Perhaps we could think of moonlit nights, in some distant ancient ruins, half-hidden by mists and moon-shadows, conjuring up mysterious supernatural forces lurking just beyond our reach: an all pervasive sense of foreboding, confusion, or even fear. Or maybe it is dreamy young poets, just down from Oxford for their summer holidays, indulging their every sense with the flowers and birds, hills and lakes, clouds and sunshine, or the rosy-cheeked humble working folk of their favourite patch of England, and recollecting the emotions of their day in the tranquillity of their comfortable lodging in the evening. Or perhaps it is much more besides.
Romanticism is possibly an obscure notion consigned to history, or at least to the writings of equally obscure academics. But it is a notion that could still have some relevance to the way we imagine the world, including our buildings and cities, conceivably much more than commonly thought, and possibly more far reaching and long-lasting.
For the art critic John Berger, it is a mere art-historical period between the growing points of the two key revolutions of Europe: the French and the Russian . The concept of natural man created by JJ Rousseau in the mid- 18th century, led to the condemnation of the then current artificial realities, heightened a demand for authenticity and drove the pursuit of liberty and notion of revolution. The major European powers each had their particular provocations: against the bull-dozing power of industrialisation (England), or suffocating foreign notions suppressing national identity (Germany) or simply the allure of heroic military endeavours (France). For Berger, this movement was all more-or-less an empty gesture, an unwillingness to confront the harsh reality of actually changing what artists condemned, an escape from reality, and unsurprisingly Romantic art soon degenerated into ineffectual aestheticism, and ultimately lost all vitality by the end of the 19th century.
However, for the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, it was nothing short of “the greatest single shift in the consciousness of the West that has occurred” and therefore its influence cannot be lightly dismissed and its impact ignored, even in the early 21st century . On this view, it is not some long dead notion and still very much breathing and pushing out its tentacles into areas in ways that are not immediately obvious.
For Berlin it may have begun innocently enough (at least in England) as the search for personal truth, a sense of the uniqueness of individual experience, in opposition to the homogenising or levelling machine of science, rationality and industry. Romanticism was a turning inwards, heightened introspection, amplifying the difference between things, and downplaying the similarities or common connections. It was about pursuing often unsatisfiable desires, looking beyond the immediate, the concrete, the obvious, and embracing the infinite, and often unintelligible. It was about ignoring the rational clear obvious here and now, and turning to things with deeper or more powerful emotional currents: nature, the remote, the primitive, the past, or the infinite. Personal truths, insights, beliefs mattered more than allegedly stable external truths, whether they were religious, philosophical or scientific. Rather than looking for guidance from these outer lights, truth was to be found within ourselves. Sincerity, and the purity of our souls mattered more than conformity, and our stances could be against the whole world if necessary. Commitment and effort counted for more than the results or any worldly achievement. On this view, art was to be for its own sake, not for any wider purpose. Beauty was what appealed or inspired us not something that accorded with any fixed external notions. We would find own personal beauty, not wait for someone to determine that for all.
This, as Berlin admits, leaves us with no simple identifiable cohesive Romantic position, since Romantics would more often disagree profoundly, with perhaps the only source of agreement being what they rejected: the stable, objective, external, measurable, orderly, or self-proclaimed “rational”. After all, for many, to be systematic was to be inauthentic. The list of the contradictory manifestations of Romanticism is itself almost limitless :
- the abundance and deep harmony of Nature;
- the steadiness and directness of the primitive, a return to where all is instinct, beyond or before civilisation, systems, reason, the large collective, seeking the simple, basic, elementary, rough-hewn, rudimentary, undeveloped, unrefined, unsophisticated, rude, rough and ready, makeshift, old-fashioned, obsolete, or archaic;
- the allure or intrigue of the mysterious, playing with ‘gothic-ness’ – the darkness, ruins, and creatures of all sorts both, real or imagery;
- not trusting rational words, but instead turning to myths as the only reliable way for people to express their sense of the ineffable, inexpressible mysteries ;
- the contentedness of simple rural life, where people live close to the land, and necessarily understand the rhythms of nature to survive (combine both the primitive and the natural perhaps);
- the old historical traditional houses and churches, both the materials of these relics and the building forms, as well as the feelings or emotions that they encapsulate, for these are buildings beyond simple understanding, resulting from a slow development by people with intrinsic loyalties and connections, not simply short term rational calculations and attention spans;
- hanker for ‘the remote’, where we can be disconnected from our organised world (before the modern age, being remote in space, could mean being equally as remote as in time, with the places most impossible to get to, being the most alluring); or
- the pursuit of novelty and eccentricity for the sake of it, seeking to go beyond now and the conventional and be free of the dull plodding rational, the logical reliable steps the world takes, and instead step a long way beyond the pack, for no easily explicable reason.
But are these ways of operating sufficient? If we turn from the external, measurable, rational world, towards the self for reality, what do you find there? Those intense Germans, long intellectually engaged with the ‘rational’ French and for a period occupied by them (under Napoleon), but always struggling with them, for independence and differentiation, took this search to the extremes, leaving no stone unturned to work out what this really meant. They would not stop at the superficial pleasantries of the English, who put Nature on a pedestal just as they carved up the countryside with coal mines, canals and railways lines, or enclosed their farmlands to maximize profits, and allowed their ever-expanding cities to swallow up the remainder. For the English it seems, putting a pleasing gloss on their diminishing natural world was being Romantic enough.
However, for the Germans there were unanswered questions: the principal one being what is this self that we are now to so much rely on for truth, for guidance, for direction? For some this was not an easy thing to answer, but for others it was unanswerable: there was no such thing. There was only a series of sensations, but no linking continuous identifiable entity. There was only the awareness of the sequence of sensations, with the impact of these sensations providing the only consciousness. By reacting to these sensations, our personality was defined. On this reading, the effort, the will or the assertion of the self was everything, and Nature being something dead and external to the self, was merely something to be moulded to our will and not something with independent power. While useful in many ways, looking to Nature for guidance was ultimately fruitless and sterile. Without our own efforts to control or manipulate Nature, it was nothing. It was only through our efforts to impose form, that Nature had any meaning. This was a sense of Nature very far removed from that held by those swooning English poets across the North Sea.
Others saw icebergs when they looked within themselves. The conscious world was merely the one-tenth floating above the surface; it was the remainder that mattered. Our conscious rational selves only partly explain our behaviour. Introspection, discontinuities, or inexplicable impulses point to something deeper and so many unanswered questions, mysteries, and ‘unfathomables’. It was this dark world that was thought to be the real driving force, and we needed to stop denying these impulses, and indeed actively seek them out, even if fully appreciating them was impossible. Any staying on the surface, with say a beauty based on elegance and symmetry, was a lie and was ultimately death. So in art and architecture, any of the notions of the French in the elegant centuries before Napoleon or the styles of his empire, were to be condemned as artificial, false, and soul-destroying. Life would be about delving into the dark unconscious forces that move within us and bringing aspects of these to the surface even in some rudimentary, half-formed way. This would be the lot of any authentic artist. Rather than conform to surface conventions, an artist would need to connect with the infinity of true nature; the vitality, the power and energy of true life. It would be an agonising wrestle with reality, a reality which was necessarily unconscious, dark, and confusing.
While it is difficult to see contemporary architects as some bohemian artists wrestling with their souls in freezing garrets, much less trying to actively channel the unconscious forces that they somehow divine within them (with help of artificial chemical substances or not), in the rejection of common objective principles on which to base their work, they are playing the same game as these tortured Germanic thinkers. In their denial of the value or role of any common principles or standards in the design of buildings, and therefore their destruction of the little remaining visual coherence of modern cities, they are slaves of these defunct thinkers. Design becomes more about producing distinctive and momentarily powerful sensations for city-dwellers as they turn some corner, or grabbing some brief attention for their new creation within a very competitive information-saturated world, than it does about maintaining a unified urban space. It is possible that some of the forms of the contemporary city come from the demons or distorted dreams of architects, but it is more likely that they are abstractions of the digital world realised as glass and concrete, or magnifications of micro-things, or exploded consumer products or patterns of the natural world made large, or many other things. But above all, it is a desire for a sense of movement or bewildering disorientating complexity and a rejection of any fixed basis for comparison, or any objective standards by which the beauty of any form can be assessed, if indeed that question would ever be asked.
The only reference point or measurable is the assertion of the individual or group; the desire to see your particular form realised as something much larger than yourself and more long-lived; your crazed or peculiar or inspired or clever or ground-breaking notion made real. And this development of your internal thoughts or struggles is to be realised in a sequence of art-architectural wonders.
According to Berlin (IB 118), Romanticism was an assault on two thousand years of well-accepted European thought. Through all the battles of these millennia – religious, political, or cultural -, there had been an acceptance that it possible to have a true knowledge of reality. This is what was sought by all the contestants. Through knowing nature or God, and the relations within this universe, you would understand your place in it and how you should act: knowledge was virtue as the ancient Greeks asserted so long ago. Romanticism was nothing less than a rejection of this idea. There was now to be no structure to things. You were to mould things as you wanted. And things would only come into being as a result of your moulding or your will.
Perhaps, this profound shift in the consciousness of the West that Berlin identified is so little considered and so easily ignored, because the notions are so familiar, now so deeply ingrained that to comment on them seems superfluous, unnecessary, or pointless. It is much easier to treat Romanticism as a simple art-historical period, and therefore well isolated in the past. We have evidently moved on to better and more considered or balanced positions.
John Berger, Landscapes: John Berger on Art, 2016, Ch 17.
Isaiah Berlin, The Roots of Romanticism, 1999.
 John Berger, Landscapes: John Berger on Art, 2016, Ch 17.
 Isaiah Berlin, The Roots of Romanticism, 1999.
 Berlin, p 17.
 Berlin, p 49.