By Night

To Young Artists,

How can I bring an artist alive for you who has already been dead for 200 years? Kindly listen to these attempts, for hardly ever has an art been harder to get at than this, and hardly ever one more worth the effort. “Philipp Otto Runge’s position of prominence as the central artist of that period known as Early Romanticism in Germany is undisputed by scholars,” said Rudolf M. Bisanz. “Yet no consensus has been reached about the exact nature, scope and magnitude of Runge’s original and lasting contribution.” I can think of Kurt Schwitters’s Dadaist sound pieces, offhand, as an example of his extended influence. “How?” you might ask. This “how” is the central problem of Runge. On the one hand, everything is rationally spelled out; and on the other hand, everything is irrationally not spelled out. In despair and frustration, one has to go immediately to his most important work, “The Four Times of the Day,” conceived around 1803, when he was 26.

It is clear that Runge wanted to be an artist. That pressure from within met the pressure from without. His older brother, Daniel, a businessman and unsung hero, supported him emotionally, intellectually and financially. It was not likely someone as he would become an artist, to rise out of nowhere, like the dawn of a new day, so to speak. So when his effort failed to achieve success in the 1801 annual art competition in Weimar, he broke with Neo-classicism and set off to make a new art. That he did, and “The Four Times of the Day” were born. We can call this Romanticism or Modern Art, as we like. His apostasis was probably a decision, for what was most impassioned in his art was what was most unacceptable to the judges. The truth is, you can see elements in “The Triumph of Love,” his submission, which were ready to burst forth. They are in the curious, almost perverse, attempt to make a painted sculpture, everything from foreshortening to exaggerated shadows. Otto was always appreciated for his cheerful, if not uncontainable personality, never being able to get everything he wanted in one place. “The Four Times of the Day” are the most contained things in form he ever did. That is not to say “best,” for the best would be uncontained. It is not surprising, therefore, that scholars, critics, art historians, and show makers have not been able to contain him. It is the uncontained him I am trying to write about.

“Self-portrait (bust length),” 1802. Oil on canvas, 37 × 31.5 cm. Inv. 1002. Photo Credit :
bpk, Berlin / Hamburger Kunstalle / Elke Walford / Art Resource, NY.

Looking for something inside that uncontainment, you find yourself looking at subsequent art history. You can say modern art was not so much created by Runge as through him. This is not to take credit away. He was the right man at the right time. This is what we get to see in his art, but only partly. The real interest lies elsewhere, it seems—some writers think it is in his theoretical work. He was a prolific writer (like Goethe) of scientific tracts as well as poetry, fiction, letters, and art theory. Oddly, this is often a cause to belittle him among those writers who take him up, even though writing broadly was pitch perfect for his age. That it would be done is, for him, often more important than if it could be done.

“The Lesson of the Nightingale” (1801 – 1805), could be seen as a metaphor, the only bird that sings at night, and so beautifully! Part of the irrational is to know what cannot be explained. How does one teach what cannot be learned? Does a nightingale need to learn to sing? Heraclitus says, “If all the world were smoke, the soul would be known through smell.” The start of the great art historian Richard Offner’s work was that art cannot be written about. Runge’s final painting, “The Large Morning,” seems a tautological chaos, its border inexplicably attached to the central image. The Venetian Canova’s “Cupid and Psyche” is another entwinement of winged creatures from this time, immortal, eternal, transparent, metaphoric.

One wonders at the effect of the Napoleonic Wars. Runge’s ladies wear fashionable Empire dresses, yet Runge’s Romanticism could be seen as in opposition to Napoleonic French Neo-classicism with special emphasis on emergent German art, and a call for a voice that says it all—to get through the darkness to the light beyond. It matters, after all, how people feel!

The Sturm and Drang period brought down high subjectivity and iconic individualism including natural catastrophe, as a result of Kant, as aesthetic models, an inborn response to the presumed ideals of the American Revolution! This is why the subjectivity of Runge’s paintings is so out of line with Runge, the science person who could execute the coolest, most resolute architectonic diagrams. They seemed less exhausting for him, as he got sicker, toward the end. One writer said he had periods of tuberculosis since birth, but his energy was always vast.

People make an issue about the intensity you see and feel when you look at a self-portrait of Runge. It is as if they are saying it is not good, not pleasant, not art. But I feel it is saying, move back a step or two, out of which you will see my realism, just as if you are seeing me, or more so. This open space created between the viewer and the viewed was charged, that which was to be energized, and through which the viewer had a direct, clear line from themselves, as origin, to picture, as entelechy. It would correspond to what was seen, a priori, i.e., the sitter’s “space.” This is a completed system. It tells us why its form is not classical, while at the same time it achieves, miraculously, a repose, instead of a contrasted, expected dynamic. This is especially true in the portrait he sent Goethe, where there is a modern look, just as there can be a modern sound in Beethoven.

“The Four Times of the Day” are divided first by two (morning and evening) and two (day and night), in that order, and each is divided, as the opposite of each other. He would have been aware of the Rococo cycles of this kind often used as room decoration, but his division is quite original. I have never heard of it before, yet it is so simple, and neat. “Morning” was an absolute burst of energy, enough to take you to the end, it would seem. It’s the one he chose to paint. It was the first, of course, though he planned to paint them all.

His division smacks of the original mindset of the early Romantics in their literary garb, a great “poem,” as in fact he knew. There was the development of the ideas flowing richly right until the end, “Night” with its halo of Cherubim each doing different, bifurcated things, with a star over each head to the top, outer border. Looking at the original drawings, you see this vast vision coming complete to the minutest detail. It was not built up through trial and error, trying this and that (although there is some of this, too). It comes complete with fast drawn lines and slow. On another level it is both complete and incomplete, total and fractured. The world has seen nothing like it before, but it could be misinterpreted as it had been seen, and in that sense, it needed endless care through subsequent illuminations. This is where Runge’s famous color theory comes in. He actually saw the difference between light and color, just as he saw the difference between nature and spirit. This could be said of color in the starlight, but could not be said of art. He succeeded in life, not in art, so we are happy. He has the right to do it. Yet a curious thing happens when you look at the last picture, “The Large Morning.” You think the great painting at the bottom peters out as you look upward from it, but as the top star everything reverses—what had been the great painting becomes the worst, and vice versa!

The theme of unity and division is very important in German art of this period. An important precursor, whom I can’t imagine Runge knew of, was Johann Christian Reinhardt, who was a revered artist working in Rome at the end of the 18th century. He made landscapes in the manner of Claude Lorrain, but with a distinct, inner picture surrounded by a border area. The two are “visible,” subjective/objective, the individual/universal, the future/past, etc. Not noticed in reproduction, I saw the border between the inner oval in “The Lesson of the Nightingale” and the surround is painted, as if it were German, black letters, in relief. This makes me think of the word-painted frames of Jan van Eyck as relevant, another attempt to place consciousness on a new plane by words. In attention to minute detail, Runge and Van Eyck have a lot in common as painters; Van Eyck was known as a color theorist and scientist, as Runge must be.

The Germans seem to go for their Runge. Recently, some good German artists have tried to point to Runge’s importance. The Beuys/Palermo axis, for example. Beuys used a title of a Runge poem, “Ich bin ein Mensch,” as a kind of motto, if I am correct in this?

I am a man Am not unsteady
Or frail
As when men are strong
Or they force you
Or after pride
And offer you too much
[My translation]

The exhibition includes a registry of an important piece Palermo did, recognizing Runge with great poignancy.

Runge was unbelievably pure and not mean-spirited. Goethe, whose opinion and judgment are in a class by themselves, said of Runge, “He is one of those individuals who are seldom born. His superior talent, his true and faithful nature as artist and human being has…aroused my affection.” Magnanimous, but ultimately vain, Runge said about Goethe in a rare complaint, “I could not take anything from him. I have told him many things, he has told me nothing.” This may just be a story about passing the baton. Goethe’s color theories, laughed at for so long, have begun to be taken seriously again.

“Christ Walking on the Water (Calling of Saint Peter),” 1806/07. Oil on canvas, 116 × 157 cm.
Inv. 1007. Photo credit : bpk, Berlin / Hamburger Kunstalle / Elke Walford / Art Resource, NY.

In work after work you see Runge pouring out his good nature fearlessly, generously and freely, telling all. Even in his student work, we see him true to himself. In a project where students were expected to draw from a print copied from Guido Reni’s “Ascention,” Runge bypassed the first copies, could see what Reni had in mind, and triumphed as his own man, to boot—all without cheap pride or even being conscious of such an achievement, other than the one inside his own work experience. It is a joy to see a rare individual perform so openly for you, and not have to be embarrassed by the self-consciousness of the artist. The strength he needed to create a new art in face of the reigning aesthetic, political (Napoleon) and economic (recession) challenges is amazing. He could win people with his non-egoist love of humanity, but he had a super strong artist-ego all the same. One of the great compositions (unfortunately destroyed by fire), “We Three” (in sketch form in the exhibition), has Daniel and his beloved wife, Pauline, in trio. The longer you look at the picture, the more you understand that he sees himself as alone, and builds a healthy ego about this, and for you, the viewer, too.

The kinds of subjects you find in Runge are not unlike the peculiar twist the early Romantics placed on their subject matter. We have already met the lesson given to the nightingale. Another subject for Runge is the saving of Peter by Christ, when he failed to have the faith to walk on water as Christ was doing. It’s a great literary trope and Runge exercised it, turning it into something very sexy and the nature of faith. I think he identified with John the Baptist (even though he died at 33, like Christ) who, with his hands crossed in faith, has a prominent place in the boat that Peter has just left. The composition, I must say, is as crammed and unlikely as Duccio’s, but far less attractive. Pauline, a surprising member of the crew, is reaching out of the boat in shock, moonlight striking her hand, which is the only thing dead center in the picture. That brings you back to the right where the full moon is as if suspended by three putti encircled in their own moonlight. This wonderful detail did not make it to the final cut, which seems to fall more on the nature side of things, as does the moonlight on the water, falling on the right side. I thought Turner was the first and only artist to get away with that. Such is the fine art of making pictures, really!

I have been searching for the drawing tool Runge used to make his thick and thin line. When I look at the labels, I see “feder” and translate this as “pen.” It has just occurred to me this should be translated “feather”—that he drew with a quill pen, just as he wrote with one, for the steel nib had not yet been invented. The bird-feather quill would give the beautifully cursive sensuality he wanted and mastered. Think Persian Safavid drawings. When he wanted the thinnest possible line, he had it. Thick lines could be doubled if too thick for the nib, but he took the nib into painting with ink. Where a drawn line becomes a painted line is a moment under employ, and Runge brought it to serve his purpose in a new, reality based art. It was fundamental, but potential—what remained was to see how far it would go.

“The Day,” 1802-1803. Pen in gray and black ink over traces of pencil, 95.1 × 63.1 cm. Inv. 34175.
Photo credit : bpk, Berlin / Hamburger Kunstalle / Elke Walford / Art Resource, NY.

He liked to think of himself as a thinking artist, the wall text reads, saying this is why he never holds artist tools in his self-portraits. Typically negative and belittling, this rationalist statement fails to appreciate the breadth the new artist was supposed to have, the link with all other engagements and the aspirations of a total art. Runge is a pre-eminent example of the artist who is all there. He doesn’t make negative choices, only positive. He attracts the negative, as his reception still bears out, but few there are who can make pictures like him. I find, if you keep faith with him, you are invariably in for a reward. He was capable of giving you less sometimes, but he always turned the most grunt work into something big for his overall project. Perhaps he felt he didn’t have much time, had so much to do. In some sense, death is a central, driving force, more than Calvinism. It was like nature, itself, yet it was through nature that spirit was born. They could even be the same, or change from one to the other—this was a favorite link to the fairytale, or was the fairytale. In the end, nature and spirit would find their place. It was his art to show this, however challenging. And challenging it was, though his reward couldn’t have been sweeter, as nature turned into pure spirit and life-everlasting, just as the Christians predicted. The baby lying upward turned into light at last, the light which is between color and light.

This is surprisingly not mystical (or metaphysical), just matter. It is that matter which makes for a modern art, “a new art,” as Runge would say. It leads to abstract expressionist space, which Runge needed to (but never did) know could be divided, leaving it to others to find out, drawing the ultimate conclusions about space, about light, leaving the subject of color open.

In the attention to plant and flower studies, which come between naturalism and geometric construction, I am reminded of Christopher Dresser and William Morris. Of course, Runge may have got started with the exaggerated leaves he knew in the works of Kolbe. It would be interesting to dissect what was Runge’s giant step over this otherwise admirable artist, Kolbe. They certainly help each other if one considers each artist’s work as interior landscape. Love was the juice which brought out the best work, just as Kierkegaard, or you could say, frustrated love. Runge eventually won his love. His art grew and out-paced one love with another. Some people are shocked that Runge’s last child was born the day after he died. All his children were quite young at the time. His art shows he was really into babies, one of the few northern artists to use putti so much, as if he knew nothing was as nice to touch as a baby’s flesh. Drawing babies and looking at those drawings was something like touching them.

Getting over the fear of being disappointed, I went to the museum early today to see the work quietly. What I saw in the quiet moments, I can surely tell you. There are early plant drawings made when Runge was 17, very much like Albrecht Durer’s drawings, though Durer was out of favor at this time, and Runge couldn’t have known in the remoteness of his hometown, Wolgast that he was about to be rediscovered. There can already be seen in these youthful drawings a preference for hatching down toward the center from the upper right, like soul being brought in and materializing. This happens in the great self-portrait from 1801/02, just enough profile and frontal, in the cheek under his left eye where a strong shadow crosses at right angles. This creates a chaos that is just as difficult to look at as it is to see. It is like breaking the atom, for after the making of this, color will forever be seen separate from light—Romantically! This is how he knew color was about the sphere, its edges darkening, even as they took one further. This was truly the beginning of a new world, can be seen historically or eternally, as such always can. It was important for art, because art is about beginnings, and this was a big one!

Goethe said he had no grace. This shows you what contemporaries can and can’t see, for now we know, no one has shown grace through painting as Runge has.

The incomprehensible is how his art shows his genius to us. When we accept his showing, we experience his genius, which can often be too much, for it is an irrational genius. So we reject it and his art, even thinking we do a service by making it comprehensible. So lies the compact with the rational, so damaging to art, but it is why some of us love him.

In order to paint “The Times of the Day,” which is to say, color it, he needed a studio-ready color practice, had to find it, though he had the most vast notion of color, one which had to equal the incomprehensible infinitude set out in “The Times of the Day.” His work was laid out for him. He was an advocate for a bigger, stronger art than had yet been seen, not a return to the great art of the past. His influence had a trickle down effect on Caspar David Friedrich and the Hudson River School luminists, but none of them made a bigger art out of it until Rothko, who didn’t know the color. Johannes Itten and Josef Albers at the Bauhaus actually went forward with the color, made a point of it.

Of note is the explosion of commercial color-making in Germany in the first half of the 19th century, leading to aniline dyes and our printer’s inks. This makes Runge a kind of Benjamin Franklin, inventor of genius.

So often I have felt untrue, for I didn’t know the base from which my utterances took place. Though I looked for it to ease my mind and feel better, it wasn’t until I realized how much of what I say comes from Runge that I feel relief and can go on my way, one from which one goes having learned all.

Richard Tuttle, Hamburg, Feb. 28, 2011



I want to thank Phong Bui and the Brooklyn Rail for sending me to Hamburg and publishing this journal.



The Hamburger Kunsthalle presented Runge’s Cosmos: The Morning of the Romantic Era, the first major Philipp Otto Runge retrospective in over 30 years from December 3, 2010 – March 13, 2011). The exhibition will next be shown at the Kunsthalle der HypoKulturstiftung in Munich (May 13 – September 4, 2011).

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Richard Tuttle

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