The Role of the Visual Arts in the Construction of Collective Identity: Hofmannsthal, Dürer and Van Gogh

  • Abstract:

    Briefe des Zurückgekehrten (Letters of a Man Who Returned) is a set of five fictional letters by the Austrian writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal, which thematizes the Austro-Hungarian subject’s destabilized sense of belonging at the turn of the twentieth century. In this text Hofmannsthal problematizes a straightforward nationalist idealization of the Austrian homeland by showing how one’s national identity and sense of belonging are not only determined by one’s historical context, but are also culturally constructed in various ways, one of which is through the visual arts. In two crucial turning points in this text, the letter writer confronts the instrumental role that the visual arts played in solidifying his sense of identity and perception of reality as a coherent whole. First, he recalls how his repeated exposure to Albrecht Dürer’s copper engravings in his childhood shaped his sense of a collective identity that reaches beyond the boundaries of his immediate family. The rigidity of the depicted figures in these pictures points to the fact that Dürer’s images gave form and permanence to the formless physical sensations and feelings of belonging that the narrator came to associate with his homeland. Second, he relates how, at the height of his alienation from his own homeland, an unexpected encounter with the paintings of Van Gogh renewed his perception of the world. His reflections on the power of Dürer’s and Van Gogh’s visual art push him toward a valuable reckoning: the letter writer gains insight into the role that visual culture and his own interpretive powers have in the construction and representation of a coherent reality, and by extension his sense of collective and individual identity. In Letters of a Man Who Returned Hofmannsthal shows that our conceptions of individual and collective identity are grounded in and shaped by artistic representations of the place and the culture to which we feel we belong. The aim of my paper is to unpack Hofmannsthal’s critique of an essentialist understanding of identity through a close reading of this text.