Dates: 1844-1900

Nationality: German

German philosopher. Having taught philology at the University of Basle from 1869 to 1879, he retired because of poor health and devoted the rest of his life to travelling and writing his major philosophical works. He collapsed in Turin in 1889, perhaps because of syphilis, and was cared for by his sister Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche until his death. Nietzsche’s early works, particularly Die Geburt der Tragödie (1872), were influenced by German Romanticism, especially by Arthur Schopenhauer and Richard Wagner. He renounced that influence in his late works, notably Also sprach Zarathustra (1883–5), Jenseits von Gut und Böse (1886), Zur Genealogie der Moral (1887), Der Wille zur Macht (1888; a selection of unpublished notes compiled by his sister) and Ecce homo (written 1888, pubd 1908).

Throughout his brief but extraordinarily productive career, Nietzsche addressed the problem of ‘nihilism’. He understood nihilism to be the state in which, though an absolute standard of value has lost its power, the need for absolute standards still exists. Accordingly, nihilism implies the inability to prefer any course of action over any other. Nietzsche believed that European culture had become nihilist when the Enlightenment undermined the unquestioned authority of religion (‘the death of God’) but provided no alternatives to it. Nietzsche used the arts as the paradigm of choice despite the absence of absolute values. He consistently opposed art to morality and praised art for encouraging the creation of new and different objects, styles and schools. In contrast, he argued, morality aims at making everyone behave just like everyone else; morality is the expression of ‘the herd instinct’ and despises any mode of activity that goes beyond what all (and therefore the least interesting and complex individuals) are ever capable of achieving. Nietzsche frequently used quasi-political and military vocabulary and was often considered a forerunner of Nazism in Germany, but his views had little to do with states or nations.

Nietzsche’s major ideas, the need to create one’s own values and to oppose the norm, the concepts of will-to-power, the eternal recurrence and the Übermensch, the opposition between ‘strong’ and ‘weak’, were all addressed to isolated individuals and were so understood by the many artists on whom he had an effect. His influence on the visual arts is all the more remarkable because he himself was more interested in music and literature, and his few references to visual artists were thin. But his attack on Immanuel Kant’s aesthetic of ‘disinterestedness’, his call to look at art from the perspective of the artist and not from that of the critic and his positive valuation of conflict and innovation were important to the many painters who read him. Nietzsche’s audience was already broad before the end of the 19th century: ‘Nietzsche in the air’, Paul Klee noted in his Munich diary of 1898–9. He was widely read in Dresden and Berlin, and he was a seminal influence on the German Expressionists as well as on Kandinsky. In Paris, his work influenced the Fauvists as well as Picasso, who had already read him in Barcelona. In America, the Abstract Expressionists were affected by his famous contrast between the ‘Apollonian’ and the ‘Dionysian’ faculties, and Mark Rothko was led to his own mythological work of the mid-1940s by his reading of Die Geburt der Tragödie.

Nehamas, Alexander. “Nietzsche, Friedrich.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. 12 Mar. 2010 <>

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