- The Inspirational Genius of Germany: British Art and Germanism 1850–1939 by Matthew C. Potter, and: British Images of Germany: Admiration, Antagonism & Ambivalence, 1860–1914 by Richard Scully
The anniversary of the First World War has engendered a frenzy of legacy assessments and revisionist investigations into what was surely one of the defining events of modern history. The question, “what were the causes of the First World War?” has long been a cliché of the challenge faced by secondary school students on their modern history exams. This approach has exacerbated tendencies to oversimplify historical evidence by analyzing the events leading up to the war as inexorably presaging what was to follow. This teleological approach to history, as both Matthew C. Potter and Richard Scully realize, has led scholars to search for the evidence they want to find amid the mass of archival and printed material available. Both Potter and Scully review a single aspect of this pre-war period—Britain’s cultural and intellectual relationship with Germany from 1850 onward—to argue that the demonization of Germany and its ideas and culture was an ex post facto action that is belied by the complex, ambiguous, dialectical, and even admiring attitude of Britons toward the Germans up to the very eve of 28 July 1914. [End Page 148]
Scully’s argument, that “British perceptions of Germany were generally much more complex and multifaceted than has hitherto been fully appreciated” and that historians must address a “broader sample of evidence,” captures the theses of both of these serious, thoroughly researched, revisionist monographs (316). Both authors engage with Anglo-German culture in the second half of the nineteenth century, although Potter’s investigation, not always profitably, takes the discussion forward to the Second World War. While Scully feels that the stereotypes of Germany as “model or monster” represent the extremes of a more nuanced set of cultural attitudes, Potter describes the “blinkered” view of art historians, artists, commercial galleries, and critics who created a “linear story” of modern art that favored French modernism and formalism over the arguably more fundamental contribution of German aesthetics and philosophy (3, 216). Both authors, following Rosemary Ashton’s The German Idea (1980), see Thomas Carlyle as the originator of Victorian interest in Germany, especially through his admiration of the works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller. Both authors also use cultural, rather than political or economic, evidence as the baseline for their re-examinations of Anglo-German relations; but while their conclusions are similar, their approaches, style, and manner of presentation are quite distinct.
Potter’s rigorous monograph examines a series of case studies of English art and aesthetics over nearly 100 years. In many ways, and for good reason, his choices are obvious. Ford Madox Brown, Frederic Leighton, Hubert von Herkomer, G. F. Watts, Walter Crane, and the Vorticists are the primary focus of his attention, with an intricate and revealing chapter on the lesser-known art critic, Joseph Beavington Atkinson. Potter uses the term “Germanism” to characterize a range of engagements by British artists and critics with Germany’s aesthetic and artistic heritage. The English reception of the Nazarenes appears in Potter’s assessment as a nascent example of what would become a more sophisticated engagement by artists with philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, G. W. F. Hegel, and Arthur Schopenhauer; authors such as Goethe and Schiller; and German Renaissance artists including Albrecht Dürer and Hans Holbein the Younger.
Potter effectively retells the story of Victorian art through the lens of its German influences, and he charts the battle between empiricism and idealism that ultimately resulted in the turn of the century symbolist aesthetic manifested in the work of Arnold Böcklin and embraced by artists such as Watts and Crane. Not surprisingly, John Ruskin plays a pivotal role in Potter...