»Look, there goes Herr Biedermeier and his wife, his son in arm; his step is cautious, as if on eggs, his motto: neither cold nor warm.« (From the poem »Herr Biedermeier« by Ludwig Pfau, 1847)
Biedermeier (Germany, early nineteenth century) is on its way to no longer being considered a stuffy product conforming to middle-class taste; instead, it is being rediscovered as a highly cultivated art movement.
In the German-speaking world, the word Biedermeier usually refers to everything that is middle-class, drab. Even though Biedermeier furniture and glass have long been desirable collector´s items, this derogatory value judgment has contributed to the fact that artists of this epoch are often regarded as minor, inferior, and uninteresting in general. The injustice of this treatment, however, has only recently been recognized, thanks to new knowledge brought to light by the growing interest of art historians.
The meaning of the term is rooted in a parody of the complacent middle-class by Adolf Kussmaul and Ludwig Eichrodt, who, between 1855 and 1857 in the satirical Munich weekly Fliegende Blätter, published fake, goody-goody poems by Swabian schoolteacher Gottlieb Biedermaier and his friend Horatius Treuherz. Biedermeier quickly became synonymous for everything that was bland and conservative, especially in reference to lifestyle and painting. Only gradually did it come to describe an apolitical span of time following the Vienna Congress.
A clear definition or critical analysis of the epoch has essentially not been accomplished to this day. Whereas art historians believe that the period began concurrently with the Vienna Congress and Europe´s liberation from Napoleon, there is less agreement about its end: depending on the point of view, it coincided with the riots that followed the July 1830 revolution, the death of Austrian Emperor Franz I in 1835, or the outbreak of the 1848 revolution. At any rate, the reference is to a peaceful time, in which Hegel developed his philosophy, Alexander von Humboldt undertook his journeys of discovery, an aging Goethe still lived, Grillparzer wrote his dramas, and Schubert and Beethoven composed their music.
The epoch was dominated by a pluralism of contemporaneous styles and their mixture: besides the Biedermeier period, the Romantic era, late Neoclassicism, Realism, the neo-Gothic, neo-Renaissance, and neo-Baroque also have their continually contesting supporters. »Our major cities bloom in all possible styles, so that we ourselves, in pleasant disappointment, forget which century we are part of« were the words of a contemporary description of this cornucopia of styles.
Cultural centers were in Austria, Switzerland, and Germany, as well as Scandinavia, but most especially in Vienna, Hamburg, Berlin, and Copenhagen. A lively exchange among the metropolises of central and northern Europe predominated.
Although the Biedermeier era is associated with the rise of the middle class, its art was not purely middle-class art for middle-class clients. The courts and the nobility commissioned the best and simplest pieces of furniture. Characteristic of the style are practical design; clean, abstract forms; luminous, often matching yet contrasting colors; and a lack of surface decoration.
After more than fifteen years of war, necessity at first caused furniture makers to develop an austere aesthetic, which can be seen, for instance, in the fact that mostly native wood was used. The »English style« pointed the way; it was distinguished by its simple elegance, practicality, and good craftsmanship. Furniture should not fulfill a representative function, but instead, spread comfort. The »impoverished style,« however, soon became the ideal of modesty and pragmatism, which was also associated with both aesthetic and moral virtues and can be regarded as a rejection of eighteenth-century luxury. Everything centered on the beauty of the material. This applied not only to furniture, but also to forms and designs for glass, silver, metal, porcelain, and ceramics.
Biedermeier culture is a culture of memory. It was usual practice to decorate tables, shelves, and etageres with many small objects and souvenirs, often ornamented with motifs taken from landscapes and architecture, or with images of flowers and animals. Birds, plants, and other natural objects also moved indoors. Walls were hung with many artworks, and small decorative pieces and plants stood everywhere, so that homes looked as if they were practically overloaded. Especially treasured were albums and books containing family trees, in which letters, poems, and watercolors were collected.
The Biedermeier period is permeated by the longing for an idealized past. Its characteristics—the emphasis on individuality, practicality, the home and family environment—were used in the private rooms of a castle just as they were in the homes of the grand bourgeoisie or the small rooms of a cultivated individual.
In painting, the familiar was depicted: the immediate surroundings of city and country, as well as the environment of the home. Genre and landscape paintings dominated, along with the portrait. Watercolor technique also achieved a very high level of quality; lithographs were increasingly used to illustrate books. Motifs were always reproduced as realistically and objectively as possible.
During the age of the Enlightenment, research into nature and its laws was of great significance, and so the visual artist therefore became indispensable to the process of comprehension and classification. Special value was placed on the idealization of nature as a creation of God.
Over the past twenty years, there has been a new interest in the art and times of the Biedermeier, which has in turn led to a re-evaluation of the epoch. Biedermeier is on its way to being rediscovered, no longer regarded as the musty product of middle-class taste, but as a highly cultivated style of art. Possibly, this is an expression of the zeitgeist in which, once again, terms such as reason, pragmatism, and realism are being discussed in a positive light. Middle-class values and virtues are popular. And doesn´t the fashionable term cocooning describe a general trend in the direction of privacy? Perhaps we are closer to the Biedermeier epoch than all of the old prejudices might lead us to suppose.
18.12.2006 Monika Wolz