The painter Adolph Menzel (1815-1905) is not well-known, even in his native Germany. He was tiny and ugly and never married; he wrote in his will that “there is a lack of any kind of self-made bond between me and the outside world.” Perhaps this lack of bond is what made it possible for him to devote himself so totally to the task of making pictures.
Menzel drew constantly. He drew everything. He drew with his left hand and with his right. He drew on napkins and on the backs of menus. No social event was so formal, or so intimate, it seems, as to quiet his active hands.
I heard a great writer say recently that her inspiration comes from an impulse to record, document, fix the moment, to hold on to time, to put things in words.
Menzel must have shared this impulse. But there was more to Menzel’s mania.
Plato thought of the painter as merely recording an image that was delivered to the senses; it’s easy to make a picture of anything, he wrote; you simply hold a mirror up to it.
Anyone who has tried to draw knows that Plato got this wrong. It isn’t easy to make pictures. It is painstaking. It requires physical effort and thought.
Plato’s mistake went deeper. The human action of seeing is, for Plato, also akin to holding up a mirror to the world. What we see are nothing but images.
Enter Menzel, whose work embodies a commitment to the refutation of this Platonic idea.
Sure, we look about and we name what we see. But really seeing, really noticing, discerning, finding, discriminating? This is not easy and maybe not even possible.
The world is not a given. We need to work for it, as we need to work to build a painting or reason out a drawing. First you look here. Then you look there. The visible world outstrips what can be taken in at a glance. Seeing is active, and thoughtful. It requires a philosophical eye.
And the sketches of this compulsive and unstoppable artist, no less than his oil paintings and his gouaches, are not so much documentations of what there is, as they are investigations of the way we manufacture our own experience.
Go to the Old National Gallery in Berlin and visit with one of Menzel’s smaller paintings of the 1840s such as The Balcony Room. Ask yourself this question, what do I see? Give yourself the time to realize how very difficult it is to say.
In my case, Menzel taught me that art can be a way of doing philosophy.
The quote from Menzel’s will is taken from Michael Fried’s beautiful book Menzel’s Realism: Art and Embodiment in Nineteenth-Century Berlin (Yale University Press, 2002). My whole approach to Menzel is indebted to Fried.