If a novel from the year 2022, which according to the blurb is about whether "art is able to make better people out of us", bears the title "Spitzweg", then this can only be taken as a signal: apparently this is about an ideal of art that is decidedly not that of our present.

The reference is not only significant because the Biedermeier painter Carl Spitzweg stands for a time associated with turning away from politics and turning to private life.

Rather, what is decisive is that the apparently idyllic scenes in his pictures often turn out to be multi-layered and ambiguous.

You have to look at them several times to discover what is ironic, contradictory or abysmal in them.

Eckhart Nickel's second novel is about training this potential of art in precise, constantly new observation.

He tells of three high school graduates who are brought together by an "unheard of event".

The artistically talented Kirsten, classmate and beloved of the nameless first-person narrator, receives ambivalent praise from her teacher for her self-portrait in art class, for having shown “the courage to be ugly”.

In order to punish this "insult", the new classmate Carl, a master of art history who is "out of date" in several respects, even "half a mythical creature", hatches a revenge plan: Kirsten is to appear to disappear until the teacher recognizes her pedagogical misconduct.

However, the plan only works for a short time, because when Kirsten takes her self-portrait,

which Carl had secretly stolen after class, rediscovered in his dresser, suddenly she's really gone.

The search for the missing person initiated by the narrator and Carl leads to an adventurous chase in the museum after bizarre encounters with Kirsten's mother and a mysterious old man.

But this plot only forms the outer framework for the big issues with which the protagonists deal.

Even if "Spitzweg" is not a typical coming-of-age novel, the question of one's own identity and self-assurance is consistently at the center of the story.

Art proves to be a vehicle for establishing identity insofar as it offers the possibility of producing something new through interpretation and eclectic appropriation.

So Kirsten is characterized as John Everett Millais' Ophelia to give a clue to her supposed suicide - although not without adding some self-chosen details to the original.

And Carl interprets Spitzweg's depiction of Hagestolz, with whom he is compared several times in the novel, not as a lonely and unhappy figure, but as a sovereign figure who can see everything.

Like Millais and Spitzweg, many of the art historical models and references that the three high school graduates refer to date from the 19th or early 20th century.

Although there are indications that the novel takes place in the 21st century, it is characterized by a demonstrative distance from the present: when the narrator, for example, tells the German teacher “Dr.

Fant" pays a house call, while his wife, who has just let the roast char, gives flowers and says goodbye at the end with a "deep bow", one feels reminded of the schoolboy films of the 1960s.

The language is also atavistic in many places: Artists are consistently "creative spirits" or "painter princes", instead of joy the characters feel "bliss", and the description of Kirsten could come directly from Snow White: From her "tender neck" you grow " symmetrical countenance" as well as "the bouquet of flowers from an alabaster porcelain vase".

The language of the present appears exclusively as a parody, for example when one of the hated classmates says: "Alter Falter, he ranted stably like in Fülm." Above all, there are polemics in many places against a culture in which everyone only " own point of view", the "ego" dominates, the ability to withdraw or to listen has been lost and in which everything is immediately "stamped".

Although or precisely because the language and motifs of the novel are anything but contemporary, the novel can be read as a continuous commentary on the present.

"Spitzweg" is a plea for an art that, due to its ambiguity, requires precise, repeated consideration and at the same time grants the license to appropriate found material in an unconventional way - just like Nickel, who in this respect has remained entirely a pop writer, in the composition of his novel quotes from the history of art, literature and music.

It is possible that the longing for this understanding of art at a time when novels are equipped with trigger warnings and literary texts are increasingly being measured by their political content, also explains the emphatic reviews of the past few weeks.

However, the novel would have done more justice to its own premises if the lecturing gesture in the reflections on the nature of art and the outdated language, which sometimes tended towards kitsch, had been taken back a little.

The author could have confidently trusted that the superbly told story of the friendship between the three unlikely students would speak for itself.

One could do without the lessons about the "autonomy" of art, about "poetry" and "idleness".

Eckhart Nickel: "Spitzweg".

Novel.

Piper Verlag, Munich 2022. 256 p., hardcover, €22.

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