of its own. Even Wölfflin set out to show that baroque was a late and corrupt form of Renaissance art, and to use this story of decline to demonstrate the laws governing art historical development. Instead he discovered that the baroque was an independent style, a style that no longer obeyed Renaissance norms. The baroque was governed by a Kunstwollen of its own. But to what extent do the examined works of art yield such a Kunstwollen and to what extent is it read into them? We should not forget that the discovery of the baroque by art historians followed its discovery by the public at large. The neobaroque castles of Ludwig II at Linderhof and Herrenchiemsee, the architecture of the French Second Empire, and similar developments in Vienna and elsewhere show that the writing of the history of art followed a general change of taste. It was this change that enabled art historians to look at long-familiar phenomena with fresh vision. The discovery of the specific unity, first of the rococo, then of the Bavarian rococo, rests an similar shifts in point of view. Like baroque and Gothic, the term rococo long suggested disapproval, implying artificiality and decadence. It shed such negative connotations only slowly and established itself, first in Germany, "as a formal designation of the general period and style of Louis XV, both in France and elsewhere under French influence." Yet this formal designation often continued to carry disparaging overtones. The definition of rococo offered by the Oxford English Dictionary is quite in accord with common usage: "Having the characteristics of Louis Quatorze or Louis Quinze workmanship, such as conventional shell- and scroll-work and meaningless decoration, excessively florid or ornate." But what criteria allow us to judge an ornament meaningful or meaningless? How is excess measured, and by what standard of taste is the rococo found tasteless? More often than not such objections are not simply to an aesthetic phenomenon, but to this phenomenon understood as an expression of a decadent age. Arnold Hauser is not alone when he interprets the art of the rococo as the art of "a frivolous, tired, and passive society," a last expression of the disintegrating old order. As we shall see, there is much that supports such an interpretation, although it is difficult to reconcile with that side of the rococo that suggests the innocence of spring. The rehabilitation of the rococo is inseparable from the rehabilitation of the baroque. Wäfter Hausenstein's influential Vom Geist des Barocks (1921), which, very much in the spirit of expressionism, celebrated the baroque as a metaphor of the organic, is also a celebration of the rococo, especially of the South German rococo. In this it reflects a tendency, still widespread, to interpret the rococo simply as the last phase of the baroque. This measures the rococo by criteria derived from an examination of developments in Italian art. As Fiske Kimball rightly emphasizes, such criteria are unlikely to do justice to the specifically French character of the rococo. But if, with Kimball, we emphasize the originators of the style rocaille and identify the rococo as a French style of decoration, the Bavarian contribution must be taken as secondary. The gloriously spontaneous decorations of such native Bavarians as Johann Michael Feichtmayr or Johann Georg Ublhör would have to be judged coarse imitations lacking in elegance and refinement. Challenging Kimball's definition of the rococo as a French style of decoration, Hermann Bauer points out that, while its origins lie in France, it reached its greatest height in Germany, in good part because there it was able to make its way into the religious sphere. Bauer does not claim that the South German rococo church originated only in the French tradition; he insists an the importance of Italian illusionism. But his suggestion that the Bavarian rococo church be understood as an original synthesis of Italian baroque and French rococo makes it difficult to accept his other claim that, despite obvious differences, the Kunstwollen of the style rocaille and of the rococo church are one and the same, that both are variations of the same style. Bauer examines rocaille as the "critical form" that reveals the essence of this style, a style that he also finds in such superficially different forms as the English park-with its picturesque ruins, temples, and pagodas-and the romanticizing classicism of the eighteenth century. But is he justified in calling these different expressions of the same style? Bauer also suggests that the French rococo was, if not a sufficient, at least a necessary condition of the Bavarian rococo church. Can we say that there would have been no Bavarian rococo church without the style rocaille? Not surprisingly, many German historians of eighteenth-century architecture have objected to interpretations of the Bavarian rococo church that emphasized the French origin of rocaille and have insisted that the Bavarian rococo be understood in terms of its own artistic intention. But what is this intention? What we take to be the Kunstwollen of the Bavarian rococo church depends very much on what examples we see as decisive. This again presupposes that we already know what is to count as a Bavarian rococo church. How are we to enter this circle? Fortunately there is considerable agreement: no determination of the essence of the Bavarian rococo church is likely to be taken seriously that would not allow us to consider Dominikus Zimmermann's pilgrimage church at Steinhausen (1729-33) and Die Wies 1745-54) as major rococo churches. Yet if these churches can serve as paradigms, we have to question the dependence of the Bavarian rococo church on rocaille. Steinhausen was built a number of years before rocaille was introduced into Bavaria in the mid-1730s. It thus has become common practice to give a somewhat earlier date as the beginning of the Bavarian rococo. Norbert Lieb's date of 1730 is supported by the often-repeated suggestion that Steinhausen be considered the first real rococo church. This early rococo is preceded by a proto-rococo that can be pushed back to the beginning of the century, although new impulses make themselves felt toward the middle of the second decade, so that in Bavaria, too, we can speak of a French inspired régence style beginning at that time. To assert that rocaille is not essential to the Bavarian rococo church is not to claim that the enthusiastic reception that this ornament received in Bavaria was an accident: there must have been something about the intentions of those who commissioned and built the churches of the Bavarian rococo that made them particularly receptive to the new style of ornamentation. Still, given the nonessential, if very important, role of rocaille, it seems questionable whether an analysis of its essence can do full justice to the Bavarian rococo church. Bauer's proposal that the French style rocaille, the English park, and the Bavarian rococo church are governed by the same Kunstwollen invites challenge. Perhaps the most adequate interpretation of the Bavarian rococo church is provided by Bernhard Rupprecht in Die bayerische Rokoko-Kirche. Given Rupprechts choice of paradigms-Steinhausen, Die Wies, and Johann Michael Fischer's Zwiefalten (1744-65) there is no need to quarrel with the criteria he establishes for the Bavarian rococo church: