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Art History

A view turned towards the ceiling

München, 04/28/2016

Page 2: Optical tricks for the pleasure of the beholder
In cooperation with the Deutsches Dokumentationszentrum für Kunstgeschichte – Bildarchiv Foto Marburg (Photographic Archive for Art and Architecture) at Marburg University, the Baroque ceiling paintings in Germany will be systematically photographed and digitalized. The projects aims at finding methods to recreate the works as executed on the surface of domes and vaults or on other non-planar structures in 3-D. “In this way we hope to explain how artists dealt with the challenges posed by these inherently three-dimensional structures,” says Engel. “The solutions the painters adopted were often very clever. Carefully calculated distortions of perspective and other tricks were used to persuade viewers below, that what was painted on the ceiling was real. But with every change of standpoint, the optical illusion disintegrates. The spectator realizes that he has been deceived, and this play with different kinds of reality is part of the game. Italian theorists at the time used the term ‘inganno degli occhi’ (‘fooling the eyes’) for this particular skill”. The Venetian painter Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, for example, in his huge fresco above the great staircase in the episcopal palace in Würzburg – one of the largest works of its kind in Southern Germany – added three-dimensional stuccowork to some of his painted figures, so that limbs actually extend into the space beyond the frame, making the protagonists look alive.

Spectators become more sceptical
With the rise of the Enlightenment, themes and forms of mural painting began to change. Prior to this, few people had objected to the sight of a naval battle painted on a ceiling. But the more sober arbiters of the new age regarded this kind of illusionism and its theatrical fictions with distaste. “The mid-18th century was a transitional period, when mural painting began to reflect the changes in perception that had emerged in philosophy long before. Suddenly the critics were decrying the depiction of objects like ships on ceilings as unrealistic and absurd,” says Engel. So the artists began to handle their themes in a different manner. The heavens were no longer portrayed as the abode of kings and courtiers, but were copied from nature: blue skies harbouring bright white clouds towering over the landscapes and vignettes of human life on the margins of the compositions.

Lost forever
The digital documentation of Baroque mural paintings will enable their publication on the internet, thus making these artworks accessible to a wider public. Three-dimensional representations are also planned which make it possible to experience how the paintings appear in their original settings. In this way, the research project aims to support the efforts to conserve as much as possible of a unique cultural heritage. “Many of these ceiling paintings are in a fairly perilous state, as the medium itself is very vulnerable to decay,” says Engel. In fact, works painted on vaulted ceilings – at least north of the Alps – were not always executed as veritable frescoes and are not firmly bonded with the underlying masonry. The supports often consist of simple wooden frameworks decked with reeds, which were then plastered before the paint was applied. Such works are degraded by climatic factors and by sonic booms, which are a common occurrence in the Alpine foreland as military jets pass overhead. Only last month a 2-m2 fragment of a fresco depicting the Battle of Lepanto fell from the ceiling of St. Ulrich’s Church in Seeg (Ostallgäu).

Some of the greatest Baroque frescoes in Germany were destroyed by bombs during World War II. “Many major ceiling paintings – those in the Royal Palace in Berlin or in the Jesuit Church in Mannheim, for example – have been irrevocably lost. We are attempting to restore this pictorial cosmos to its rightful place in our cultural memory and to demonstrate the many facets of the medium,” says Ute Engel. To achieve this, the team will also make use of old photographs. Post-war restoration efforts employed diverse approaches. Some of the works were reconstructed as far as possible in their original form, and at first sight appear very much as they did before. Others were “restored” in a much freer manner.

“There are even some abstract reconstructions of frescoes. Hann Trier, a representative of the abstract expressionism of the early post-war period, painted abstract swathes of colour on the ceilings of the Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin. As that example shows, the original iconography was then regarded as outdated and ceiling paintings were perceived simply as harmonious colour combinations. When the Palace was reconstructed, the semantic content of the original was seen as dispensable,” says Hoppe. In his view, this reflects a particular choice of art historical values and priorities that needs to be reconsidered. “It is high time that art historians and the wider public give to this genre the attention it undoubtedly deserves.”

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The Project
The compilation of the Corpus of Baroque Ceiling Painting in Germany (Corpus der barocken Deckenmalerei in Deutschland, CbDD) is a long-term project funded over a period of 25 years by the Academies´ Programme of the Union of the German Academies of Sciences and Humanities and is supervised by the Bavarian Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Munich. The venture builds upon an earlier initiative of the same name, funded by the DFG at LMU from 1976 until 2010, in its final period under the direction of Prof Frank Büttner. Led by LMU’s Prof. Stephan Hoppe, the new research project is being carried out by the Institute of Art History at LMU and the Deutsches Dokumentationszentrum für Kunstgeschichte – Bildarchiv Foto Marburg at Marburg University, directed by Prof. Dr. Hubert Locher. Its primary goals are to assemble an inventory of the approximately 5.000 surviving examples of Baroque ceiling paintings in Germany, to interpret them in the light of their art historical, architectural, historical, political and social settings, and to place them in their wider international context. The results will be made available to the public on the internet.

Stephan Hoppe is Professor of Art History with a Focus on Bavarian Art at LMU’s Institute of Art History and, since 2015, Leader of the Corpus of Baroque Ceiling Painting in Germany project.

PD Dr. Ute Engel is Head of the Research Unit and Coordinator of the Corpus of the Baroque Ceiling Painting in Germany project at the Institute of Art History at LMU.