biedermeier: the invention of simplicity

(Milwaukee Art Museum)

A strong northern light, clarifying without being overwhelming,suffuses "Biedermeier: The Invention of Simplicity," themagnificent exhibition at the Milwaukee Art Museum. This panoramaof the arts in Austria, Germany, and Denmark in the first third ofthe nineteenth century brings together furniture, decorative arts,and paintings in order to tell a challenging story. Moving throughthe galleries in Milwaukee, visitors can almost feel the heat asthe temperate classicism of the late eighteenth century is warmedby the Romantic individualism of the early nineteenth century. Theresult is a subtle but powerful shift in the language of form, aconvergence of disparate philosophical and psychologicalinclinations that inspires the voluptuous asceticism of Biedermeierfurniture, with its exquisitely crafted surfaces and its dynamicsilhouettes. Wherever you turn in this deftly shaped exhibition,you find the Biedermeier artists' back-to-basics empiricismenergized by a sense of fantasy, so that anything from thefan-shaped design of a side chair to the asymmetrical compositionof a landscape painting to the delicate drawing of a butterfly on aglass goblet has its own quirky glow.

Milwaukee is the only American venue for this genuinely importantshow, which travels to Vienna and Berlin next year. And if admirersof Biedermeier furniture have reason to regret that the firstAmerican exhibition devoted to the arts of the period will not beseen in other American cities, it is nevertheless clear thatMilwaukee is a perfect place for this event. The city, which wasshaped by several generations of German immigration, has acontinuing interest in German culture, so that the glories ofBiedermeier art and design are a natural fit for its museum, withits outstanding holdings in twentieth- century German Expressionistpainting and its world-class collection of seventeenth-centuryGerman clocks, examples of the Baroque goldsmith's art at its mostdeliciously intricate and grandiose.

It is easy to see why the citizens of Milwaukee, a city whosedowntown contains a fascinating group of nineteenth-century andearly twentieth-century buildings, would respond to the powerfullyarchitectural thinking that characterizes Biedermeier furniture.And as it happens, the Biedermeier show is housed in the latestaddition to Milwaukee's architectural trove, a recent building bySantiago Calatrava that adds temporary exhibition space to a museumthat already boasted an engaging 1950s building by Eero Saarinen anda handsome 1970s addition in a modernist poured-concrete style. Thethree structures, set on the shore of Lake Michigan, make a fineassemblage. On the day I visited, they were full of museumgoers whowere studying not only the Biedermeier exhibition but also apermanent collection that contains some first-ratetwentieth-century paintings and a magnificent Roman torso.

Laurie Winters, the curator of earlier European art in Milwaukee,has brought bold thought and good sense to this complicatedproject. She sharpens our understanding without oversimplifying thecrosscurrents of early nineteenth- century taste. The term"Biedermeier" was derived from the name of a fictional character ina mid-nineteenth-century satirical weekly, a schoolteacher and poetin a village in Swabia: a caricature of middle-class mediocrity. Bythe late nineteenth century, "Biedermeier" had become shorthand forthe culture of the early nineteenth century (bieder means somethinglike "honest but commonplace"). And eventually Biedermeier came tosuggest a northern European equivalent of Victoriana--in otherwords, a style that was cozy and stolid and slightly fussy inspirit, essentially bourgeois.

What this view of Biedermeier failed to recognize was the earlyexperimental phase of the movement, when a relatively small groupof gifted craftsmen were re-imagining Neoclassical forms, oftenworking for aristocratic and royal clients with extremelyadventuresome taste. Winters and her colleagues--Hans Ottomeyer andAlbrecht Pyritz at the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin andKlaus Albrecht Schroder and Maria Luise Sternath-Schuppanz at theAlbertina in Vienna--have sharpened our understanding of the periodby shifting the emphasis from the second quarter of the nineteenthcentury back to the first quarter. In doing so, they havereasserted the avant-garde dimension in Biedermeier. They alsosuggest how Biedermeier's radical reconsideration of the forms oftraditional furnishings and decorative arts led the way to the Artsand Crafts Movement, to the Wiener Werkstatte (Josef Hoffmann andKoloman Moser both admired Biedermeier), to the Bauhaus, and tomid-century Scandinavian design.

The show's boldface subtitle, "The Invention of Simplicity," isobviously hyperbolic. Simplicity, far from having been invented inany particular period, is an essential human yearning thatreasserts itself in different ways at different points in humanhistory. Simplicity was no more invented in the early nineteenthcentury than it was invented by the architects of the Parthenon inancient Greece, or by Brunelleschi when he designed the Pazzi Chapelin fifteenth-century Florence, or by Mondrian when he developed hisNeoplastic style. The art and the design of the Biedermeier periodmarks, rather, an epoch in the evolution of simplicity,characterized as it is by a process of intensification orclarification, by a paring down and refocusing of forms in such away as to give them a uniqueness, a personal truth.

By de-emphasizing the old idea of Biedermeier as a style associatedwith the mild domesticity of the middle class, Winters and hercolleagues are able to bring all sorts of fresh associations andlinkages into play. We begin to have some inkling of what might besaid to be the philosophical underpinnings of the Biedermeierstyle. These idiosyncratic but powerful creations suggest an ideaof the work of art (or of decorative art) as a highly personalexpression of the search for universal form. There is somethingalmost Kantian about the greatest pieces of Biedermeier furniture.

As for the Biedermeier artists and craftsmen, they were Romanticempiricists. They brought a rapt, ardent attentiveness to naturalphenomena: the fall of light through a window, the beauty of anevening sky, the grain of a piece of wood, the wings of abutterfly, the multicolored surface of a geological specimen. Iffurniture rather than painting is the essential expression of thiscultural moment, it is surely because the period's yearning for aspiritualized concreteness found a particularly fertile ground inthe unabashed physicality of furniture. There is something highlyoriginal in the intentness with which these craftsmen showcaseunbroken expanses of wood, allowing the grain of the wood, with itsmesmerizing whorls and waves, to become the only ornamentalflourish.

It was as if the woodworkers were asking their clients to penetrateto the essence of things (though this "essence" was often aveneer). A chest of drawers, produced in Munich around 1810, islittle more than a great horizontal expanse of cherry veneer, aboldly planar composition with the vertical rhythms of the cherrygrain unifying the entire surface, as the fronts of the drawershave all been cut out of matched pieces of veneer. Here, and withmany other pieces in the show, I felt as if the craftsmen werenature poets. The beauty of the workmanship only underlines what isalready there. What you are seeing is a fascination with the purityof materials that will echo all through the modern movement.

Even the most fanciful flights of the Biedermeier craftsmen have aback-to- basics logic. Perhaps the most essential item ofBiedermeier furniture was the lightweight side chair--a chair thatwas easily movable, that did not necessarily have a fixed positionin a room, and thus became the emblem of a new social informalityand mobility in early nineteenth-century Europe. It was in findingways to give some element of surprise to this most fundamental formthat the Biedermeier furniture-makers often demonstrated theirnearly limitless imaginative bravura. The backs of these chairs,which began by alluding to the curved back support of ancient Greekseats, went through a dazzling series of adjustments andadumbrations in the early decades of the nineteenth century,generating a range of fan-shapes and lyre-shapes and tear-shapes andovals and triangles and half-moons and starbursts. A group ofpen-and-ink studies for chair backs, produced by the Danish artistChristian Knudsen in 1826, suggest not a ceaseless piling up ofpossibilities so much as a ceaseless paring down of possibilities:a search for the true shape. This ardent experimentation, thisseemingly endless dance of themes and variations, brings to mindthe constant re-adjustments of vegetal forms in Matisse's papercutouts. And the result, not entirely dissimilar, is a Platonicplayfulness, a larkish adventure through the wildest possibilitiesof the chair back, in search of what might be thought of as theessence of a chair back.

The Biedermeier craftsmen brought the same enchanting experimentalspirit to tables and sofas. A table base might be composed of aforest of columns, or of a couple of grandly curved planes, while asofa could be a pile of cushions on a snake-shaped wooden base. Itwas not a matter of form following function so much as a search forthe form that would express the ideal of a function. Theimaginative wit of the Biedermeier chair or sofa, the veryunusualness of its design, had a declarative power, as if the pointwere to announce that this was indeed what a chair or a sofa reallyought to be.

A magnificent Viennese table from 1826 in mahogany and pear veneer,originally designed as part of the furnishings for the music room ofArchduchess Sophie at Laxenburg Palace, is a new acquisition by theMilwaukee Art Museum. This powerful image, with its quatrefoilbase, columnar support, and oval top, has an architectonic power,as can be seen in a beautiful nineteenth-century watercolor of themusic room, where the complete suite of mahogany furniture,including a piano, is set off in all its dark glory against adazzle of blueand-white wallpaper.

In An Illustrated History of Furnishing, the Italian writer andscholar Mario Praz--whose books are overlooked in the Milwaukeecatalogue, although his work of the 1950s and 1960s did much tobring Biedermeier art and culture out of the shadows--reproducesthis remarkable watercolor of Archduchess Sophie's music room. Hedescribes the interior as "an abstract room, if ever there was one,in a period that was so fanatically figurative." And then, thinkingof the room's function, he goes on to observe that "the pattern ofthe wallpaper seems almost to suggest or to accompany columns ofsound."

In describing this as "an abstract room," Praz touches on somethingthat is key to the Biedermeier spirit, something that the curatorsof this exhibition are pointing to when they speak of "theinvention of simplicity." On the most literal level, of course,Praz is remarking that this is a room without pictures on thewalls, with none of the portraits or landscapes or sculpted buststhat so often filled Biedermeier interiors. But there is, I think,a deeper idea at work here, for the absence of decoration onBiedermeier furniture, the absence of the varieties of vegetal andfigural forms that are so common on rococo and Neoclassicalfurniture, announces a newly abstract spirit in furniture itself.The more the Biedermeier craftsmen diverged from theNeoclassicists' evocations of Roman and Greek and Egyptian forms,the more their own creations, those grandly curved and angled sofasand tables and chairs, came to exist in a time-out-of-time, a realmbereft of historical allusion. It is in this sense that Biedermeiermay be said to stand at the dawn of modernity. In many of theBiedermeier designs for silver and porcelain, the shapes are sostraightforward, at once so sophisticated and so primal, that wefind ourselves confronting the abstraction of a function, as if thecraftsmen were asking, "What is the essence of a cup or acandlestick?"

If the forthrightness of Biedermeier is not always recognized, thisis because it is so often mixed with an element of fantasy, butthen one of the great charms of the decorative arts in theBiedermeier period is that they can suggest a fantasy offorthrightness. In the audacious simplicity of a chest of drawersor the brazenly undecorated form of a silver object, theforthrightness is unabashed. But in other instances--in the glassor ceramic objects that are made to mimic the look of stone orwood, or in the clear crystal beaker painted with a goldfish or abutterfly--you may feel that the artisans are delightfully teasingtheir own yearning for forthrightness. In all these works, however,whether the woodworker is beautifully polishing the cherry veneer orthe glassblower is mimicking the look of agate, there is afrankness about the interest in nature that is worlds away from thepastoral poetry of eighteenth- century French furnishings anddecorative arts, where the power of nature is always wreathed indecorative quotation marks. When the rococo craftsmen imitated woodor stone, they wanted to subdue the vegetal and mineral realms. Asfor the Biedermeier craftsmen who imitated wood or stone, theyalways aimed to salute the full-out power of the natural world.

In Milwaukee, Laurie Winters has beautifully layered the museumgoingexperience, so that we take in furnishings and wall coverings andsilver and china and paintings and drawings not in isolation but inoverlapping waves. The paintings in the show help to flesh out thestory, even when, as is the case with many of the landscapes, theyare anything but masterpieces. The realism of Eduard Gurk andFerdinand Georg Waldmuller is saccharine and finicky; these artistsare so intent on the details of the natural world that theyentirely lose track of the poetry. Eduard Gaertner's rooftop viewof Berlin is another matter entirely, an invitingly clear-eyed yetunconventional panorama that ranges from the appealing image of aworkman sitting at his ease on the roof of the FriedrichswerderChurch to the teeming figures moving through the spic-and- spanexpanse of the Friedrichsforum. And Georg Friedrich Kersting'spaintings of women in interiors offer distant echoes of Vermeer'ssubtly audacious dramaturgy; in Kersting's famous WomanEmbroidering (1817), the painter Louise Seidler, seated near awindow, her back to us, becomes a form as elemental as the form ofthe chair on which she sits, of the sofa nearby, of the guitar onthe sofa.

Especially welcome is the opportunity to see a number of paintingsby Christen Kobke, including one of his largest, The Roof ofFrederiksborg Castle, with a View of the Lake, Village, and Forest(1834-1835). Kobke, little known outside Denmark, has attracted agreat deal of interest in recent years, as has his teacher,Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, who was the subject of aretrospective at the National Gallery in 2003. While the soft-tonedintensities of Eckersberg's portraits have a certain power, it issurely Kobke's work that most satisfyingly defines the Biedermeierinterest in the individual as an investigator of essences. Thefresh perspectives that characterize Kobke's landscapes, with theirasymmetrical compositions and startling joinings of background andforeground, are as much emblems of an unconventional ideal as thecuriously shaped backs of those Biedermeier chairs. The largeFrederiksborg Castle landscape, at once so insistently austere andso cunningly complex in its unification of the castle in theforeground and the landscape beyond, brings to mind the daringstructures of Hiroshige's block prints or the abstracted SouthernCalifornia vistas of Diebenkorn's Ocean Park series. There is anarchitectonic wit about Kobke's work, and although his strikinglycarpentered compositions never achieve the lyric finality of Corot'searly Roman cityscapes or his Bridge at Mantes and Belfry, Douai,Kobke remains one of the immortal eccentrics of earlynineteenth-century European art, the master of a strangelydispassionate Romanticism. In his wonderful book on Kobke, whichappeared in 1992, Sanford Schwartz sees in the painter's work aparadoxical mingling of emotions that might be said to define theperiod as a whole: the confluence of "Spartan leanness" with a"Romantic ache," the intensity that is at once "colloquial andpersonal," the "feelings for the beauty of the natural world andfor the note of uncertainty beneath it."

The Milwaukee exhibition, like many important surveys dedicated tothe decorative arts, reflects not only shifting interests in thescholarly world but also broader transformations in taste andsensibility. Biedermeier furniture, underpriced forty years ago,has in recent decades been embraced by dealers and collectors. Inturn, it has become the darling of the shelter magazines, where itis regularly praised for its "versatility," meaning that it looksgood when juxtaposed with modernist masterworks in SoHo lofts.Museums (including the Louvre, which never acquired Biedermeierdecorative arts) are scrambling to beef up their collections, and alandscape by Kobke was recently acquired by the National Gallery inLondon.

The revival of interest in a historical style sometimes signals asubtle shift in the contemporary worldview, and there can be littledoubt that the measured romanticism of the Biedermeier worldprovokes a sympathetic response just now. The homeboundedness ofBiedermeier romanticism, the inwardness of its eccentricities, issomething that we can understand at a time when the feverishness ofArt Nouveau and the extremism of Russian Constructivism look asalien as the psychedelic pleasures and radical extravagances of the1960s and 1970s that once helped to bring Art Nouveau and RussianConstructivism back into view. It may also be that the end of theCold War and the attendant upsurge in interest in Germany andCentral Europe has fueled an awareness of Biedermeier culture. Foryounger travelers, Biedermeier Germany could have some of thefascination that early Renaissance Tuscany had for their parentsand grandparents--a vacation destination that doubles as ahistorical fantasy.

There is a beginning-again quality about the Biedermeier world,where Enlightenment hopes were ripening and cooling, turning atonce more lucid and more subdued. Goethe, whose color theories arepart of the prehistory of modern art, makes an appearance in theMilwaukee show, which features part of his collection of wallpapersamples, papers packed with the dazzling patterns that are yetanother aspect of the Biedermeier search for intensities ofexperience. And Alexander von Humboldt, the great naturalist, isremembered in Milwaukee with a beautifully modest kitchen chairdesigned for his family by the architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel,as well as by minerals from his collections, one of which isdisplayed right next to a Viennese cup and saucer decorated in anamethyst pattern.

By weaving figures such as Goethe and Humboldt into her story,Winters suggests that their spirited curiosity offers a key to theperiod. Surely there is an improvisatory warmth about Goethe's andHumboldt's scientific interests that can be especially appealing atthe beginning of the twenty-first century, when scientific andtechnological research has so often been overtaken by a corporatescale and impersonality. Humboldt is the protagonist of Measuringthe World, a new novel by the young Austrian writer DanielKehlmann, which was a bestseller in Germany and has just beenpublished here by Pantheon. Kehlmann's novel juxtaposes the livesof Humboldt and the mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss, and itscharm lies in the elegance with which their scientific andmathematical triumphs are interwoven with their human foibles. Thisingeniously crafted book is about the everydayness of intellectualheroism.

While the Milwaukee show only hints at the philosophicalimplications of the Biedermeier style, Laurie Winters brings abreadth and an ease to the exhibition that allows us to extend itsimplications in any number of ways. This is an exemplarysurvey--focused and expansive, lucid and suggestive. That such amajor exhibition has been mounted in Milwaukee is a triumph, a signthat smaller museums can in fact make major contributions, ifcurators and administrators have the guts, and if they have thesupport of the community. Most American museums have become afraidof attempting anything but the most obvious shows, which areinvariably the crowd-pleasers focused on Monet or Picasso orWarhol. Talk to curators and they will tell you that idea afteridea is shot down by the administrators and the trustees, becausethey fear that the projects will not prove costefficient. Yet inMilwaukee, a smart and spirited curator--with the support of themuseum's director, David Gordon--has been able to team up withcurators in Austria and Germany to produce an epochal show.

By tapping into the local fascination with German culture, Gordonand Winters have pulled off something very big. (And the show willleave a permanent stamp on the Milwaukee museum, because localbenefactors have banded together to purchase a few key pieces ofBiedermeier furniture for its permanent collection.) "Biedermeier:The Invention of Simplicity" is accompanied by all the tools of themodern museum--the p.r. firm, the blanket advertising, the cafe andgift shop tie-ins--but for once the marketing strategies areadvancing the cause of art. Curators, administrators, and trusteesacross the country should take note of what is happening inMilwaukee. The city has produced a blockbuster with brains--ablockbuster that honors the audience. When you enter the galleries,you are engaging with art and culture at the highest level. Andpeople know it.

Laurie Winters has created a glorious visual pageant that is alsointellectually tough-minded. The qualities of intensity andparticularity that you discover in this show, whether the emphasison wood grain in the furniture or on strong colors in thewallpapers, do indeed give us foretastes of modernity. A screenbased on Goethe's color theories looks like something dreamed up atthe Bauhaus. And the wit of Biedermeier furniture can suggest theover-the-top designs that the Memphis group was producing in Milan acouple of decades ago. But there are also far more mysteriousafter-images of the Biedermeier world to be found intwentieth-century art and literature. The close-up attentiveness ofthe Biedermeier sensibility finds distant echoes in the etchings ofMorandi and the boxes of Joseph Cornell. And when I looked at aseries of Biedermeier glass goblets painted with butterflies, Ifound myself thinking of Nabokov's butterflies, and the littlepictures of butterflies that he drew on the volumes that heinscribed to his wife. Then it occurred to me that there issomething in the magnifying-glass techniques of the great modernnovelists, in Proust and Musil and Joyce as well as Nabokov, thatharks back to the Romantic empiricism of Biedermeier. There is anidiosyncratic intentness about the Biedermeier moment that may runlike a secret stream through the twentieth century. And in ourmoment, when all the big hopes have proven futile, these moreprivate intensities have a new kind of power. Who can doubt that weare all milder Romantics now?

By