Modi and Metamorphoses (II)

. Hans Sedlmayr, Portrait of Bismarck, Index für Politische Ikonographie, Warburg Haus, Hamburg

This blog post follows on from the previous post Modi and Metamorphoses (I).

Based on only this one particular work, it is almost impossible to speak about Sedlmayr´s manner as such, since we do not have other works by him to compare in order to draw conclusions about his kind of peinture. What we can certainly assess is that, by adapting different manners and traditions, the work takes a kind of historicist dimension, something that partly fits with his profile as an art historian.

1. Peter Paul Rubens, Self-portrait, around 1638, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (Wikipedia).

The Bismarck portraits by Lenbach´s and Sedlmayr´s hand diverge also in the manner of painting. The plasticity of the flesh for instance creates a kind of double chin (in the form of a crescent) and is even more intensified in Sedlmayr´s work. The decisively closed mouth or the eyes do not have the same form as in Lenbach´s. At the same time, the wide-brimmed hat, a Rembrandtesque effect, is much less prominent in the portraits by Lenbach compared to Sedlmayr´s copy.

Beyond Rembrandt, the flesh reminds one of Rubens, whom Sedlmayr greatly admired. In 1964, during his time in Munich, he published an article entitled «Remarks on the colour of the flesh by Rubens» (“Bemerkungen zur Inkarnatsfarbe bei Rubens” in: Hefte des Kunsthistorischen Seminars der Universität München, 9/10, 1964, pp. 43-54). So there is also a reference to Rembrandt´s antipode, creating again a dialectic pair like that of Lenbach and von Stuck for the 19th century. What can be further compared here with Lenbach and Sedlmayr is a Self-Portrait by Rubens in Vienna, a work that Sedlmayr knew only too well, since he was certainly a frequent visitor of the Kunsthistorisches Museum where it is kept (Fig. 1). Rubens seems to turn his head, looking intently toward the beholder from underneath his large hat. The thick, reddish and lively flesh is quite alike to that of Bismarck, although Rubens in his Self-Portrait is much younger than the German politician. In that way Sedlmayr´s interest concerning the colour of the flesh is «incarnated» in this copy that, also in matters of colour, refers to Rubens. But also other large- and small-scale self-portraits by Rembrandt at the Kunsthistorisches Museum are important here as comparisons, since Sedlmayr mixes up Flemish and Dutch traditions in his copy (Fig. 2 and Fig. 3). He creates something eclectic by combining his own biographical pathway (Vienna, Munich) with the works he refers to and the places they are kept. 

2. Rembrandt, Large Self-portrait, 1652, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (Wikipedia).

With these two giants of painting north of the Alps, Bismarck is transformed by Sedlmayr´s hand into an artistic personality. Indeed, the politician was often characterized as a ‘kind of artistic director’ of the new Reich (Martin Warnke, «Der Mann mit dem Goldhelm als Emblem. Szenen aus der Geschichte des Kaiser Friedrich-Museums-Vereins», in: Jahrbuch Preussischer Kulturbesitz, XLIX, 2013, pp. 336-347). The idea of the sovereign as a sculptor or master draughtsman of the state is a classic motif of political iconography, in addition to that of the shepherd, pilot or captain.

As already mentioned, this photographic reproduction of the work is glued upon a piece of paper and is part of the Political Iconography Index in Hamburg (which is currently in the process of digitalization). It carries, according to the classification system, the number 525/40 (in Martin Warnke´s own handwritting) that refers to the section on Kunstwissenschaft, art history as a science of art. The placing of the work in this section fits perfectly to the ideals of a German-speaking discipline at the beginning of the 20th century and the spirit of its protagonists like Panofsky, Riegl, Warburg and Wölfflin, whose goal was an exact science using in part entirely different kinds of methodological and theoretical tools. Let us not forget here that Sedlmayr began in his youth in Vienna with his Strukturanalyse (structural analysis) of architecture (Borromini) using Riegl.

3. Rembrandt, Self-portrait, 1655,
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (Wikipedia).

The art historian and author of «The Loss of the Centre» (Verlust der Mitte: die bildende Kunst des 19. und 20. Jahrhunderts als Symbol der Zeit, Salzburg, O. Müller, 1948) provides in his famous reactionary interpretation a highly skilful, analysis of abstract art that he considers to be a consequence of the French Revolution. His «authentic copy» fills that «lost centre», despite Bismarck´s «Lesser German Solution» of 1866, in which Austria did not become part of the Second Reich. Harald Keller underlined this, although for different reasons, in his obituary on Sedlmayr in the Bavarian Academy of Sciences: The Austrian art historian was a declared supporter of the German «Anschluss» with Austria in March 1938, and welcomed this action of the National Socialists.

Sedlmayr´s enthusiasm for Julius Langbehn´s German Rembrandt, a central voice of the German nationalist intelligentsia (Julius Langbehn, Rembrandt als Erzieher. Von einem Deutschen, Leipzig, Hirschfeld, 1890), is a further feature that must be stressed in conjunction with the particular work of the art historian.

Langbehn´s success was such that many artists were also under his spell. As a follow up to his own identification with Langbehn, Emil Nolde painted his self-portrait with entirely Rembrandtesque features as a German Rembrandt par excellence (Fig. 4) (Exhib. Cat. Emil Nolde. Eine Deutsche Legende. Der Künstler im Nationalsozialismus, Munich/London/New York, Prestel, 2019). So the copy of Sedlmayr has a distant affinity also with Nolde´s metamorphosis in his self-portrait of 1899.

Langbehn himself made a connection between Bismarck and Rembrandt. The former, wrote Langbehn, had transferred something «from the power and naturalness of Rembrandt´s art into German politics». For Hubert Schrade, the other major figure of German art history during the National Socialist era next to Wilhelm Pinder, Langbehn was an idol for the art historical historiography of the time, something that Sedlmayr as a German-speaking nationalist and supporter of the «Anschluss» certainly did not ignore (Maria Männig, Hans Sedlmayrs Kunstgeschichte. Eine kritische Studie, Cologne/Vienna/Weimar, Böhlau, 2017). Let us not forget here his famous «Ηeil Hitler!» signature in his editorial of Pinder´s Festschrift for his sixtieth birthday, to which of course Schrade also contributed a piece (Festschrift Wilhelm Pinder. Zum sechzigsten Geburtstage 25 Juni 1938, überreicht von Freunden und Schülern, Leipzig, Seemann, 1938).

4. Emil Nolde, Maleren (Self-portrait), 1899, Stiftung Seebüll Ada and Emil Nolde, Seebüll (Prometheus Image Archive).

Let us go back to the work that interests us in this context: Sedlmayr´s Bismarck. The portrait seems to be a kind of painted manifesto of Sedlmayr´s hermeneutical model, that always begins, following the factual data, with a physiognomic understanding (physiognomisches Verstehen) and concludes with the analysis of the work´s «anschaulicher Charakter» by revealing successively the different noematic layers (Norbert Schneider, “Hans Sedlmayr (1896-1984)“, in: Heinrich Dilly (Ed.), Altmeister moderner Kunstgeschichte, Berlin, Reimer, 1999, pp. 266-288). From the form to the content one could argue in quite simple terms. This is not that far from the Iconographical/Iconological model of Erwin Panofsky, who was actually an antipode of Sedlmayr (it is worth noting here that the National Socialists preferred to use the German term Bildkunde instead of Iconography in order to avoid the Graeco-Roman echo).

For Panofsky, but also for Sedlmayr, though for rather different reasons, the common root of their visual theory is the nature of the emblem. The emblem has different layers of meaning (triadic ones) that start from a motif and lead up to its general cultural meaning, often with moral connotations that combine image and language. Possibly their starting point is a different reading of Thomas of Aquinas (See for instance Erwin Panofksy, Gothic Art and Scholasticism, Latrobe, The Archabbey Press, 1951, Wimmer Lecture 2/1948 and Hans Sedlmayr, Die Entstehung der Kathedrale, Zurich, Atlantis Verlag, 1950).

In this sense and in the particular case of the copy of Lenbach´s Bismarck by Sedlmayr and following this idea up to its final consequences, we can summarize as follows, in a kind of thought experiment: we see a man with a hat who reminds one of Rembrandt. He is the famous politician Bismarck, who played a decisive role in uniting the German states and forming the German Reich. The copy derives from the hand of the art historian Hans Sedlmayr, who through the tryptich of Lenbach-Rembrandt-Bismarck, but also the addition of Rubens and von Stuck restores the empty throne of the Lost Centre.

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