German Art and Architecture

from The New Book of Knowledge®

ART HISTORY ON-DEMAND > Cultures and Civilizations 

Germany's position in the center of Europe has made the country a crossroads for European ideas, trade, and art. Because they lived in the center of the continent, German artists were influenced by the art of other countries. But the German artists always gave the foreign forms a German look. For example, during the Renaissance, German painters followed the lead of the Italians, painting lifelike figures in realistic settings. But German artists never stopped using the strong lines and bright colors favored by their ancestors.

The Middle Ages

When the Roman Empire in the west came to an end in the A.D. 400's, Germanic peoples established kingdoms in parts of Europe formerly under Roman rule. The Germans were greatly influenced by the way of life in Roman Europe. They tried to copy Roman art and architecture. They accepted the Christian religion. They turned their artistic skills to making Christian art but used the geometric and detailed decoration that characterized the early art of the Germanic people.

One of the most powerful of the Germanic tribes, the Franks, ruled much of what is today France and Germany. During the rule of the Frankish kings, ivory carvings and illuminated manuscripts became important art forms. Illuminated manuscripts were religious books written and illustrated by hand--most often in monasteries. Some of the most beautiful manuscripts of all time were created in Germany during the 700's, 800's, and 900's. Geometric and detailed forms were used to decorate manuscript pages. Handsomely painted letters spelled out stories and prayers from the Bible.

In the middle of the 900's, art in Germany began to develop individual characteristics. The Germans remained more faithful to older art forms than did other people. The strong religious feeling of the Germans was expressed in their art. They depicted the human body in twisted shapes to show the suffering and devotion of the Christian saints.

The Romanesque period (about 1000-1250) was a time of great artistic activity. The Rhine Valley was an important trade route, and the people who lived there were in constant touch with Lombardy, a region of Italy, where the Romanesque style began. In the cathedrals of Speyer, Worms, and Mainz there are many round arches and arched ceilings typical of Romanesque architecture.

The Gothic style began in France toward the end of the 1100's but did not influence German art for over 50 years. The cathedral of Cologne (begun in 1248 and finished in 1332) was a large and richly decorated building similar to the French cathedral at Amiens. This effect of overpowering size can also be seen in the later cathedrals at Ulm and Freiburg. A person standing in a Gothic cathedral feels tiny beneath the high, heaven-pointing arched ceilings.

German sculpture of the Gothic period also followed French work. But instead of being carved almost flat against the church walls, German Gothic sculpture stood out from the walls. The statues of religious figures were made to look quite real.

The Gothic style was well suited to the tastes of the German people. Germans liked the high, slender, orderly look of Gothic churches and the rugged, emotional style of Gothic sculpture.

1400'S and 1500'S

The Renaissance, which began in Italy about 1400, was marked by a renewed interest in humans and their world. (During the Middle Ages the world of religion and the church had been of central importance.) Science, philosophy, and the arts were all influenced by this people-centered movement, called humanism.

But humanism was not an easy idea for Germans to accept. The Renaissance did not take hold in Germany for more than 100 years after it began in Italy. Even then German art kept much of its Gothic character.

In the paintings of the north German artists, realistic and often gruesome details were combined with subjects from medieval fairy tales. The rounded human forms in these paintings show the influence of the Renaissance.

It was in the southwest area of present-day Germany that the first influence of the new Renaissance style of realism was felt. The Magdalene Altar (1431) by Lukas Moser in a church at Tiefenbronn is the earliest known German painting to place the human figure in a realistic setting. Other painters began to use realistic forms and correct perspective. But the stiffness of the figures and the use of bright colors kept a Gothic feeling in their work.

The master artist Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) understood the history of German art. A great scholar and international traveler, he combined the good qualities of Italian Renaissance art with the Gothic art of the north. More than any other artist, he created for north central Europe its own Renaissance style.

Dürer was a fine painter, but he was even more outstanding as a printmaker. His woodcut prints and engravings show how well he combined the several influences on German art. He was interested in Renaissance humanism, in showing the correctly proportioned human body in lifelike settings. But still he stressed the beauty of jagged lines and the ruggedness of Gothic art. His great works have had a lasting influence on the art of Germany.

During the life of Dürer southern Germany was Europe's most important center of sculpture. Wooden altars were carefully carved with very detailed designs. The late Gothic wood sculpture was covered with carved groups of flowers. And the sculpture was often brightly painted. This custom of painting sculpture lasted many years in Germany.

There were many fine German artists at that time, including Martin Schongauer (1453?-91), a brilliant woodcutter, engraver, and painter. Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) painted portraits, mythological subjects, and scenes of court life. The portraits by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497?-1543) were realistic. Holbein went to England and had a great influence on English portrait painting. The style of Matthias Grünewald (1485?-1530?) is the most unusual of all. His well-known Isenheim altarpiece is grim and richly colored.

The Baroque and Rococo Periods

During the baroque and rococo periods (1600's and 1700's) many fine buildings were constructed. A number of south German and Austrian architects who worked during the first half of the 1700's copied their basic style from the French and Italians. But the buildings of the Germans and Austrians were more richly decorated. The palaces by Johann Lukas von Hildebrandt (1668-1745) had the solidity and rich decoration of the baroque and the ornamental features of the French rococo.

Rococo was outstanding for its extremely fancy, shell-like designs. One could almost say that rococo wore one sequin too many. Decoration covered almost everything, even when simplicity would have better suited the building. For example, the huge monastery at Melk, designed by Jacob Prandtauer (1660-1726), was as richly decorated as a gingerbread palace. The church of St. John Nepomuk in Munich, by the Asam brothers (Cosmas Damian Asam, 1686-1739, and Egid Quirin Asam, 1692-1750), is an outstanding example of the late rococo style.

Many times the work of the painters and sculptors was so fanciful that it was hard to tell whether a wall or ceiling was real or just decoration. The interiors of Dominikus Zimmermann's (1685-1766) Pilgrimage Church at Wies and of Neumann's Vierzehnheiligen Church are like enormous wedding cakes. In Germany in the 1700's both nobility and peasants felt that the house of God should be built with the same splendor as the dwellings of earthly rulers.

1800'S and 1900'S

In the late 1700's and early 1800's the Germans were active in a new European art movement. The movement was called neoclassicism, a return to the art of ancient Greece and Rome. Asmus Jacob Carstens (1754-98) liked to combine a classical style with Christian content. He admired the work of Raphael (1483-1520), the Italian Renaissance painter.

Neoclassicism quickly developed into the romantic movement of the 1800's. Romanticism was a way of viewing the world. The romantics loved nature and the distant past. The romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) painted ruins of Gothic churches in forests, views of distant, misty mountain peaks, and lonely beaches. But others, like Philipp Otto Runge (1777-1810), and Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901), used classical subjects to produce romantic art.

German art of the 1900's has often been a protest against imitation. Modern German artists have felt art of the late 1800's was too concerned with the past. The works of a very few, such as the artist Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945) and the Viennese architect Adolf Loos (1870-1933), had some of the qualities of modern art. Then about 1905 the influential Die Brücke ("The Bridge") group was formed in Dresden by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Erich Heckel, and others. The young artists of Die Brücke were influenced by primitive art and by early German woodcuts. They tried to express the feeling of modern life in their art through the use of bright, intense colors and simple shapes. At first glance, these vivid colors and simple outlines seem childish and crude. But the art of Die Brücke, called expressionism, became one of the most important styles of the early 1900's.

Another group of expressionist artists, called The Blue Rider, was formed in Munich in 1911. It was led by Franz Marc (1880-1916), the Russian-born Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), and the Swiss artist Paul Klee (1879-1940). The artists of The Blue Rider were greatly influenced by the cubist painters in France. They believed in the importance of experimentation and originality in art. Gradually some of the artists of The Blue Rider moved from representing scenes and objects realistically to painting forms and colors that did not create a realistic image. This kind of painting is called abstract. Abstract expressionism was later to become a major movement in the history of modern art.

The Bauhaus, a German design school founded by the architect Walter Gropius (1883-1969), completed the trend of modern German art toward abstraction. The Bauhaus was established in 1919 in Weimar and was later moved to Dessau. Students were trained in painting, sculpture, and architecture. They also learned to design products for everyday use. Germany had made great advances in industry. But too often the objects produced were neither as attractive or as useful as they might have been. The designers of the Bauhaus redesigned anything that they thought could be made more beautiful. They gave new shapes to skyscrapers and steam irons, chairs and containers, textiles and toys. Even the printed page was made more attractive because of Bauhaus experiments with printing methods. The ideas of the Bauhaus designers influenced product design throughout the world.

Like the Bauhaus designers, many architects from the school also influenced their field, especially after leaving Germany before World War II. In particular, Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) contributed much to the clean, strong lines of the international style, an architectural style that dominated commercial building during the second half of the 1900's.

Robert Welsh
University of Toronto

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