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CONF: “The Peasant and Modernism. Construction and Critic of Demotic (‘volkstuemlich’) Visual Imagery and the Popular Mass Art of the Gruenderzeit”

Conference of the Tirolean State Museum Ferdinandeum Innsbruck in cooperation with the professorship for Art History of the University of Siegen
Organized by Peter Scholz, Joseph Imorde und Andreas Zeising

Around 1900, Franz von Defregger (1835–1921) was among the most successful and popular artists of his time. The once-celebrated star of the “Munich School” of history and genre painting is hardly discussed in today’s art historiography, however, and is largely passed over by the exhibition business. Even though Defregger still contributes to Tyrolean identity, his work is largely unknown internationally.

At the latest after 1945, folk imagery (“Volkstümlichkeit”), narrative pleasure, and humor, all of which had been praised in the works of Defregger and his circle, seemed to be elements that were distant from art in a historiography of modernism that was primarily interested in formal problems and focused on the innovations of the avant-garde. The high-quality painting technique was dismissed as “academic,” the rustic themes were discounted as provincial. However, from today’s perspective the derision of traditional motifs seems paradoxical because other painters such as Leibl, Trübner, or Liebermann, who were celebrated as “pioneers of modernism,” worked intensively with rural subjects, albeit in a different style.

In addition, in 1900 the Gründerzeit paintings began to be subsumed into the complex of “Heimatkunst”, which fell increasingly under the influence of German-nationalist and reactionary powers during Wilhelminism, and this subsumption had disastrous repercussions. After all, for the national-socialist ideologists, Defregger’s and others’ works were compatible with their own artistic ideas, as the often patriotic and obliging subjects of the history, genre, and landscape paintings were well-suited to the ideal of the neo-academic blood and soil romanticism propagated by Nazi art policies. The effects of this appropriation, which could still be seen in the “Heimatfilm” motifs of the 1950s, resulted in an almost complete rejection of the middle-class conservative Gründerzeit art in academic art history that has lasted until the present day (while the works admittedly enjoy great popularity on the art market).

For too long, the canonization processes of the 20th century obscured how closely Gründerzeit painters were included in very modern processes of commercialization. Defregger, for example, worked intensively with the art publishing company Franz Hanfstaengl and marketed his works not only in the form of lithographs, illustrated books, and postcards but also released his motifs for commodities such as mugs or decorative plates. For today’s art historiography, which is increasingly interested in phenomena related to popularization and has thereby put aside the bourgeois-idealistic differentiation between high and low art, Gründerzeit paintings are becoming an important research subject in part because they provide a broad base for the contextualization of the mechanisms of picture marketing and picture consumption.

The objective of the conference is to look at Gründerzeit paintings from a new perspective using the example of Franz von Defregger and other painters from the “Munich School” and beyond. It aims to bring aspects of their medial distribution and commercial success into focus, to think in complex ways about the aesthetic, ideological, and medial boundaries of categories such as “Volkstümlichkeit”, and to identify these boundaries within an emerging mass culture.

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