Around 1800. Exhibiting Art as Research

»Art around 1800« was the programmatic title of a series of nine exhibitions staged between 1974 and 1981 at the Hamburger Kunsthalle under the wing of its director at the time, Werner Hofmann. This undertaking, which set out to visualise and write a different history of European art in conjunction with industrial, social and scientific revolutions, was a research project, an experimental approach to exhibitions, a celebration of the fine arts and a political statement. For decades this cycle exerted a paradigmatic influence on debates about academic work in art museums and about the practice of exhibition-making before the term ‘curating’ existed. This museological and scholarly process in nine episodes has so far been absent from the many current studies and projects devoted to the history of exhibiting art. In the Anglo-Saxon world, »Art around 1800« is largely unknown. The rise of Curatorial Studies places the cycle squarely on the research agenda. Our collaborative venture aims to examine this multi-part project in detail and to analyse the exhibition medium from the perspective of the university, the art academy and the museum.

The research examines constructions of a »modern Europe« and »modernity« in the context of the 1970s. Narrative(s) in exhibition form will be critically interrogated and gauged from a global perspective to ascertain how relevant they still are. What policies are emerging? What alternatives have evolved within feminist or postcolonial research? By drawing on the abundant archive material, we will be asking to what extent the shows put together by the team at the Hamburger Kunsthalle with their apparently monographic titles (Ossian; Caspar David Friedrich; Johann Heinrich Füssli; William Blake; Johan Tobias Sergel; William Turner; Philipp Otto Runge; John Flaxmann; Francisco Goya) were in reality thematic exhibitions. How exactly was »Art around 1800« conceived? How were the spaces designed? How were the works selected? And what was the response at the time? What economic factors framed these displays? How did the cycle differ from other museum exhibitions of the period? What interdependence was there with exercises in cultural history? It can safely be claimed that, apart from presenting and analysing key works, »Art around 1800« attempted to write an alternative history of art and in so doing to take issue with images of history and models of society: the objective was to offer a historical and systematic overview of aesthetic, political and technical changes occurring around 1800 and their impact on the arts of the protracted nineteenth century – a period known as the age of revolutions. At the same time, the cycle provided answers to ideas advocated by Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno at the time about a Dialectic of Enlightenment and especially the complex intertwining of emancipatory movements and self-destruction. The series thus opens up – like a kind of re-education – to a broader context, with implications for processes like confronting German fascism and establishing a strident democracy. Embedded within this curatorial methodology, with its references to the Hamburg and Vienna schools of art history, were visual forms of the protests and rebellion of 1968. But how did the project relate to incipient poststructuralist discourse and its theoreticians as these began to be read more widely in German-speaking countries? While this concept of »modern Europe« and »modernity« comes across increasingly as the antiquity of globalisation, we have not yet adequately understood the history of its images, things and processes. Hamburg’s nine-part exhibition attempted just this in exemplary form in the 1970s and placed the power of artworks centre-stage. We ask what toolbox came out of the practical scholarship of »Art around 1800« and in what ways the cycle is relevant today.


Supported by:
Liebelt Stiftung Hamburg

In Cooperation with:
Universität Hamburg

Exhibitions in the cycle Art around 1800,
Hamburger Kunsthalle

Ossian and Art around 1800                                          09 May 1974 – 23 June 1974
Caspar David Friedrich                                                     14 Sept 1974 – 03 Nov 1974
Johann Heinrich Füssli                                                     04 Dec 1974 – 19 Jan 1975
William Blake. Around 1800                                          06 March 1975 – 27 April 1975
Johan Tobias Sergel                                                          22 May 1975 – 21 Nov 1975
William Turner and the Landscape of his Time      19 May 1976 – 18 July 1976
Runge in his Day                                                                  21 Oct 1977 – 08 Jan 1978
John Flaxmann. Mythology and Industry                 20 April 1979 – 30 June 1979
Goya. The Age of Revolutions                                       17 Oct 1980 – 04 Jan 1981