Rococo rivalries: Germany v. France

As an American who studies European art, I must confess to a particular fascination with how European societies characterize each other. Stereotypes, rivalries, projections, and politically charged allegiances inflect all aspects of European culture. In eighteenth-century studies, we encounter this most commonly in the appreciation and animosities exchanged between Britain and France. My recent research on the Rococo took me to explore a different yet equally charged rivalry – that of Germany and France.

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The palace of Amalienburg. Photo: M. Yonan.

Bolstered by the art of Oppenord, Meissonnier, Watteau, and Boucher to name just a few, the Rococo’s place in French art history is secure. Harder to explain has been its popularity in Germany. German patrons built hundreds of richly decorated palaces outfitted with gorgeous rococo interiors, and the Germans went a step further by incorporating rococo ornament into religious edifices, something encountered only rarely in France. Both can be seen in Catholic Munich, where the urge to adopt rococo forms occurred early and eagerly. The palaces of Nymphenburg, Amalienburg, and Schleissheim, all in or near that city, contain room after room of beautifully ornamented rococo art. Travel a short distance outside Munich and you will encounter rococo pilgrimage churches, perhaps the most famous of which is the stunningly beautiful Wieskirche. But it is just one of hundreds. In short, the Germans loved the Rococo. A colleague once even described Bavaria to me as ‘Rococo Paradise’, so abundant is the style in that region.

The Wieskirche. Photo: M. Yonan.

The Wieskirche. Photo: M. Yonan.

In my contribution to the volume Rococo echo: art, theory, and historiography from Cochin to Coppola, ‘The Uncomfortable Frenchness of the German Rococo’, I explore specifically how German writers dealt with the problem of the Rococo’s French origins, and how that Frenchness became a thorn in the side of German art history for almost three hundred years.

Rococo echo: art, history and historiography from Cochin to Coppola

Rococo echo: art, history and historiography from Cochin to Coppola

German writers have struggled to explain the abundance of the Rococo in their homeland, and as nineteenth-century scholars began to write Germany’s national art history, they found the Rococo highly problematic, since it could not be easily characterized as German. And you might guess what happened: some rather creative attempts to explain (or explain away!) the Rococo’s Frenchness. When commenting on rococo southern German palaces, writers such as Cornelius Gurlitt and Hermann Bauer argued that the style was really German. In contrast, an earlier writer, Johann Friedrich Reiffenstein, complained that as a whimsical foreign import the Rococo was alien to the German character and therefore damaging to serious German art. Gottfried Semper tried to claim that it was the Germans who had invented rococo art, not the French, and thereby Germanized its origins. Stereotypes, rivalries, projections, and even military themes abounded. Writing this essay reminded me of how subversive Rococo art really is, and how much it challenges simple categorization, be it about quality, technique, subject matter, or national identity.

– Michael Yonan, University of Missouri

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