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Pinakothek in Munich draws works of art from its collection for new exhibition
Fritz von Uhde, Angel, c. 1908/10. © Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Neue Pinakothek , Munich.

MUNICH.- In addition to the great masterpieces of art held by the Pinakothek galleries, they also hold in storage a wide range of pictorial representations of topics and horizons of experience that elude the traditional lines of development in art. Stored away as they are, these pictures are often only accessible to the daily work or individual interests of the curators and thus remain invisible within the canon of masterpieces. „Curator’s choice“ is an invitation to pursue these themes, experiences and issues subjectively and to create associations – by drawing on the collection itself and also beyond it – in hall 20 of the Neue Pinakothek from March 4 until June 1 of this year.

19th century art witnessed a dramatic loss of depicted angels, which had hitherto been so popular ever since the Middle Ages. Whether heavenly messengers, celestial gate-keepers or guardian angels – the Enlightenment now called into question the existence of angels. And this created a problem for artists. In future, how could heaven and hell be credibly personified? Who was to assume the role of intermediary to God, faith and spirituality in art?

Initially, artists such as Peter von Cornelius endeavoured to restore that gravitas to the figure of the angel, which seemed most appropriate to stories in the Bible. The retreat of the Nazarene to the art of the Italian ‚quattrocento’ was an integral part of this. The exuberance of Baroque rhetoric, whereby angels fluttered all over the picture, was no longer called for. The aim now was to reconstruct authentic religious experience. However, the manifest removal from people’s everyday lives, which such portrayal engendered, left unanswered the question of the individual’s experience of spirituality.

Adolph von Menzel’s „Living Room with Menzel's Sister“ presents here an interesting solution to the problem. The scene, which shows in the background his mother sewing under a „chandelier-angel “ made of wood or gypsum, adopts the iconographic motif of „The Sewing Virgin Mary and Angels“ as portrayed in Guido Reni’s painting at the Palazzo Quirinale, Rome. The scene is not totally realistic, since the artist’s mother had actually died a year earlier; so Menzel uses this biblical example not only to highlight his close attachment to his mother but also to illustrate how the Bible lives on in our daily existence. Fritz von Uhde takes a similar approach: Angel yes, but depicted as the artist’s model in the break. Likewise, the scene of the „Tobias Legend“ is located not beside the River Tigris but instead a shady stream, to which a child has come from the house in the background to go fishing.

By breaking with tradition in this way, realistic portrayals release the representation of angels from commitment to Christian iconography; they become a subjective projection screen for diverse approaches to the spiritual search for meaning - as in G. F. Watts’ „The Happy Warrior“ or in Paul Gauguin’s „Te tamari no atua“. In effect, symbolist painting establishes the very artist himself as the mediator of spiritual experience. This, in turn, finds expression in new pictorial themes, magical moments or performances - not least of all in the 20th century. James Lee Byars, for instance, has repeatedly addressed the question of spirituality and metaphysics in his oeuvre – and, with it, the accompanying issue of perfect beauty. Like virtually no other artist, he was acutely aware of how much artists and angels resemble each other, when he declared: „I am Imaginary“.

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