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Ralph Gleis: Anton Romako (1832-1889). Die Entstehung des modernen Historienbildes (= Studien zur Kunst; 21), Köln / Weimar / Wien: Böhlau 2010, 335 S., ISBN 978-3-412-20613-0, EUR 39,90
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Agnes Husslein-Arco (Hg.): Anton Romako. Tegetthoff in der Seeschlacht bei Lissa, München: Hirmer 2010, 144 S., ISBN 978-3-7774-2761-4, EUR 24,90
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Rezension von:
Sabine Wieber
Department of History of Art, University of Glasgow
Redaktionelle Betreuung:
Ekaterini Kepetzis
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Studien zu Anton Romako (1832-1889)

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1905 represented an eventful year for modern art in Vienna, witnessing the Viennese Workshops' completion of their first major commission (the Sanatorium Purkersdorf), the Klimt Group's break with the Secession and the artist Anton Romako's (1832-1889) first retrospective exhibition at the Galerie Miethke under the directorship of Carl Moll. This exhibition inaugurated Romako's posthumous 'rediscovery' as an innovative yet eccentric painter whose painterly experiments harbingered Viennese Expressionism. [1] A discussion of Romako's portraiture along these lines has long dominated art historical discourse and Ralph Gleis' monograph refocuses the debate onto Romako's history paintings by offering a salient interpretation of the artist's heterogeneous responses to the Viennese manifestations of a European-wide 'crisis of history painting.'

Gleis traces Romako's career from the painter's academic training in Vienna and Munich (Chapter 1) to his late work executed during the 1880s (Chapter 4) and concludes by trying to locate Romako's history paintings within a larger European context (Chapter 5). The art historical literature on Romako has not put much emphasis on his training and early career, which is partially due to the lack of paintings from this period. This shortcoming is corrected by Gleis' careful analysis of Romako's development as a history painter under two very different masters, Wilhelm von Kaulbach in Munich and Carl Rahl in Vienna. Gleis' discussion of contemporary divergences in history painting (Idealism versus Realism) is further enriched by a very productive analysis of the complex genesis of Vienna's Arsenal frescoes. This commission represented a concrete manifestation of history painting's Richtungsstreit plotting Rahl's idealist approach against Carl Blaas' realist conception. The chapter closes with Romako's departure for Rome in 1854 at which point he took with him a strong belief in the hierarchy of genres and an interest in colour and painterly qualities.

Chapter 2 explores Romako's success in Rome as a portraiture and genre painter on the private art market, driven, in part, by tourism. Probably for the last time in his career, Romako experienced financial security and travelled widely. Whilst in Italy, Romako experimented with contrasting painterly and graphic elements in his work, probably best evidenced in his famous painting Italienisches Fischerkind (1873-75) which activates a mode of representation Romako returned to throughout his career. He also produced history paintings for Viennese exhibitions and Gleis views the pictorial language of these endeavours as "a syntheticising compromise between Idealism and Realism" (102). The chapter closes with a discussion of Italian history painting during the 1870s, which provides an interesting and innovative foil for Romako's artistic output, but ultimately leaves the reader wondering about the direct relevance of this material.

Chapters 3 and 4 present Gleis' key chapters and he forcefully argues for Romako's central position as a modern history painter through a series of case studies that are carefully framed within larger aesthetic and socio-historical developments. Upon Romako's return to Vienna in 1876, the painter encountered a city enthralled by history painting in the service of monumental decorative schemes along Franz Joseph's Ringstrassen project. In this context, Gleis observes that history painters such as Anselm Feuerbach (although he had left Vienna by the time Romako returned), Hans Makart and Hans Canon actively participated in the "construction, formulation and celebration" (133) of the nation-state's history - a rather fraught endeavour in the context of the Habsburg Empire's political reality as a multi-ethnic conglomerate. Following into the footsteps of Eric Hobsbawm's evocative proposition of the "invention of tradition", Gleis postulates that the artistic activation of the past to make sense of the present constituted a key phenomenon of the modern age. [2] Viewed from this perspective, history painting cannot be written out of art historical trajectories of modernity. Although the 1870s and 1880s represented the height of Viennese history painting, this time period also encapsulated its crisis. Vacillating between "Illusion and Propaganda" (the title of Chapter 3) and pushed to a breaking point by the period's excessive appropriation of history, Gleis makes the thought-provoking observation that the genre had reached an impasse: "on the one hand, the tying of an old form to a new function in the service nationalist propaganda [could only] temporarily hide the fact that the new history painting lacked an artistically adequate form" (150). While, on the other hand, a foregrounding of painterly qualities actually accelerated the demise of content.

Chapter 3 includes a fascinating discussion of Romako's most famous history painting, Tegetthoff in der Seeschlacht bei Lissa (painted twice, in 1878/80 and 1880/82). Austria's victory at sea against the much stronger Italian fleet at Lissa in 1866 represented a key event in Austria's more recent history and Romako chose this topic hoping to finally garner the critical and financial success that had eluded him for so many years. Gleis engages in a careful and detailed analysis of these iconic paintings by drawing on a wealth of archival sources as well as comparative visual material to argue for Romako's progressive interpretation of the subject. He suggests that the event's close proximity to Romako's own time enabled the artist to experiment with the conventions of history painting and develop a new language, both in terms of content and form. While working on the Tegetthoff paintings, Romako developed a second, and quite contradictory, vision of modern history painting that culminated in his now lost Amazonenschlacht. In discussing this work, Gleis relies on Vienna's premier progressive critic, Ludwig Hevesi, who described the painting as strange and exceptionally bad (184) due to its confusing focus on illegible detail and painterly composition. Despite their divergent pictorial languages, Gleis asserts that these experimental history paintings manifested Romako's desire to imbue the genre with a "timely symbolic expression" (186). Unfortunately, Romako's efforts were not recognised by contemporary critics and jury commissions, but he continued to strive for a new formal language and subject matter.

This resulted in an increasingly ambivalent, peculiar and hermeneutically sealed œuvre, which Gleis explores in the appropriately titled Chapter 4 "Phantastik und Ironie". Here, Gleis takes a close look at a series of designs submitted by Romako between 1880 and 1883 for the interior decoration of the Vienna City Hall. Gleis discusses these designs in great detail and raises pertinent questions around the problematic position of allegory in late nineteenth-century painting. Although Romako took his continual rejection by Vienna's institutional art world very personally and came under increasing financial pressure, Gleis points out that the artist made no concessions to the taste of his time (205). Indeed, Gleis shows how his artistic vision became increasingly fantastical and difficult to decipher. But Gleis re-interprets Romako's late painterly experiments such as Totentanz (1882) or Einzug Marc Aurels in Wien (circa 1887) as extreme visions of the dehumanising effects of modern warfare and the modern condition. In Romako's hands, history painting thus evolved from a representation of history into a highly personal reflection on history. Viewed from this perspective, Romako's distortion of pictorial convention becomes an idiosyncratic commentary on the illegibility of the contemporary world rather than exercises in irony on his part (223). Here, Gleis posits certain affinities between Romako and early French Symbolists (Moreau, Redon or Puvis de Chavannes), which materialise in a shared interest in antique mythology, ornament, a visionary pictorial language and a new "colour-magic" (217).

Gleis' final chapter relates Romako's work to developments in modern history painting across Europe (although this reverts largely to a French context) in order to develop a set of criteria (such as "painterly problems", "abstraction", "time/space", "reception of history" etc.) through which to evaluate and locate Romako's œuvre. Although this chapter is driven by a methodological desire to expand the study's scope beyond Austria and to summarise some of modern history painting's core principles, it makes for a somewhat awkward conclusion to an otherwise highly sophisticated and historically grounded publication. It neither sustains a critical discussion of modern history painting that goes beyond a textbook version of French modernism, nor does it add a new dimension to Gleis' excellent discussion of Romako's ambitions in previous chapters.

Aside from this fairly minor lapse, Gleis' book makes an important and timely contribution to the study of nineteenth-century art and culture. Judging from recent exhibitions (such as the two big Makart exhibitions this summer in Vienna) and new publications (such as Doris Lehmann's Historienmalerei in Wien), nineteenth-century history painting is experiencing an important re-assessment in Vienna and beyond. [3] While Gleis' publication partakes in this seemingly growing field, his approach makes a significant intervention into the existing scholarship and offers an intellectual framework and a methodological approach that is not restricted to scholars working on Austrian material. Romako is not an unknown figure, but his portraiture has dominated art historical studies and Gleis' focus on Romako's history paintings balances this imparity. This focus on history painting also enables Gleis to tie Romako into larger nineteenth-century debates on the form and content of the genre while drawing attention to Romako's constant strive towards experimentation and transformation.

Gleis' careful contextualisation and historicisation of Romako's artistic practice in relation to the painter's overall œuvre, his critical reception and contemporary art historical developments allow the author to make two important disciplinary interventions: on the one hand, this methodology eludes the pitfall of the highly problematic revisionist approach to nineteenth-century Salon painting characterising recent blockbuster exhibitions on painters such as Jean-Léon Gérôme or Alexandre Cabanel. [3] On the other hand, it moves the discussion away from representing Romako as a misunderstood forefather of Vienna's early twentieth-century avant-garde. Ironically, Gleis' meticulous archival research and close visual analysis reveals Romako's painterly progressivity, but this modernity derives from the painter's own art-historical context rather than his twentieth-century 're-discovery' as an early Expressionist. Gleis' careful re-assessment of Romako's œuvre uncovers the vigour of nineteenth-century history painting in Austria and presents exciting new possibilities of thinking about the genre's potential as a modern artistic practice that could accommodate tradition and innovation. In this way, Gleis instigates a welcome paradigm shift in the study of nineteenth-century history painting.

2010 also saw the publication of a small but attractive and splendidly illustrated collection of essays focused virtually exclusively on Romako's Tegetthoff, which forms a useful addendum to Gleis' scholarly monograph. Edited by the Belvedere Museum's director Agnes Husslein-Arco, the collection accompanied an exhibition curated by Stephan Koja at the Upper Belvedere as part of its on-going series "Meisterwerke im Fokus". The Belvedere holds the world's premier collection of Romako paintings (fifty in total) and this exhibition placed the painter's most celebrated history painting into its historical context by showing it alongside a series of drawings, historical photographs, military equipment and a model of the victorious battleship Ferdinand Max. The collection of essays further explores some of the exhibition's key themes, such as central Europe's military-political landscape leading to the naval battle between Austria and Italy before the Dalmatian island of Lissa (Helmut Rumpler) or the brave and daring conduct of Konteradmiral Wilhelm von Tegethoff during the battle on 20 July 1866 (M. Christian Ortner). Uwe Schögl presents a series of recently-discovered historical photographs of Lissa and the unveiling of a monument commemorating the first anniversary of the battle taken by Gustav Jägermayer in 1867 which stand in an interesting relationship to the battle itself. But the publication also offers a more comprehensive artistic and art historical background for Romako's Tegetthoff painting and thus includes a densely-argued essay by Gleis on Romako which summarises some of the key arguments he put forth in the above-discussed publication. Cornelia Reiter articulate discussion of Romako's reception by contemporary critics further nuances Gleis' argument and Dietrun Otten's minutely researched biography of Romako effectively highlights (literally in bold print) key instances from the painter's eventful career. As the scope of essays indicates, this is a very engaging and carefully researched publication that uses Romako's Tegetthoff painting to spotlight an important moment in Austrian naval history as well as the career and art historical significance of one of the country's most interesting and complex painter of the day. Although Gleis' monograph and Husslein-Arco's collection of essays target different readerships, they both participate in the opening up of a burgeoning field of study that will hopefully generate further scholarly engagement with this fascinating art historical period.


[1] For an excellent discussion of the problematic reception of Romako see Gemma Blackshaw: Rediscovering Anton Romako, in: Austrian Studies 16 (2008), 115-122.

[2] Eric Hobsbawm: The Invention of Tradition, Cambridge 1983.

[3] Wien Museum, "Hans Makart: Ein Maler regiert die Stadt", Wien: Künstlerhaus, 9.6. - 16.10.2011 and Belvedere, "Makart: Maler der Sinne", Wien: Lower Belvedere, 9.6. - 9.10.2011. Doris Lehmann: Historienmalerei in Wien: Anselm Feuerbach und Hans Makart im Spiegel zeitgenössischer Kunst, Wien 2010.

[4] See for example Jeanette Kohl: The Spectacular Art of Jean-Léon Gérôme, in: Kunstchronik, (March 2011), 124-130.

Sabine Wieber