Künstlerroman Introduction

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(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


An artist novel detailing the artist's growth to maturity.

The künstlerroman is a type of bildungsroman—a novel where the protagonist undergoes an education—in which the writer charts the course of an artist undergoing an evolution from nascent stirrings to full artistic voice. Literally, künstlerroman translates to English as “artist” (from the German, “künstler”) and “novel” (from the French, “roman”). The künstlerroman traces its origins to the Germanic Romantic tradition of the eighteenth century, when a generation of writers began to rebel against what they believed to be the confining rationalist structures borne of the Era of Enlightenment. They were drawn to the freedom of artistic expression apparent in Romanticism and the beliefs of perhaps its biggest advocate, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Goethe, one of the literary world's most influential thinkers, considered writing as a means to personal contemplation; a writer writes desirous to know his own internal cravings and emotions. From this process arose his Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship) (1795-1796), in which the title character, disillusioned by life and love, seeks a different standard and becomes an artist and a playwright. Considered the genesis of both the künstlerroman and bildungsroman genres, Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship became the prototype from which the tenets of modern künstlerromane are drawn. Goethe's Bildung philosophy was meant to establish, in the words of critic Roberta Serat, “the full development of a person's possibilities.” From that, the künstlerroman branched out to mark a specific version of this education—the passage of protagonist from shapeless child to fully-formed artist.

This period in European culture saw tremendous activity in cross-pollination of ideas and theories as writers began to cross borders with increasing frequency. The movement founded by the German Romantic masters eventually spread to the English language in the nineteenth century where it was embraced by leading novelists and poets like Charles Dickens and Alfred Lord Tennyson. But the style is considered to have reached its peak with Stephen Dedalus's personal progression into writer in James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), generally considered the standard-bearer of the genre in English. Since then, the künstlerroman form has become a popular method of disseminating an author's own concerns about finding themselves as both artist and human being, though many critics decry the lack of progress made by minority writers to utilize this form, as well as a dearth of critical thought about those few novels that do exist.

In many cases, if an author chooses to do a künstlerroman, it oftentimes comes early in their literary career, perhaps a result of their recent struggles to succeed as writers and the highly personal nature of the style that stems from this. Works of künstlerromane generally reflect the moral battle of writers questioning their appropriate standing as objective artist, a debate outlined by critic Maurice Beebe in his seminal work on the genre, Ivory Towers and Sacred Founts (1964). He characterized this inner turmoil as one that eventually forces its creator into one of two groups: the “Ivory Towers” and the “Sacred Founts,” terms regularly used in the criticism of künstlerromane. For those in the former category, they isolate themselves in so-called self-created “ivory towers,” regarding the sacrifice made to the creation of great art as worth more than a life fully lived. In direct opposite are the “Sacred Founts” who equate art with experience; personal fulfillment, and direct participation in the creation of history as the tableau from which classic literature springs. This inherent conflict is the impulse driving many künstlerroman, as the written protagonist is often a stand-in for their progenitor trying to sort out the conflicts that exist—whether as impediment...

(The entire section is 1,265 words.)