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Winckelmann – The Divine Sex

by Redaktie in Theatre, Art & Expo , 26 July 2017

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar

Berlin’s Schwules Museum has organized an exhibition commemorating the 300th Birthday of Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768), which is curated by Dr. Wolfgang Cortjaens.

Johann Winckelmann Johann Joachim Winckelmann (born in 1717 in Stendal, death in 1768 in Trieste, Italy) is heralded as the founder of modern archaeology and art. His multivolume work, “History of Ancient Art” (1764), was an international bestseller and translated into several languages. Today it is still regarded as the basis and a standard work of art history. Although he came from a commonor background, his scholarly journey led him to Halle, Jena, Dresden and onwards to Italy. Winckelmann arrived in Rome in November 1755.

His first task there was to describe the statues in the Cortile del Belvedere - the Apollo Belvedere, the Laocoön, the so-called Antinous, and the Belvedere Torso - which represented to him the “utmost perfection of ancient sculpture.” It was in Italy he defined his new “Canon of Beauty” under the influence of the many artistic monuments and sculptures of Greek and Roman antiquity. This would set the standards for styled critique during future periods of art.

Almost as influential as the works he produced, was the man clouded in secrecy, Winckelmann himself. His thinly veiled homosexuality, which has been mentioned by contemporaries such as Casanova, Herder, and Goethe, since an open homoeroticism informed his writings on aesthetics, as well as the mysterious circumstances of his assassination, have always been discreetly downplayed by the predominantly heteronormative Winckelmann research.

Originally, Winckelmann had planned to stay in Italy only two years, but the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763) changed his plans. He was named librarian to Cardinal Passionei, who was impressed by Winckelmann’s beautiful Greek writing. In 1768 Winckelmann journeyed north over the Alps, but the Tyrol depressed him and he decided to return to Italy. A friend, the sculptor Bartolomeo Cavaceppi, managed to persuade him to travel to Munich and Vienna, where he was received with honor by Empress Maria Theresa. On his way back, he was murdered in Trieste on June 8, 1768, in a hotel bed by a fellow traveller, a man named Francesco Arcangeli, for medals that Maria Theresa had given him. Arcangeli had thought that he was only “un uomo di poco conto” (“a man of little account”). Arcangeli was executed a month later by breaking on the wheel.

That a homosexual man of all people would definitively redefine the canon of art history for future generations, and at the same time developed in his writings a new technique of camouflage does not lack irony. This was for the Schwules Museum a reason to organize a memorial exhibition on the life and work of Winckelmann in commemoration of his 300th birthday, and to specifically question the aspect of his sexual orientation against the background of biography and writings.

The exhibition in the Schwules Museum carries the intentionally ambiguous title “Winckelmann - The Divine Sex.” The focus is on the antiquity reception of the scholar. Using over a hundred sculptures and plaster casts, paintings, drawings, engravings and prints from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Winckelmann’s discourse on the “Canon of the Beautiful” is to be reconstructed in the Schwules Museum.

At the same time, occupying ourselves with and speaking about art always seems to be a possibility, if not an essential element of the sublimation of erotic desire. The final point of the exhibition is around 1850, when Winckelmann’s era entered into a universal historical interpretation of style sequences and art history finally established itself as an academic discipline.

A secondary aspect of the exhibition highlights Cultural History: eighteenth century Italy is looked at as a long desired destination for homosexual travelers and art collectors. The historical conditions and boundaries of living that differed from the social norms around 1800 are discussed, as well as the influence of Winckelmann’s aesthetic concept on the training of artists and academics.

 The exhibition “Winckelmann - The Divine Sex” is on display until October 9, 2017.
Schwules Museum, Lützowstraße 73, 10785 Berlin, Germany,




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