Rococo remains an art historical stepchild, the more so for Bavarian Rococo. Seldom taught even in survey classes, let alone in stand-alone courses, its richly decorated surfaces may fascinate, but they remain mysterious. Yet I still remember a Baroque class with a Germanic accent taught by Edward Maser that managed to introduce one of the most alluring yet monumental sculptors ever to work in wood: Ignaz Günther (1725-1775). Now at last Christiane Hertel, professor at Bryn Mawr, will introduce Günther in English to future generations with a thoughtful book that goes well beyond the conventional monograph to probe the Bavarian Rococo, for example as a religious combination of the visionary with a personally subjective totality, “commemorative in a quasi-Lutheran sense.” (p. 74) Such piety distances Ignaz Günther from modern taste, so here Hertel fills a real need to reconstitute his aesthetic ambitions, while subtly suggesting that his works may lie open to theological questioning in their own era.
Hertel’s puzzling title is period-based, stemming from the transhistorical transport felt by Winckelmann in the presence of the Apollo Belvedere (1764). Exploring this title theme in depth – and at considerable length – in Chapters Two (via an etching by Günther himself, 1769, fig. 9) and Eight, she rings extended changes in an analysis that suggests a similar ambition on the part of Günther; however, he strives instead for a religious experience, stimulated by Catholic imagery itself, to be viewed in situ in a richly collaborative multi-media environment of sculpture, stucco, and architecture, rather than in splendid isolation. She also notes that his use of wood material as well as polychromy evokes a different, more flexible response to his sculpture as an achievement, even as she observes (p. 14f.) that Winckelmann’s language exudes Rococo concepts: linearity, contour, unity, even whiteness. She underscores how Herder’s treatise on sculpture (1778) expressly mentions Pygmalion in its longer title.
Even as Hertel frequently refers to contemporary German Rococo ensembles, e.g. Dießen, die Wies, or Rott am Inn, she ultimately suggests Pygmalion-like magical transmutations of material and physical substance in the process of carving and displaying lifelike yet beautiful complexes. But her meditations, like the related critical analysis of (more modern) sculpture by Alex Potts (2000; Potts also has studied Winckelmann), really address wider issues, e.g. what she calls “the synthesis of Eros and abstraction, of body and line, flesh and paper.” (p. 49) She considers “self-reflective” (?) contemporary viewers of Günther, Pygmalion-related questions of tableaux vivants in processions, and the artist’s own consciousness of varied carving traditions (abetted by his own court exemption in Munich) in a penultimate Chapter Seven. Still, there is something contorted about formulating as a leading question the following (p. 58): “How and what could Pygmalion dream in Bavarian churches?”
What effects does Günther achieve, according to Hertel’s analysis? He chiefly produced ecclesiastical sculpture for specific settings, works tied to Catholic altars and pulpits (Chapters Three-Four; the true, Counter-Reformation center of the artist’s works) or to processions (Chapter Six, on Weyarn’s painted limewood Pieta and Annunciation, which work better in counterpoint with the Pygmalion concept). Ultimately and consistenly, Günther served the Wittelsbach Pietas Bavaricae, dedicated to both eucharistic and Marian devotion. His work across the region raises questions about confessionalization, a current debate topic among current German historians concerning state leadership vs popular religiosity in defining sectarian choice. Günther’s regional productivity around Munich shows his artistic connections and collaborations. But Hertel notes aptly, if archly, that “made of wood and being so focused on the religious subject and the human figure, . . .Günther’s art was . . . neither versatile nor adjustable . . . neither ornamental enough nor proto-classicist enough.” (p. 162) She even speculates that he might have known that his art marked the end of an era (p. 208).
Nevertheless, his figures command attention and suggest their individual agency, so that they appear autonomous when viewed separately (as our museum-trained eyes impel). The aesthetic freely mingles with the pious purpose of each work, including two personal donations, Christ on the Cross (1764; Altmannstein, plate 26) and a Hausmadonna for his own home (figs. 83-84). In an evocative Chapter Four on the artist’s angels Hertel discusses what she calls their “unruly behavior,” in terms visual as well as physical, which challenge their usual supporting role with a site-specific, playfully assertive sensuality that suggests an affective breach of decorum. Such tensions she finds throughout, while underscoring the awareness of tradition in Günther’s religious formulations.
In the final analysis, Christiane Hertel uses Günther as a touchstone for far more encompassing considerations about the complexity of the entire eighteenth century, viewed from his position in the transitional decades right after mid-century. At times she seems to want to collapse conventional distinctions, especially concerning ornament, between Rococo and Neo-classicism, labels that so often provide dialectic yet blur truly common period concerns. Her thoughtful meditations, both historical and aesthetic, are thus also informed by dialogue with great writers or philosophers from the latter part of the century Winckelmann, Herder (especially), Lessing, even Kant and Goethe.
One final word on Penn State Press, which provided handsome production for this book, but which also remains one of the rare university presses to publish the serious scholarship that used to be the hallmark of academic presses before marketing considerations and diminished library budgets for real books became the grim current intellectual reality. Moreover, a year ago Penn State issued another book about eighteenth-century, German-speaking art patronage: Michael Yonan, Empress Maria Theresa. They are to be commended, especially by HNA, for such commitment to valuable scholarly contributions. To see Ignaz Günther in America: one free-standing masterpiece, Christ at the Column (1754; Chapter Five; color plate 17), graces Detroit; a bozzeto in New York (Metropolitan Museum) and two other fragments, Angels, in Cleveland and Philadelphia.
University of Pennsylvania