From Publishers Weekly
This terrific study by Johns Hopkins Humanities professor Fried is, in effect, two books, both of enormous importance and value. The first is a pioneering and thorough (if idiosyncratic) critical biography of Adolf Menzel (18151905), a great 19th-century realist painter still too little-known outside of his native Germany. The second is the present culmination of Frieds hugely ambitious attempt, begun with 1988s Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and the Beholder in the Age of Diderot, to rewrite the history of art since the Enlightenment. While the ultimate success or failure of Frieds larger project (previous volumes have dealt with such artists as Courbet and Eakins) will undoubtedly be a matter of debate for decades to come, its sweeping scale and conceptual daring give this volume an unexpected polemical intensity. Against the primarily optical drift of Impressionism and the criticism it engenderedthe privileging of isolated transcendent visual moments, or "holistic act(s) of seeing"Fried posits an art of embodiment, in which the artist constructs images reflecting not only the other senses, but the movement of the subject through time and space. Menzels vast oeuvre and broad range of treatment and subject have worked against his acceptance into the mainstream canon, but his career is given convincingly coherent shape not only by Frieds inspired close readings of individual paintings and drawings (beautifully reproduced in 70 color and 100 b&w illustrations), but by his meticulous unraveling of the artists relationships with the intellectual currents of 19th-century Berlin. The richly allusive aesthetic writings of Soren Kierkegaard, for example, the Danish philosopher who was a contemporary of Menzels, are brought forward with rare intelligence and appropriateness. Menzel himself is a compelling figurevery small in stature, and seized with great ambition both as artist and professional man. Fried shows him bringing to the drawing of a pair of binoculars the same clarity of purpose as he does to a domestic interior or a huge history painting. Menzels voracious engagement with the world is both contextualized and shared by Fried, who at one point, writing about his subjects magisterial sketch of a bicycle, confesses his wish to reach into the drawing and ring it. It is precisely this kind of passionate, intimate and informed advocacy that makes Menzels Realism not only a great work by a critic at the top of his game, but a stirring humanist document.
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...[R]eproductions are high quality and...detailed notes are helpful[,] as is the chronology of milestones in Menzel's life. -- Library Journal