In her introduction to Vitamin D Emma Dexter mentions a tendency within contemporary art towards a new form of Romanticism I find very intriguing. It is something I had felt myself when looking at certain paintings but had never come across in texts about contemporary art. Now I have.
Romanticism, late 18th / early 19th century
Like Neoclassicism Romanticism has its roots in an interest in the past, i.e. ancient Greece and, for Romanticism especially, Rome. The two movements have gone side by side, each focusing on different aspects of the past, taking up different aspects of their Roman examples. Where for Neoclassicism it was the rules, the rational and universal that was important, for Romanticism it was the individual, the subjective and imaginative, the fantastic, poetic and melancholy. This found its expression in an interest in the past closely linked to the specific country and culture of the artist, including its legends, myths and folklore as well as literature. In Europe this meant among other things the chivalric romances of the middle ages from where the era got its name. Nature, too, played a very important role. Edmund Burke, a philosopher of the time, minted the concept of the “sublime”. He said that when we feel fascination mixed with fear, when we stand in front of something that is larger than ourselves, we are filled with awe and terror, although not in any real danger. It is thrilling and exciting. That is what he called the sublime. (Stockstad 2008). Nature could instill this feeling – vast landscapes, forests, awe-inspiring mountains, forces of nature such as gales, fires, storms. Turner was one who expressed this “sublime” in powerful landscape paintings. An other was the German painter Caspar David Friedrich who sought the divine through a deep personal connection with nature.
But Romanticism was not only idealizing the past, nature and the individual, it had a darker side to it where the fantastic and imaginary became haunted and nightmarish.
In the 1920s as well as in the 1930/40s there has been a revival of Romanticism with rich, poetic and often sombre figurative paintings. Paul Nash and Graham Sutherland are representatives.
Romantic tendencies in contemporary art
According to Dexter quite a few of the Romantic ideals can be found in contemporary art. She mentions a return to subjectivity and emotion, experience and feeling, to nationality and myth, legend, folklore and kitsch, also the sublime. There is a renewed interest in narrative and associations with literature, a leaning towards the popular, vernacular. She says that aspects of culture such as these have long been repressed under post-structuralist skepticism.
I find it very interesting that Romantic ideals should be revived now, at and after the end of the 20th century when art, as it was known, had been dismantled, everything been called into question and, as it sometimes seems to me, the human component erased. Not to have any rules at all can be a strong rule in itself. And in that one could see a parallel to Romanticism in the late 18th and the 19th century. Then it was a reaction to the strictness of classicism, now to that of post-modernism.
This development can be observed not only in art such as painting, drawing and sculpture, but also in music. The Ouverture to Kjartan Sveinsson’s opera “Der Klang der Offenbarung des Göttlichen” lends, in my oppinion, a very fitting stage for looking at the following artists’ work.
On his homepage Nick Alm states:
I aim to communicate what is inherently and universally human, transcending cultural codes and trends. It’s not my goal to criticize or change society; instead my work addresses itself primarily to the inner world of the individual.
In his paintings he makes references to mythical creatures like satyrs or Greek gods and weaves them into settings that appear to belong in both the 19th century and modern times. I can also see references to Swedish folklore and traditions, e.g. in allusions to Midsummer celebrations. Although these themes are historic, both in themselves (antiquity) and in their use in paintings (Romanticism) Alm’s pictures are unmistakably contemporary.
Anders Moseholm paints landscapes, cityscapes and interiors. I find his paintings highly suggestive, as it were not the actual landscape or interior the picture is about, but a subjective, very personal interpretation of it. In his pictures it is less the historic or mythical aspect that makes me think of Romanticism but the feeling that permeates them. One could maybe call it the sublime?
Sam Wolfe Conelly‘s work has a very strong narrative, often of a darker kind, reminiscent of the Gothic and dark Romanticism
Stephen Mackey‘s pictures are dreamlike, fantastical and filled with a symbolism with strong ties to myths and folkloric stories. His paintings are set in some kind of undefined historical time. At a first glance they seem lighter than Conelly’s work, but on closer examination I find some of them equally unsettling.
Johan Egerkrans, a Swedish illustrator and concept artist moves in an area that some would call fantasy art. But fantasy as such and especially his work “Nordic creatures” (illustrations and descriptions of figures from traditional Swedish folklore) stand with at least one foot firmly in Romanticism, I think.
Dexter, E. (2005) Vitamin D: New Perspectives in Drawing. London: Phaidon Press
Stockstad, M. Cothren M.W.: Art History. Pearson Education Inc, USA 2008 (5th Edition)