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Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Blurring the lines: The invention of abstract in German literature since 1800
by Meyertholen, Andrea Noel, Ph.D., Indiana University, 2014, 285; 3620621
Abstract (Summary)

In December 1911, the public exhibition of Kandinsky's Komposition V shattered the world of Western illusionism as audiences knew and understood it - or so the traditional tale goes. Yet the relative abruptness with which abstraction supposedly shocks the art world not only presents a misleading impression; it in effect creates a great riddle. If the Western art world spent centuries organized under a unifying goal of perfecting imitation, why would it now so suddenly turn its back on its institutional underpinnings by challenging, negating, or exploding the principles it had worked so hard to develop? This project responds by rejecting the presuppositions of the riddle and arguing against the traditional narrative, claiming instead that the invention of abstract art in the 1910s was neither abrupt nor unprecedented, but was already being described, theorized, or created in the 19th century, only in literature rather than painting. Through close reading and literary analysis, I present three moments in the German literary canon in which abstract art is imagined or becomes theoretically possible: Heinrich von Kleist's Empfindungen vor Friedrichs Seelandschaft (1810), Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's poem "Howards Ehrenged√§chtnis" (1821), and Gottfried Keller's Der gr√ľne Heinrich (1855, 1879). Composing these moments are three different authors who write at three different decades, speak through three different genres, and conceive three different modes of abstraction, none of which contemporaneously achieved painted form. Connecting these moments is the following argument: each constitutes an example of the invention of abstract art in a 19th-century literary text prior to the visual actualization of abstract art in the early 20th century. With such images in circulation well before 1911, this study features the crucial role of literature in foregrounding the cultural developments essential for abstract artworks to "speak for themselves" in the medium of painting by establishing certain preconditions involving need, spectatorship, and the self-awareness of the artist. Thus by conceptualizing abstract images in their writing, these three 19th-century German authors also produce necessary components of the theoretical grounding required for the 20th-century birth of abstract art.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Breithaupt, Fritz
Commitee: Facos, Michelle, Rasch, William, Weiner, Marc
School: Indiana University
Department: Germanic Studies
School Location: United States -- Indiana
Source: DAI-A 75/08(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Comparative literature, German literature, Art history
Keywords: Abstraction, Clouds, Goethe, Kandinsky, Keller, Kleist
Publication Number: 3620621
ISBN: 978-1-303-91169-9
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