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  • The Existenzbild In Burckhardt’s Art Historical Writing *
  • Lionel Gossman

In honor of Nancy Struever

Jacob Burckhardt began to use the term Existenzbild when describing the work of the Venetian school of the sixteenth century—notably Titian and Veronese. It is nowhere precisely defined. It seems, however, that it was intended to designate a type of painting which aims to capture on canvas and celebrate the sensuous qualities of the real world and the beauty of the human figure in their earthly reality—das schönste Dasein or das bloss wonnevolle Dasein, the pure beauty and bliss of existence, in Burckhardt’s own words—rather than point toward some narrative or symbolic significance. What one should look for in a painting, Burckhardt told his audience at a public lecture series on the history of art that he gave in Basel in 1844–46, was “not symbolism, but an ennobled naturalism; deep individuality, distinctiveness of character and yet, at the same time, beauty.” 1 Later, in the Cicerone, or Guide to the Enjoyment of the Art Works of Italy (1855), we read that among the Venetians, biblical scenes “were not painted for church or private devotion, but sprang only [End Page 879] from the impulse to represent a rich and beautifully colored existence. They show . . . how . . . the incident is but the pretext for the representation of pure existence.” With Veronese’s paintings of festivals, in particular, painting “shakes off the last fetters of history painting and only requires the remains of a pretext to celebrate all the splendour and glory of the earth in unrestrained rejoicing; and above all, a beautiful and free human race in full enjoyment of its existence.” 2 Only a culture free of theological constraints and scholastic dogmatism, Burckhardt appears to argue, could produce such a “representation of pure existence” [Darstellung der blossen Existenz]. 3

One line of inquiry into the Existenzbild might be to probe the relation between the Existenzbild and Burckhardt’s own practice as an historian. On the face of it, the painter’s use of incidents from history, religion, and mythology as pretexts for representing and celebrating “pure existence” seems remarkably similar to the historian’s use of events as entrypoints into states of culture rather than links in a chronological chain. The Existenzbild might well be the visual equivalent of the kind of non-narrative cultural history advocated most clearly by Burckhardt in the introduction to the posthumously published Griechische Kulturgeschichte. For the time being, however, I shall focus on the Existenzbild in the narrower context of Burckhardt’s art historical writing.

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Figure 1.

Franz Pforr. “Sulamit und Maria.” Sammlung Schäfer, Schweinfurt.

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Figure 2.

Johann Friedrich Overbeck. “Ostermorgen.” Kunstmuseum, Düsseldorf.

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Figure 3.

Johann Friedrich Overbeck. “Italia und Germania.” Bayerische Staatgemäldesammlungen, Munich.

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Figure 4.

Ernst Stückelberg. “Das Erwachen der Kunst in der Renaissance.” Kunsthalle, Basel.

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Figure 5.

Johann Friedrich Overbeck. “Der Triumph der Religion in den Künsten.” Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt am Main.

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Figure 6.

Philipp Veit. “Einführung der Künste durch das Christentum.” Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt am Main.

I have not been able to find out whether the terms Ideenbild and Gedankenkunst were in use in the 1840’s to 1890’s when Burckhardt was teaching and writing. In recent usage, 4 Gedankenkunst evokes a certain tradition in German art (some would say its main tradition); that is: a moral and literary orientation and an emphasis on graphic rather than painterly means. In Burckhardt’s own time, the term could have been aptly applied to the work of the so-called “Nazarenes”—a school of German artists of the first half of the nineteenth century who anticipate in some ways the English pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. 5 The founding members of the school—Friedrich Overbeck (1789–1869) and Franz Pforr (1788–1812)—had bound themselves into a kind of medieval order, the Brotherhood of St. Luke, with the aim of regenerating German art by...

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