43 The Langbehn virus

In 1890 the fanatical cultural pessimist Julius Langbehn succeeded in convincing the German people that Rembrandt was not only one of them, but the best German of all. Rembrandt’s individuality and spirituality deserved to be taken as a model for a nation diseased by the degeneracy of Jews, journalists and academics. Art historians thought this was perfectly fine.

On November 22, 1889, the director of the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum in Berlin,
Wilhelm von Bode, received the printed sheets of a new book by an ambitious
young author, Julius Langbehn. The covering letter contained the following
stipulation. "It is an unconditional necessity and a matter of personal
conscience that in using these sheets three categories must be totally
excluded. Neither a Jew nor a professor nor a newspaper or magazine may
receive them."

Although the book was entitled Rembrandt als Erzieher (Rembrandt as
Educator, signed: von einem Deutschen [by a German]) it was not about
Rembrandt and only incidentally about art. It was a manifesto for purging
German culture of Jews, who had corrupted it; academics, who had
intellectualized it; and journalists, who had cheapened it. The Germans had
to find their way back to their deep, inner destiny. And Rembrandt? "If the
Germans are the quintessentially individualistic people, in art they have no
choice but to take their spiritual lead from their most individual
artist…. Of all German artists the most individual one is: Rembrandt."
Bode, the foremost Rembrandt expert in Germany, liked what he read. Braving
the mild mockery of his Dutch colleague Abraham Bredius for backing a book
that calls Rembrandt a German, Bode had already offered to published
Langbehn’s manuscript if no one else would. When it appeared he reviewed it
favorably (so did Bredius) and mobilized political and public support for
its author. But Langbehn was relentless in his demands, and in November 1890
Bode dropped him. By then Langbehn did not need him anymore. As "Der
Rembrandtdeutsche," he was already immortal. Rembrandt als Erzieher was on
its way to becoming a canonical text in Nazi cultural politics. In 1941, a
certain Peter Sachse wrote: "The tremendous mission which Germany has taken
upon itself under Adolf Hitler, to place Europe and thereby the world under
the custody of an ordering principle – is forecast by [Rembrandt als
Erzieher], … the inspiring and rousing power of which stands by us in the
struggles of our time."

This episode has bothered me since I first learned of it. (Little wonder:
the letter to Bode alone contains three good reasons.) Because it was
ignored in the Rembrandt literature and in classes on Dutch art, my
acquaintance with Langbehn did not begin at university. I discovered
Rembrandt als Erzieher in the second-hand bookshops of Utrecht, which I
visited almost daily in the 1960s. The title went through ninety printings,
so there were always one or two copies in the Rembrandt section. It took a
while before I realized what it was about. Once I did, I kept finding later,
upsetting traces of Langbehnism in mainstream art-historical writings on
Rembrandt. After Rembrandt als Erzieher art historians wrote differently
about Rembrandt’s individualism and spirituality than they did before.

You did not have to be a German to enjoy a taste of Langbehnism. In 1930,
Bode’s protégé Wilhelm Valentiner opened the first Rembrandt exhibition
in America with the words: "Thirty years ago there appeared in Germany a book
with the title Rembrandt als Erzieher (Rembrandt as Educator) which – in 
fantastic form to be sure – sought to analyze the influence of the spirit of
Rembrandt, demanding that it be practised in all fields of life, from
politics to religion, from economics to the school: the education of mankind
in humanity which the spirit of Rembrandt preaches. This doctrine should be
particularly intelligible in our day." Incredible as it still seems to me,
Valentiner repeated the above words literally in a Rembrandt exhibition in
Los Angeles in 1946, after the war. Langbehn’s adulation of culture, for
those who shared that disposition, was enough to counterbalance or excuse
the virulence of his philosophy. (I am being kind: to most of the readers of
those ninety printings Rembrandt als Erzieher was right on the Reichsmark.)

The legacy of the Rembrandt German keeps finding new ways to upset me. I
was disturbed when he was smuggled into the literature surreptitiously, and
I’m disturbed now by the way he is being discussed purely as an issue in
cultural history. This past week, reading Manfred Ohlsen’s biography Wilhelm
von Bode: zwischen Kaisermacht und Kunsttempel
(1995), I found Ohlsen
writing with empathy about the appeal of Rembrandt als Erzieher and its call
for cultural rearmament. He varnishes over the extremism of the book,
calling it a "packaging … in the heroization of ‘Nordic man,’ Germanomania
and anti-democratic polemics." Although he quotes the letter cited above,
Ohlsen does not remark on the anti-Semitism of Rembrandt als Erzieher.
Neither does Jeroen Boomgaard, in his fascinating pages on Langbehn in De
verloren zoon: Rembrandt en de Nederlandse kunstgeschiedschrijving
I’m sure neither of them subscribes to Langbehn’s ideas. But their attempts
to deal with him show that once a virus like Rembrandt als Erzieher has
entered the cultural bloodstream there is no way to get it out again. To be
continued, alas, at a later date.


© 1998 Gary Schwartz. Published in Dutch in Het Financieele Dagblad, 10&12 January 1998. Posted on the Schwartzlist on 10 February 2014.

It looks like after seven years as a free-lance art historian I am going
legitimate again. Yesterday I began (on a three-month contract, in
anticipation of a three-year extension) a new job. It is new not only for
me, but also in itself. Even the institution behind it is new. Actually, I
thought up the whole package and then advanced it as a proposal to the
Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage, which is backing it and has
applied for government funding (for three years) to set it up, under their

The basic idea is to unite in a Netherlands-based organization the
many curators of collections of Dutch art throughout the world. Nearly every
art-collecting culture has significant holdings in Dutch art, mainly
paintings and prints from the seventeenth century. The art historians
responsible for these collections have much in common. They know each other
and cooperate with each other, but until now they have not been joined in
any kind of formal group. The creation of such a body will, we hope, further
the presentation and study of Dutch art all over the world. It should also
be a stimulus for more museum people to specialize in Dutch art. The
organization is called CODART: Curators of Dutch Art. If all goes well,
you’ll be hearing more about it in the future.

It stands to reason that this four-day-a-week job will cut into my
literary and scholarly productivity. In 1997 I published forty articles
(including the column) and one book and gave five new lectures. But then
again, I’m not always as reasonable as I should be. Stay tuned.


[10 February 2014: Next month CODART – since 1999 more properly redubbed Curators of Dutch and Flemish Art – will be holding its seventeenth annual congress. The number of members, which started off in the 60s, is now into the 600s. I retired as director in 2005 and as webmaster in 2008. My successor as director is Gerdien Verschoor (for nine years) and as webmaster Tom van der Molen (six years).  The plan worked!]


Responses are always welcome and personally acknowledged. So are donations.