- Pygmalion in Bavaria: The Sculptor Ignaz Günther and Eighteenth-Century Aesthetic Art Theory
Ignaz Günther is a sculptor well known in his native Germany, but entirely unfamiliar outside of it. His elegant rococo compositions grace the interiors of several important Bavarian ecclesiastical spaces, and a few have found their way to American and British museums. In general, though, his name remains little known; therefore, Christiane Hertel’s book is a most welcome addition to the critical literature on eighteenth-century art. Incredibly, this is the first English-language study on Bavarian rococo art of any kind since Karsten Harries’s The Bavarian Rococo Church, published nearly three decades ago. Hertel’s book is no introductory monograph, however. It is a wide-ranging, ambitious, and intricately argued investigation of Günther’s work which posits commonalities between religious art and the widespread retheorization of sculpture that took place in late eighteenth-century philosophy. As such, it is a novel and surprising text quite without parallel in the critical literature.
Hertel’s intent is less historical or biographical than it is theoretical, and her book contributes as much to the study of eighteenth-century art theory as it does to that of art itself. She employs a comparative method that alternates works by Günther with lengthy explorations of diverse texts, including works by such prominent thinkers as Winckelmann, Lessing, Hegel, Rousseau, Kant, and Herder, as well as more obscure personages like the historian Lorenz Westenrieder (1748–1829). Hertel is particularly interested in passages concerned with self-reflective perception and sensory experience, since she sees in Günther’s sculptures a visual and material examination of these processes. Her overarching point is that Günther theorized self-reflectivity, interiority, and sensation in his art, making sculptures that fulfilled devotional expectations while also silently critiquing or confusing those expectations. Commentators have long characterized Günther’s sculptures as psychologically expressive, but according to Hertel that expressiveness is the result of a palpable self-awareness on Günther’s part. She relates this self-awareness to the Protestant critique of idolatry, to sculpture’s ritual functions in Catholic religious culture, and to the spiritual meaning accorded to sculpture in eighteenth-century German aesthetics.
After a brief biographical overview, Hertel introduces the Pygmalion theme in order to examine an unusual etching on the subject by Günther. This image, [End Page 457] Hertel claims, complicates notions of high and low art through its odd iconography, and she sees the Pygmalion story as both a model for sculptural practice generally and a theorization of religious sculpture especially—a fascinating suggestion. Then comes a chapter on Günther’s relationship to late eighteenth-century Bavarian religious culture. Here Hertel interprets Günther through wide-ranging comparanda, including the baroque devotional machina, the theatrical tableau vivant, and Andrea Pozzo’s writings on perspective, connections that Hertel forges associatively and nonlinearly. Hertel uses this moment to build on and partially rethink Harries’s observations on the rococo church as theatrum sacrum. Chapter three examines Günther’s angels, their locations in churches, and the effects they have on viewers and worshippers. Hertel concentrates on the multiple commissions Günther produced for the Augustinian church at Diessen, which she sees as partially subversive and potentially unruly through subtle distinctions in gender, age, pose, and position.
Chapter five discusses Günther’s Kerkerheiland, a small freestanding sculpture of the flagellated Christ made in imitation of the sculpture that inspired the Wieskirche, one of Bavaria’s most celebrated ecclesiastical spaces. Hertel engages in a close visual analysis of this work to claim that it unites popular piety and institutionally sanctioned Counter-Reformational reform. The next chapter turns to the sculptural groups Günther made for the Church of Saints Peter and Paul at Weyarn, unusual objects that were intended for procession as well as for stationary display. She relates these works to the idea of sculptural vivification, for which she adopts the term Zusammensicht, or synthetic sight, an...