- Imagination und Evidenz. Transformationen der Antike im ästhetischen Historismus by Ernst Osterkamp und Thorsten Valk
This volume is the product of a 2009 conference in Italy which was organised within a funded project to investigate literary transformations of antiquity in the century after [End Page 498] Goethe’s death. In sixteen contributions, including the important introduction, it brings together a very wide gamut of material, ranging beyond the literary texts which one might be expecting into the visual and musical arts. To take only one of the possible routes through the literary material, there is discussion of Hölderlin, Klopstock, Stifter, Wilhelm Adolf Becker, Georg Ebers, and Ernst Eckstein. Many other writers, mainstream and otherwise, are represented. Likewise with the visual arts: Friedrich Prellers, Karl Rottmann, Heinrich Dreber, and Arnold Böcklin are only a few of the artists discussed. Alongside the case studies there is, of course, a consistent theoretical focus on the nature of historicism and the mutations in understanding of the term and constant reference to artists and theorists from the classical world who provide inspiration. This breadth of material certainly makes the volume very interesting, particularly as most readers will find themselves at some point (or even quite a lot of points) dealing with materials which lie outside of their narrow specialism, but where the issues are still clearly pertinent. To that extent the volume will not only appeal to literary scholars but may also (e.g.) interest art historians with an interest in cognate literary-historical phenomena. The volume is very well produced and richly illustrated.
The broad territory covered by the volume is well known. It investigates the ‘corrective’ impulses in literature and elsewhere which emerged as a response to the idealising vision of antiquity of (e.g.) a Winckelmann with his highly normalising vision of classical antiquity, sustained despite his art-historical inclinations. As historiography developed in the late eighteenth and then nineteenth centuries, it became much more difficult to sustain unproblematised vision of the ancient world and its achievements. The more sophisticated understanding of the historical context for antique achievement, reinforced by the increased amount of documentary archaeological evidence available, meant that the vision of the ancient world was relativised or differentiated. By extension the lessons which the ancient world could offer for an understanding of the modern world changed; no longer could it be simply exemplary.
The tension between the tendency towards normativity and that towards historical consciousness (to translate Ingrid Kreuzer on Winckelmann) has been investigated at length elsewhere, but this volume offers a new take on that productive tension under the rubric of “aesthetic historicism.” The various contributions offer us insights into the work of artists who acknowledge the historical specificity of materials taken from antiquity and who furthermore have an awareness of the complex continuum of history, including their own present, but nonetheless insist that their responses to antiquity (in whatever genre) have an aesthetic component which is not wholly subject to historical insight; an imaginative process is revealed in which art is born out of the tense relationship between creative mind and scientific, historical knowledge.
This is clearly fascinating territory and we are offered a very large variety of illustrations of the mechanics of aesthetic historicism—whether in fiction or non-fictional literature, drama, painting, opera, or operetta. This variety is both a strength and a weakness of the volume. The formulation “aesthetic historicism” sounds very neat, but the formula describes something essentially unstable; the relationship between the aesthetic and the historical is shown, fascinatingly, in the various contributions to be a very complex negotiation. It might, however, be easier to fully grasp the scope and implications of aesthetic historicism if the examples were drawn from a narrower band of art forms and genres. Each art form and then genre within that [End Page 499] art form necessarily manifests aesthetic historicism differently. This volume does not just deal with a large number of creative individuals with specific agendas; it covers...