Johann Joachim Winckelmann

Johann Joachim Winckelmann, installation view, Neue Galerie, Kassel, documenta 14, photo: Fred Dott

Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s scholarship, in particular his book Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums (History of Ancient Art, first published in 1764), was foundational for both art history as an academic discipline, and the rise of Neoclassicism and philhellenism in Germany and Western Europe at large. Winckelmann’s interpretation of Greek antique sculpture as the ideal form, embodying Beauty and Truth, was underpinned by a cultural desire that was made even more phantasmic by the fact that Winckelmann never actually set foot in Athens or Greece. Nevertheless, it soon became a political reality in the context of the rapid advancement of German nationalism and imperialism in the nineteenth century, with Neoclassicism as its most dominant aesthetic form. The Bavarian prince who became King Otto of Greece in 1832 and instituted Athens as the nation’s capital for sentimental rather than practical reasons is an important protagonist in the appropriation of Athens and Greece as constitutive symbols for German and Western European art and culture.

In one of the more radical parts of Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums, Winckelmann seems to ponder the implications of his own historical quest. In this melancholic passage he recognizes the feeling of loss that preconditions the possibility of writing any kind of history—a loss that may lead to desire, which in turn only exacerbates the longing for what is lost:

“In meditating upon its downfall [I] have felt almost like the historian who, in narrating the history of his native land, is compelled to allude to its destruction, of which he was a witness. Still I could not refrain from searching into the fate of works of art as far as my eye could reach; just as a maiden, standing on the shore of the ocean, follows with tearful eyes her departing lover with no hope of ever seeing him again, and fancies that in the distant sail she sees the image of her beloved. Like that loving maiden we too have, as it were, nothing but a shadowy outline left of the object of our wishes, but that very indistinctness awakens only a more earnest longing for what we have lost, and we study the copies of the originals more attentively than we should have done the originals themselves if we had been in full possession of them. In this particular we are very much like those who wish to have an interview with spirits, and who believe that they see them when there is nothing to be seen.”

Posted in Public Exhibition