Johann Dieter Wassmann, PRINCE OTTO VON BISMARCK, 1896. 660 x 530 x 130 mm.
The recent release of Rohan Kriwaczek’s AN INCOMPLETE HISTORY OF THE ART OF FUNERARY VIOLIN (Overlook Press) has prompted several commentators to disparage the Guild of Funerary Violinists as something of a 'pre-modern' relic. This points up a significant misunderstanding of the role of the funerary violinist in the development of the modern era, a misunderstanding that warrants further discussion.
Pope Gregory XVI’s instigation of the Great Funerary Purges of the 1830s and 1840s was a deliberate, and it must be said effective, strike at the spartan musical form advocated by funerary violinists, a form that we now appreciate revealed the buds of early modern intellectual independence. As Kriwaczek rightly points out (see Wednesday's post), “…the genre of Funerary Violin evolved in its own distinct manner, following a path of rooted modality and direct expression, and eschewing all displays of virtuosity… in order to explore simply and honestly our relationship with our own and others’ mortality.” This reductivist urge, which I might also add was largely devoid of narrative, was a radical departure by any measure, but like the electric car in our current age, powerful forces made certain it was not to be, at least not yet. When it did find a foothold in the late 19th century, success was the domain of others.
In the visual arts, a similar reductivism came to inform the boxed works of Johann Dieter Wassmann in the 1890s. Not surprisingly, Johann’s elder brother, Hugo Wassmann, was himself a funerary violinist, as I have mentioned. In her essay, "A Carpenter's Tale," Maime Stombock points out that it was Johann’s sudden and humiliating recognition in 1889 of the depth of his own bourgeois values that long last allowed the fog to lift:
"The final period of work that grew out of these revelations can only be described as early modern. Johann's competence as a carpenter, along with his total command by this point of the medium of the wooden box, allowed him to plunge headlong into works unlike anything he had considered prior. The most striking feature of these pieces is their simplicity of line, plane and form. This new sensibility he referred to by the German expression die Mut zur Lücke -- the courage to leave things out. Several works even verge on abstraction, most notably his politically charged pair KAISER WILHEM II, 1894 and PRINCE OTTO VON BISMARCK, 1896. The enigma of these works, an enigma which creates puzzlement even today, rests in the subtlety of their comment, rather than in the compelling presence of a narrative, as was often the case in earlier works."