“Only art and science can raise men to the level of gods,” wrote Ludwig van Beethoven, in a typically grand pronouncement. For music lovers of the late 19thcentury there was no greater Divinity than Beethoven himself. Wagner may have had a cult following, but Beethoven (1770-1827) was the centre of a full-blown religion.
One true believer was Max Klinger (1857-1920) who became a disciple during his student days in Paris. In 1883 Klinger began work on a sculpture of Beethoven that would continue for 17 years. To portray his personal idol he sought inspiration in the art of the ancient Greeks. Because Greek sculpture was polychromed Klinger decided he would make hs portrait from bronze, ivory, alabaster and different coloured marbles. He travelled around Europe sourcing these materials. He made plaster models and took measurements from Beethoven’s death mask.
Today Klinger’s Beethoven Monument is the first thing concertgoers see upon entering the Gewandhaus in Leipzig. It’s a startling discovery but viewers are just as divided on the work’s merits as they were when it appeared in 1902, showcased in a special Beethoven exhibition at the Vienna Seccession.
Klinger’s vision of a bare-chested Beethoven, his hands clenched into fists, his lower half draped in a toga, drew the full spectrum of responses, from awe-struck admiration to satire. “The Beethoven is Max Klinger’s Ninth Symphony,” rhapsodised one critic. Another thought it the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
The artist’s detractors wondered why Klinger had chosen to portray his hero fresh from the bathtub. Beethoven’s stubborn expression and tense pose were attributed to constipation. Perhaps the most damaging response was that of Rodin, who barely looked at the sculpture as he walked past, later declaring it had nothing to do with art.
There are few works that better dramatise the fine line that separates grandeur from kitsch. In setting out to make a supremely flattering tribute to a culture hero it could be argued that Klinger only managed to create an overblown fan letter to his favourite composer. We think of kitsch as something cheap and sentimental, but it can also be skilful, expensive and idealistic. Its main distinction is obviousness. To look at this sculpture is to see Beethoven as a god-like genius. As this was already the standard view, the artist was not anticipating any original interpretations.
For Klinger, Beethoven was so important it was only appropriate he should sit on a throne, like Zeus. This may have worked well enough when Neo-classicism was all the rage in the early years of the 19th century but by the fin-de-sièclé, tastes had changed.
In a world in which the Greek and Roman classics formed the basis of a common culture there was plenty of scope for portraying the culture hero as an enthroned deity. it was a conventional form of flattery in an idiom that was understood and accepted. When he wasn’t carving mythological figures the Danish Neo-classical sculptor, Bertel Thorwaldsen, made portrait busts of men and women with hairdos, robes and accessories that mimicked the classical age.
Commissioned to make a marble statue of George Washington, the American sculptor, Horace Greenough would borrow a pose from Phidias’s Zeus Olympios, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. In the Enthroned Washington(1840), the first American President, in his powdered wig, is bare-chested, robed and sandalled, one hand pointing to the heavens, the other holding a sheathed sword. Some thought it was indecent to show Washington without his shirt, others felt the absurdity of portraying a hero of the Republic as a Greek God.
Phidias’s statue of Zeus had also provided the model for Ingres’s portrait, Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne (1806), which showed the newly proclaimed Emperor in his coronation robes. The archaic style of the painting was much criticised, although today viewers might be more disturbed by Ingres’s specious flattery. There are numerous portraits of Napoleon but none in which he looks so stiff and otherworldly – as rigid as a Byzantine icon, as pale as a marble statue.
If Ingres’s work was viewed unfavourably in 1806 it shows what risks Klinger would be taking with his Beethoven monument a century later. Even by Ingres’s day, in a world upended by Enlightenment thinking and the French Revolution, viewers were becoming sceptical of sculptures and paintings that transformed men into gods. Napoleon may have declared himself Emperor in 1804 but he had made his reputation as an enlightened despot whose conquests ushered in sweeping political reforms.
The dictators of the 20th century took an intense interest in having themselves portrayed as strong but benevolent. A relentless stream of propaganda ensured that Hitler, Stalin and Mao were viewed as supermen who ruled with strictness and wisdom for the good of all. No criticism of the great leader was permitted. With art, literature, music and cinema tightly controlled, the most eye-catching works were those in which an artist went to outrageous lengths to flatter the tyrant.
One thinks immediately of Hubert Lanzinger’s The Standard Bearer (1933), which portrays Hitler as a knight in shining armour. It may have fed, symbolically, into the Third Reich’s Wagnerian fascination with the Middle Ages, but its fairy-tale portrayal of the Führer comes across as abominable kitsch.
A more insidious image is Vassily Yefanov’s Stalin and Molotov with Children (1947), in which we see two kind old gentlemen strolling through a field with three small children. A smiling Molotov, in his shirt sleeves, holds a rosy-cheeked infant on his arm. Stalin, in his familiar grey uniform, puts his hand on the shoulder of a little girl carrying a butterfy net. Two genial uncles are taking the kids for a walk on a summer’s day. One wonders what was passing through Yefanov’s mind as he painted this picture.
If there are fewer examples today of flattery leading to high kitsch, it’s because kitsch has become legitimised by contemporary art’s insatiable taste for irony. An artist such as Jeff Koons creates enormous kitsch artefacts that are acquired by museums and leading collectors for multi-million-dollar sums. A whole legion of kitsch wannabees follows in his wake.
When young American artist, Hannah Kunkle, portrays Kim Karasdian as the Virgin Mary, it’s not intended as flattery of a culture hero but a calculated provocation, certain to attract publicity. When Jon McNaughton churns out another heroic portrait of Donald Trump riding a Harley Davidson, driving a monster truck or straddling a bucking bronco, it’s pretty clear his tongue is in his cheek, although the people who purchase these images may be deadly serious in their worship of the former President.
It’s hard to know what extraordinary things Kim Kardashian or Donald Trump have done to establish themselves as culture heroes. They are creations of mass media, and latterly social media, whose major achievement is image saturation. Their success is proof that today you don’t have to be Beethoven to achieve Divinity. In a world in which value is measured by clicks on a keyboard, pure kitsch can be pure gold.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 11 September, 2021