In Depth

In praise of dilettantes — er, polymaths — like August Kopisch

Last month, Berlin’s Alte Nationalgalerie opened August Kopisch: Painter, Poet, Discoverer, Inventor, a thorough and highly entertaining survey of the works and life of one of Germany’s most beloved, and kooky, artists.

Canadian art is full of multi-talented, multi-disciplined folks

August Kopisch. Die Blaue Grotte auf Capri, 1834. Oil on canvas, 30 x 39 cm. (Courtesy Preußische Schlösser und Gärten Berlin-Brandenburg / Photo: Wolfgang Pfauder)

Last month, Berlin's Alte Nationalgalerie opened August Kopisch: Painter, Poet, Discoverer, Inventor, a thorough and highly entertaining survey of the works and life of one of Germany's most beloved, and kooky, artists.

The original meaning of dilettante is a person who makes art because they love to make art, not because they have a sweat-stained life mission.

​Kopisch, who was born at the end of the 18th century and lived until the middle of the 19th, did everything. And by that I mean, everything. He painted, he drew, he collected Germanic and Northern European folklore and turned the stories into poems (many still in print and read to children today), he and a pal discovered the famed Blue Grotto on the island of Capri (or, at least, popularized it — one imagines the locals already knew it was there), and he made useful gadgets.

Kopisch maintained a lively correspondence with other artists of his era, and he filled scrapbooks with cartoons and sketches of well-known personages. His luridly coloured paintings, while hard to consider masterpieces because they are so weird and uneven — so, well, nutty — nevertheless convey a keen love of the fantastic and dream-like, and thus anticipate the early 20th century's vivid embrace of mysticism, the occult and, of course, surrealism. And they look more than a bit like heavy metal album covers from the 1970s (in other words, awesome).

August Kopisch had a great life and he made a lot of things that are still coveted 100 plus years later. August Kopisch was a polymath, a person who could and did do many sorts of things to varying degrees of success. He is a new hero for me, and ought to be for you. Why? Because polymaths make the world turn.

August Kopisch. Die große Fontäne in Sanssouci bei unterschiedlicher Beleuchtung, 1845. Oil on paper, Durchmesser jeweils 17 cm. (Courtesy Stiftung Preußische Schlösser und Gärten Berlin-Brandenburg / Photo: Wolfgang Pfauder)
August Kopisch. Der Ätna, gesehen von den Ruinen des Theaters zu Taormina, bei Sonnenuntergang, 1833. Oil on canvas, 41.5 x 82 cm. (Courtesy Privatbesitz / Photo: Horst Ziegenfusz)

Despite living in the post-modern era (some argue that our time is best described as post-post-modern, but I like my readers, so I will let that go), we inherited and keep too close many of modernism's bossy hang-ups. One of the most insistent is that an artist must discover what they do best and then only do what they do best, forever. Modernism presents this insistence on "mastery" as an ideological side effect of its drive to streamline cultural production.

Of course, previous eras over-invested in the concept of mastery as well, but hardly with the same stridency. Modernism was the parent that made you practice piano every afternoon and never let you play hockey like the other kids. Modernism is a single-minded bore.

But I digress. August Kopisch was dismissed by critics in the 1960s as a dilettante. Let's take the D-word on now, head first. A dilettante, in contemporary usage, is a person who dabbles in artistic endeavours but never takes them seriously, angst and perfection anxiety-ridden modernist seriously. A dilettante is to be dismissed. We have forgotten that the original meaning of dilettante is a person who makes art because they love to make art, not because they have a sweat-stained life mission. What is so wrong with that?

August Kopisch. Der Krater des Vesuvs mit dem Ausbruch von 1828, 1828. Gouache with black ink on vellum, 20,1 x 30,8 cm. (Private collection. Photo: Norbert Miguletz)
August Kopisch. Die Pontinischen Sümpfe bei Sonnenuntergang, 1848. Oil on canvas, 62 x 111 cm. (Courtesy Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie / Photo: Andres Kilger)

A dilettante/polymath, driven by relentless curiosity, will create more, discover more, and particularly in our everything-all-the-time era, be far more in tune with their surrounding cultural condition than any so-called master. Canadian examples abound. I would argue that all of our best artists are polymaths. Furthermore, given our hybridized nature as post-colonial country comprised of multiple (and gleefully mating) cultural influences, our innately global nature, polymathism is the Canadian way.

If I had the space or you the patience, I could rhyme off a hundred Canadian artists whose work I enjoy and who are all stellar polymaths. The examples below are just from the top of my silvered head.

If the above list were attached to an iceberg, it would not be even the first full ice crystal on the tip. Canadian artists excel at polymathery because, like August Kopisch, they live in a time and place that respects and arguably anticipates experimentation and hybridity. Canadian art is less driven by production of commodities (i.e. money) than art made elsewhere — and, yes, that can be a problem as well as a source of liberation, especially when one has no money. But what price freedom?

August Kopisch. Ein Schiff auf dem Meere von Delphinen umschwärmt, 1826/28. Oil on canvas, 20,5 x 34 cm. (Courtesy Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie / Photo: Andres Kilger)

In the coming decade, we might reach a point in our culture that demands all artists be polymaths; that they leave behind them a long trail of assorted goods whether or not they want to or can. Such an outcome would be just as stymying as the last century's fixation with the singular, the mastered.

For now, let's enjoy the new golden age of the polymath, the ascendency of the magpie-minded. We live in a jangling, sparkly cave full of things made just to see what happens, just because they can be done – our own Blue Grotto, viewed through a prism. 

August Kopisch: Painter, Poet, Discoverer, Inventor. Alte Nationalgalerie, Bodestraße 10178, Berlin, Germany. To July 17. Tue-Sun 10am-6pm except Thu 10am-8pm.

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