Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Goethe at New Year's

The first song in Goethe's collection Gesellige Lieder ("sociable/ convivial songs") is "Zum neuen Jahr" (On the New Year). When I was looking around on Google for information about this particular song, I found several English translations, at the end of which was appended "Composed for a merry party that used to meet, in 1802, at Goethe's house." Very intriguing. I'd like to know more about that party. According to the notes to WA I.1, "Zum neuen Jahr" first appeared in Taschenbuch auf das Jahr 1804, editors Wieland and Goethe. Here is the poem:

Zwischen dem Alten,
Zwischen dem Neuen,
Hier uns zu freuen
Schenkt uns das Glück
Und das Vergangne
Heißt mit Vertrauen
Vorwärts zu schauen,
Schauen zurück.

Stunden der Plage,
Leider, sie scheiden
Treue von Leiden,
Liebe von Lust;
Bessere Tage
Sammlen uns wieder,
Heitere Lieder
Stärken die Brust.

Leiden und Freuden,
Jener verschwundnen,
Sind die Verbundnen
Fröhlich gedenk.
O des Geschickes
Seltsamer Windung!
Alte Verbindung
Neues Geschenk!

Denk es dem regen
Wogenden Glücke,
Dankt dem Geschicke
Männiglich Gut,
Freut euch des Wechsels
Heiterer Triebe,
Offener Liebe,
Heimlicher Gluth!

Andere schauen
Deckende Falten
Über den Alten
Traurig und scheu;
Aber uns leuchtet
Freundliche Treue;
Sehet das Neue
Findet uns neu.

So wie im Tanze
Bald sich verschwindet,
Wieder sich findet
Liebendes Paar;
So durch des Lebens
Wirrende Beugung
Führe die Neigung
Uns in das Jahr.

I particularly like the phrase "des Lebens wirrende Beugung." The folks in Weimar were certainly lucky to have Goethe in their company.

The image above, of celestial fireworks (click to enlarge), is from the "Hubble Space Telescope Advent Calendar 2008." According to the legend, it shows the "ancient [!] open star cluster NGC 6791" taken in early 2008. Astronomers have uncovered three different age groups: two are burned-out stars called white dwarfs, of which this group of "low-wattage stellar remnants appears to be 6 billion years old." They are located 13,000 light years away in the constellation Lyra, NCG 6791, one of the oldest and largest open clusters known, containing roughly 10,000 stars. Visible between the crowded mass of stars are numerous distant galaxies far beyond our Milky Way.

I can't help wondering what Goethe would have thought about such a view of the universe, one unaided by the normal human eye but instead made possible by instruments, of which, as we know, he tended to be suspicious, intervening, as they do, with the directness of our perception of the sensible world. At the same time, the view might have confirmed his own "Naturansichten," as in the episode in the Wanderjahre (I.10) in which Wilhelm views the starry sky from the observatory and finds some confirmation of the famous statement of Kant: "Two things fill me with awe: the starry sky above and the moral law within."

Thanks to Hansjakob Werlen at Swarthmore for the convivial champagne image. A wonderful English translation of Goethe's New Year poem can be found at "Every Poet."

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Goethe's Sonnets

Since my posting on Goethe's "Christmas-Box" poem, I have discovered that it was indeed occasion specific. The sonnet was sent from Weimar on 24 December 1807 to Minna Herzlieb, along with a box of home-baked Christmas sweets for the Frommann children. Though Minna is regarded as the immediate inspiration for Goethe's sonnet cycle, I have learned that caution is in order in identifying her with the female beloved in the cycle of poems. I went back to some of the early scholarship on the sonnets, to an article from the PMLA in 1896, by "J. Schipper." How I love this old scholarship, which still has much to offer. And how low in the world of scholarly writing has the PMLA sunk in the meantime! But that is another story.

Schiffer goes into the background of the sonnet tradition in Europe as well as the circumstances of Goethe's composition of the cycle in 1807/08. It seems that sonnets were scorned by a wide range of 18th-century German writers: Bodmer, Breitinger, Hagedorn, Klopstock, Lessing, and Schiller. This is surprising in Schiller's case, since his dramatic language clearly owes much to Petrarchan diction.

Johann Wilhelm Ludwig Gleim (1719-1803), however, tried his hand at the form, but it was Gottfried August Bürger (here in the portrait by Tischbein, from 1771) who reignited interest, beginning in the late 1780s when he was teaching at the university in Göttingen. Schiffer calls his sonnets "formvollendete erotische Sonetten," but the few (e.g., "Molly und Liebe") I found seem hardly erotic in the conventional sense. From this 1771 portrait, Bürger would hardly seem to be in "utter want of moral balance" (as he is described in the 11th edition of Encyclopedia Britannica), nor does he look like a moral failure, a term often attached to him. No doubt, a complex heart is concealed by the formal dress and powdered wig: hardly the face of a man who would have written "Lenore." It was at the university in Göttingen that August Wilhelm von Schlegel met Bürger and began writing sonnets with Petrarchan form and content. He expanded his range in 1798 with "Geistliche Gemählden," on famous paintings in the Dresden galleries.

I mentioned in my earlier post the "sonnet competition" in the Frommann household in Jena at Advent 1807, but another female figure must be mentioned here, namely, Bettina Brentano (later von Arnim). Bettina deserves an entire posting of her own, but in connection with the sonnets, it need only be mentioned that in 1835, in Goethe's Correspondence with a Child, Bettina claimed that she was the inspiration for the sonnets and included them as well as correspondence between herself and Goethe in support of this claim. For instance, in a letter dated August 1, 1807, from Wartburg, she writes the following (in her own charming English translation of the Correspondence), clearly intimating that it was the source of sonnet no. 4 ("Abschied"):

"It was indeed a 'last kiss,' with which I was compelled to part, for I believed I must for ever hang up on thy lips; and as I drove through the walks and trees, under which we had wandered together, I thought I must hold fast by each trunk; but they disappeared; the green, well known spaces, melted i the distance, the loved meadows and they dwelling were long faded away, the blue distance seemed alone to keep watch over the enigma of my life. But even the distance was lost, and now nothing was left me but my ardent longing, and my tears flowed at this parting."

She then appends a letter allegedly from Goethe sending her the sonnet of which she provides an English translation. George Henry Lewes (among others), however, will have none of this. Of Bettina and her relationship to Goethe, he writes:

"I do not wish to be graver with Bettina than the occasion demands; but while granting fantasy its widest license, while grateful to her for the many picturesque anecdotes she has preserved from the conversation of Goethe's mother, ... the Correspondence is a romance." And further, "when one comes to think of it, the hypothesis of his using her letters as poetic materials does seem the wildest of all figments; for not only was he prodigal in invention and inexhaustible in material, but he was especially remarkable for always expressing his own feelings, his own experience, not the feelings and experience of others."

Well, there you have it. But Lewes (who was relying on the account of the sonnets' creation provided by Goethe's difficult and not entirely impartial colleague Friedrich Wilhelm Riemer) is mistaken in saying that the sonnets were written before Bettina visited Goethe in Weimar. From his diary, we now know that Goethe first met her there on April 23, 1807. Moreover, she was in Weimar for ten days, from November 1-10, thus right before Goethe reencountered Minna Herzlieb in Jena. We also know that Bettina and Goethe corresponded, though his (authentic) surviving letters to her are not in the warm tone of the Correspondence. Schipper is of the opinion that Bettina may have provided material for sonnets no. 4 ("Das Mädchen spricht"), 7 ("Abschied"), 8 ("Die Liebende schreibt"), 9 ("Die Liebende abermals"), 10 ("Sie kann nicht enden"), and even 1 ("Mächtiges Überraschen"). In these are reflected, according to Schipper, the "passionate, impulsive nature of the author of the Correspondence" as well as the figure of Luciane in Elective Affinities (with Minna perhaps serving as model for Ottilie in the novel), which Goethe began work on in 1808.

The distance between Bettina and Goethe and the later rupture of their relationship (rendered best by Milan Kundera in his novel Immortalitywhich, in a further case of artistic appropriation, steals much from Bettina's Correspondence as well as her other artistic enthusiasm, Beethoven) seem indicative of the rise of Romanticism and the quest for personal authenticity. The "experience," especially of love, which is often said to give rise to Goethe's poetry was not the subjectivity embraced by the German  Romantic writers. The women in Goethe's life have been the subject of much speculation in regard to his creativity, but Schipper suggests we regard the sonnets as "Stimmungsbilder" prompted by close encounters with two such different and attractive female figures as Minna Herzlieb and Bettina Brentano.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Post-Christmas Musings

Rick's aunt Micaela lives less than a mile down Riverside Drive from our apartment, so she is a frequent dinner guest, especially on celebratory occasions like Christmas and Chanukah. Every time she comes she brings (besides a bottle of champagne or a specially selected wine) some small object from her apartment. In the spring she gave me lovely mother-of-pearls earrings. This time it was a Merlot from Washington state, where her daughter and son-in-law live, and a copy of The New Yorker (click on image to enlarge) from January 29, 1938.

Yesterday, the day after Christmas, was a very lazy day. I spent some time reading the old New Yorker. There were some familiar names among the contributors: James Thurber, reporting on crime in Nice, and S.J. Perelman, being very cranky about the number of home-making magazines with articles "about a couple of young people who stumble across a ruined farmhouse and remodel it on what is inelegantly termed spit and coupons." If you've seen Mister Blandings Builds His Dream House (which I have, recently, a truly painful house restoration fantasy), you'll know what he is talking about. It wouldn't be the New Yorker if there wasn't an account of a lamentable social phenomenon, in this case the effects of unemployment on otherwise hardworking, decent (not only decent but also downright admirable) citizens. ("Why can't the government get things right?" is the implication.) It was by a writer named John McNulty, a byline not familiar to me. Then there was Genêt, the pen name of Janet Flanner, who wrote "The Letter from Paris" for half a century. During my first graduate school incarnation, several decades ago, this was my favorite feature of The New Yorker.

On January 29, 1938, Genêt reported on the appearance of three books. She began in the trademark New Yorker voice, that of a worldly, ironic, sensible "Yankee" : "To people who find Gertrude Stein difficult to read in English, it may be a relief to learn that her next book has been written in French, though as a matter of fact Miss Stein's French reads a great deal like her English." The book, in a series on French painters, was a homage to Picasso. Well, who else could write better on Picasso? Stein knew him well and, according to Genêt, had "lent about thirty of her Picassos for the recent great State exhibition." That sounds like she had a few more than thirty. Genêt also discusses André Malraux's L'Éspoir,  "a sort of novelized journal" of Malraux's experience of the Spanish War, "gained while serving as the head of the first international flying escadrille." I believe Genêt when she says it is "twice over a man's book."

What interested me was the report of a new story by Colette, "Bella-Vista," which I was not familiar with but which, Genêt claimed, "was ready for some future anthology of the world's great short stories." (Now that I think of it, Micaela resembles Colette.)

Back in that early graduate career I used to read a lot of Colette's novels and stories. It was the time (late 1970s) when I had my first apartment, in which certain objects began to accumulate: a mahogany desk; a bookcase for my German reference books, the sight of which gave me great pleasure; a collection of Bel Canto recordings; a bedspread from Mexico; a porcelain tea pot with a floral patten; a profusion of jade plants and ferns in colorful pots from Mexico (I was studying in Texas then, just a few hours from Piedras Negras); lace curtains on the windows. By the time I acquired my first cat, my surroundings were coming more and more to resemble the evocative interiors that play a supporting role in the novels of Colette. I didn't live in the Midi or have a garden in my backyard full of asparagus, tomatoes, and radicchio, but it seemed a kind of wisdom then to be concerned only about the pink cactus that was about to flower, or to appreciate the clink that the wine bottles make when they are being carried to the well to be stored for drinking later with dinner.

Indeed, it all sounds very much like a painting by Matisse, for instance, this one from 1905, entitled "Open Window." This in turn reminds me of the small book by Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just. Scarry is concerned about the attacks made by postmodernists against beauty, on the charge that it distracts us from concerns for justice. She makes an intricate argument for the way that Beauty trains us mentally to be more perceptive. She approaches the subject by elaborating on the experience we have all had in moving beyond youthful enthusiasms. Think of the tackiest paintings you loved at 18, say those by Walter Keane, which turn out to have been painted by his wife, Margaret.

With training, we leave such enthusiasms behind and grapple with more difficult paintings that, on first glance, might appear ugly. Scarry's example is Matisse's palm trees, which she always found ugly. But, then, one day she began to like those palm trees. And so, this process of intellectual self-correction can be applied to the moral world: we go, according to Scarry, from perception of "the fair" (lovely faces) to receptiveness to "fairness" (as in equal distribution of goods). Ingenious, as I said..

Some of the attractions of Manhattan, as advertised in the 1938 New Yorker, included The Women by Clare Booth at the Ethel Barrymore; Gertrude Lawrence in Susan and God ("A Comedy by Rachel Crothers," a revival of which I saw last year at the Mint Theater in Manhattan); Golden Boy by Clifford Odets; and A Doll's House starring Ruth Gordon. Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians were performing at the Roosevelt Grill at Madison and 45th Street. A two-page color insert featured "America's Fourmost Whiskies": Old Overhold, Old Taylor, Old Grand-Dad, and Mount Vernon. A full-page ad for Tiffany & Co. offered "Quality, Smartness and Variety Moderately Priced." I could go on, but enough for today.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Goethe at Christmas 2

Aside from the puppet theater, nothing was obvious to me of relevance to Christmas in connection with Goethe's life. I find this absence interesting because Goethe is otherwise so partial in his literary writing to portraying traditional customs and ways of life. Doing a Google search of "Goethe and Christmas," however, I discovered a number of sites linking to a poem in English called "The Christmas Box." Here is the English rendering (you can tell from all the apostrophes that it is a 19th-century translation):

This box, mine own sweet darling, thou wilt find
With many a varied sweetmeat's form supplied;
The fruits are they of holy Christmas tide,
But baked indeed, for children's use design'd.
I'd fain, in speeches sweet with skill combin'd,
Poetic sweetmeats for the feast provide;
But why in such frivolities confide?
Perish the thought, with flattery to blind!
One sweet thing there is still, that from within,
Within us speaks, that may be felt afar;
This may be wafted o'er to thee alone.
If though a recollection fond canst win,
As if with pleasure gleam'd each well-known star,
The smallest gift thou never wilt disown.

I admit that this poem was unfamiliar. I checked the index of first lines in my edition of Goethe's poems, but found nothing under "Weihnachten" (Christmas) or "Schachtel" (box). Since the translation gave a date of 1807 for the poem, however, I was able to locate it quickly among the sonnets that Goethe wrote beginning in Advent of that year. It is called "Christgeschenk."

As fluent as Goethe might seem to have been in all manner of poetic forms, he never tried his hand at sonnets before the year 1800. It was about this time that the Romantic poets reappropriated a poetic form that had fallen out of favor among 18th-century poets, who instead imitated and emulated classical meters of Greek and Roman poetry. August Wilhelm Schlegel wrote many and even dedicated one to Goethe, to which Goethe seems to have felt compelled to respond, though rather unwillingly, with two sonnets, one called simply "Das Sonett," the other "Natur und Kunst."

In late November 1807, however, he was a frequent guest in Jena at the home of the publisher Carl Ernst Fromann, who had published the sonnets of Petrarch the year before. Goethe and another guest, the Romantic poet Friedrich Zacharias Werner engaged in a sonnet competition. Sonnets are generally composed in cycles that explore aspects of love, including the relationship between lovers. The most famous are those of Petrarch and Shakespeare; other great sonneteers include John Donne and the German Baroque poet Andreas Gryphius, who wrote on religious themes. What prompted the poetic competition between Goethe and Werner seems to have been the presence in the Fromann household of Fromann's 17-year-old foster daughter Minna Herzlieb.

The poems are well regarded in Goethe's oeuvre. What could there not be to like when passion, renunciation, and spiritualization of love are combined? Still, to my ears, they are a too abstract, with very little of the sensuous detail of Petrarch's sonnets. The "Christmas Box" forms an exception and may have been inspired as much by the Christmas season during which it was composed as by Minna Herzlieb. It brings together sweetly (one has to use this word here) the baked delicacies of Christmas with the "Poetisch Zuckerbrot" (sweet nothings?) with which he would like to tempt the beloved.

The lovely picture at the top of this posting, from the late 19th century, is courtesy of Goethezeitportal. Click on the image to enlarge.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Goethe at Christmas

In the first chapter of his autobiography, Poetry and Truth (Dichtung und Wahrheit), Goethe describes the effect on him of the puppet theater presented to him and his siblings by his grandmother in 1753. (His little brother Hermann died in 1759.) This account is followed by Goethe's first biographer, the Englishman George Henry Lewes (1855), who wrote: "The dear old lady, proud as a grandmother, 'spoiled' them of course, and gave them many an eatable, which they would get only in her room. But of all her gifts nothing was comparable to the puppet-show with which she surprised them of Christmas eve of 1753, and which Goethe says 'created a new world in the house.'  The reader of Wilhelm Meister will remember with what solemn importance the significance of such a puppet-show is treated, and may guess how it would exercise the boy's imagination."

According to Metzler's Goethe-Lexikon, the puppet theater was an important source of "moral-didactic" entertainment from the 17th to the 20th century. In Goethe's time favorite themes were Old Testament stories and fairy tales. He probably also became familiar with such traditional German folk figures as Hanswurst, a frequently obscene stock character of comedies and other plays, and Doctor Faustus. His most famous play is based on the Faust legend, but in 1775  Goethe also wrote a drama fragment entitled Hanswursts Hochzeit oder der Lauf der Welt, which contains over 200 scatological terms and insults describing the wedding guests.

According to Nicholas Boyle's biography of Goethe, it was actually his father who gave the children the puppet theater. I think Boyle is correct in salvaging the reputation of Caspar Goethe, who could hardly have been the pedant he has been portrayed to be.

The charming picture above (click on image to enlarge), showing the boy Goethe peering from behind the stage curtain and judging the effect of his own puppet productions, is the work of Woldemar Friedrich (1846-1901), who illustrated many episodes from Goethe's life.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Goethe Portraits

This is a late portrait of Goethe by Joseph Karl Stieler (1781-1858), which I include here simply in order to link to this Youtube offering of the same portrait done by Martin Missfeldt, "a speed painter." Which is better? Judge for yourself.

Stieler, whose portraits are characterized by the intense focus of the sitter, is most famous for his portrait of Beethoven. As has been remarked of the many portraits painted of Goethe, however: the artists for whom he sat, passionate admirers of the poet, tended instead to project themselves onto the painting surface. The same has been said of Tischbein's famous portrait of Goethe, which heads this blog.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Takehisa Yumeji

While Goethe was familiar with Chinese literature (more on that in a future post), Japan had not really entered his sphere of thinking. It's too bad, for no doubt he would have admired the charming images of Japanese women painted by Takehisa Yumeji. I became familiar with the Japanese painter when I was living in Tokyo many years ago. There was a small exhibit of his paintings at a department store in the Ginza -- department stores in Japan are great exhibition venues -- and at the time I bought a small package of postcards, thinking I would send them to friends. I have held on to these cards jealously, however, not wanting to part with the beautiful pictures, usually of women in love. Today I came across Yumeji on this site and decided to post this touching painting. Here is a link to more images. The influence of Western art is evident, but the works are also unmistakably Japanese. The couple appears to have been shopping!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Goethe and Old Master Painting

Art and Love in Renaissance Italy is a new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There are three sections in the exhibition. The first, called "Betrothal, Marriage, and Childbirth," features wedding gifts like jewelry, gilded boxes, bridal chests, and (most splendidly) maiolica decorated with portraits or with narratives from mythology. In the second section, "Profane Love," the themes are often erotic, while the third, "Paintings of Love and Marriage," includes nuptial portraits and paintings for the bedchamber and private quarters. The above painting by Paris Bordone, of Venus, Mars, and Cupid Being Crowned by Victory, is clearly in the second section.

Goethe, on his first visit to the papal art collections in Rome, saw his first Bordone painting, though not the one of Mars and Venus. He had arrived in Rome on All Saints' Day 1786 and was disappointed to discover that it was not a special feast day in the seat of the Roman Catholic Church. The next day, however, the pope was celebrating the feast of All Souls in

"his chapel" in the Quirinal Palace (which was the papal residence until 1870). Goethe and Tischbein hurried to Monte Cavallo. As he describes his visit in Italian Journey, he was impressed with the square and the staircase designed by Michelangelo (here is Piranesi's engraving of the Quirinal Hill), and with the colossal statues of the Dioscuri. He found Pius VI an attractive, dignified figure, but, Protestant as he was, Goethe was uncomfortable with the Catholic mass. He and Tischbein instead investigated the galleries of the palace, which were open and free of charge to the public that day.

Goethe had bypassed Florence, such had been his hurry to get to Rome (and had also neglected the shrine of Saint Francis while in Assisi, with its frescoes by Giotto); thus began his immersion in the art of the Old Masters. The first major painting he saw was that of Saint Petronilla by Guercino, but he was most impressed by the Titian's Frari Madonna. He describes "a stately episcopal figure enveloped in a huge chasuble, which is stiff with embroidery and embossed gold stitching." The rapture on this figure's face -- as can be judged by the way he gazes upward -- is apparently the result of the divine inspiration imparted by the large book in his hand. Goethe goes on to describe the other figures, including the "lovely virgin" behind this main figure, the elderly man to his left, as well as the two monks and the young man wounded with arrows at the right. At the top, in the semicircular masonry, "in the highest glory," is the Holy Mother with the Infant Jesus in her lap, and angels on either side of them. Crowning the scene is the "threefold nimbus of the Holy Spirit, serving as central point as well as keystone."

What I find interesting is that Goethe (unlike any graduate student of art history today!) was unable to identify the figures in the painting: Saints Catherine, Nicholas, Peter, Anthony, Francis, and Sebastian. He thus makes the following observation concerning this scene: "There must be a sacred, ancient legend that explains why these different, inappropriate personages are brought together in such an artful and meaningful way. We ask not how or why; we simply accept that it is the case and are astonished at the inestimable artistry."

He found "much more understandable, if not less mysterious," a fresco painting by Guido Reni in the Annuziata Chapel, that of the Virgin quietly sewing, while two angels at her side wait to serve her. "The lovely image teaches us that youthful innocence and industry are watched over and honored by the angels." The Annuziata Chapel remains today in the Quirinal Palace. See the lovely images of the chapel by "Melancolia Celeste."

The last painting described in this portion of Italian Journey is that of Saint George and the Dragon, the painter of which he is unable to identify. He is informed by a bystander (who turns out to be Heinrich Meyer, a Swiss artist who will become a lifelong friend) that the work is by "Pordenone, a Venetian." That Paris Bordone stands somewhat in the shadow of his more famous contemporary, Titian, with whom he may have apprenticed, can be seen in this misattribution. According to Wikipedia, Bordone's paintings are of "unequal merit." Nevertheless, Saint George stands today, along with Titian's Frari Madonna, in Room X of the Vatican Museum.

Titian picture credit: Artilim Online Art Gallery

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Goethe and Vesuvius

In late February of 1787, after four months in Rome, Goethe and his friend Tischbein headed south to Naples, where they arrived on February 25. The road passed "through and over volcanic hills," and it was "with quiet delight" that he saw Vesuvius to his left, "violently emitting smoke," as they made their way to the city. The above image, plate XXV in the wonderful volume Campi Phlegraei, is how I imagine Goethe's first ascent of Vesuvius, on March 2, 1787. Here is his description in Italian Journey (in the translation by Robert R. Heitner):

"I ascended Vesuvius, although the weather was gloomy ... Two thirds of the summit was covered with clouds. At last we reached the ancient crater, which is now filled up, and found the new lavas from two months and fourteen days ago, also even a meager one five days old, already cooled. We climbed over them and up a newly created volcanic hill, which was smoking on all sides. The smoke was moving away from us, and I wanted to go toward the crater. We were approximately fifty paces into the smoke when it grew so thick that I could scarcely see my shoes. Holding up a handkerchief did not help. I also lost sight of the guide, and my steps were unsure on the little fragments of lava that had been cast up. I thought it best to turn back and save the desired sight for a sunny day with less smoke. Meanwhile I have also learned how difficult it is to breathe in such an atmosphere.

"Except for that, the mountain was altogether quiet. Neither flames, nor roaring, nor showers of stones, as has always been the case since our arrival. Now that I have reconnoitered it, I can, so to speak, besiege it as soon as the weather consents to improve."
Thoughts of Goethe and Vesuvius were on my mind this past weekend in Washington, D.C., where I had traveled to visit friends and to see the special exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture Around the Bay of Naples. The region of Campania (as in the Tischbein painting of Goethe) around the bay was a resort for wealthy Romans during the Empire and even before, who built villas along the coast from Cuma to Sorrento, somewhat like the Hamptons today. The eruption of Vesuvius, in A.D. 79, covered the towns in layers of ash as much as 60 feet deep. With the discovery of Herculaneum in 1738 and of Pompeii in 1748, excavations began to uncover the luxury of the affluent Romans as well as the life of ordinary people, as in Pompeii.
On March 11, Goethe visited Pompeii, where he was taken with the small, cramped space of the town, with even the official buildings reminding him of doll houses. The paintings still to be seen on the walls pleased him, showing as they did "that a whole nation had a delight in art and pictures." He then speculated on the eruption:

"Considering the distance of this town from Veusvius, the volcanic mass that buried it can neither have been hurled here nor driven over by a blast of wind; rather, we must imagine that the stones and ash hovered in the air for a while like a cloud until they finally settled down over this unfortunate place.

"To form a still clearer picture of this event, one might possibly think of a mountain village buried by snow."

On leaving the town he made an interesting observation: "On the outskirts of the city I was struck again by the little houses, which look like perfect imitations of those in Pompeii. We asked permission to enter one of them and found it very neatly furnished. Nicely woven cane chairs, a chest of drawers gilded all over, decorated with colorful flowers, and varnished -- evidence that this region, after so many centuries and innumerable changes, still invests its inhabitants with similar manners and customs, inclinations and fancies."

While in Naples Goethe spent a lot of time studying rocks produced by Vesuvius. He may have seen samples like these, also from Campi
Phlegraei (pl. LIV), collected by Sir William Hamilton. Hamilton, who arrived in Naples in 1764 as British envoy to the royal court, had a country house near the foot of the volcano from which he could observe the frequent eruptions. As Ralph Harrington has written, the volcano went into "an eruptive phase" in 1767, and Hamilton's reports on its activities were published in the volumes known as Campi Phlegraie (meaning "flaming fields"), illustrated with lavish drawings by Pietro Fabris (who specialized in paintings of the Pompeiian excavations). Like many a European visitor to Naples, Goethe spent time at Hamilton's apartments overlooking the Bay of Naples, but in Italian Journey he wrote only of Hamilton's art collection and of Hamilton's muse, Emma, later mistress of the hero of Trafalgar. The omission in Italian Journey of any mention of Hamilton's writings on volcanism was probably due to Goethe's continuing insistence that volcanos were (again, according to Ralph Harrington) "the superficial result of localized combustion, having no geological significance." Hamilton, on the other hand, was a "Plutonist" (see my earlier post on "Goethe and Bohemia"): "Hamilton's observations of Vesuvius, and his reading of the surrounding landscape in terms of the volcanism of the past, led him to the conclusion that volcanoes were a central geological phenomenon, based on a deep-seated heat source."

If Goethe could not be convinced about the centrality of volcanos in earth formation, he was nonetheless taken with the romance of Vesuvius. He made three attempts to ascend it, the second time (on March 6) with Tischbein, who was less intrigued: "As a visual artist, [Tischbein] always deals only with the most beautiful human and animal forms ... This fearsome, shapeless heap of things, which keeps consuming itself and declares war on every feeling for beauty, cannot fail to seem quite hideous to him." They reached the surface above the active cone, at Mount Somma on the north, from which they could hear the "violent thunder resounding out of the deepest abyss" and see stones, large and small, being hurled into the air, all occurring, as he notes, with regular pauses, which they timed by pulse beats. Tischbein found the scene too dangerous for him, while Goethe thought "it must be possible, in the interval between two eruptions, to reach the abyss and return from it in that same space of time." After padding their hats with silk and linen, he and a guide proceeded closer.

"While the little stones were still clattering around us, the ash still trickling, the robust youth was already pulling me over the glowing rubble. Here we stood at the enormous yawning abyss .. Rock walls, burst asunder, could be glimpsed here and there through a gap in the smoke. ... Failing to count calmly, we stood on a sharp edge of the immense chasm. Suddenly the thunder resounded, the terrible charge flew past us, we instinctively ducked down, as if that would have saved us from the falling lumps."

The final ascent, on March 20, is less impressionistic and instead filled with more detail. Goethe describes the canals formed as the lava flows down the mountain, with the molten material stiffening, "while the dross floating on the surface is thrown down equally to the right and left. By this means a dam is gradually raised, on which the glowing river flows along as calmly as a mill stream. We walked beside the dam, which was raised to a considerable height, the dross regularly rolling down its sides as far as our feet. We could see the glowing stream from below through several holes in the canal, and from above as it flowed on down."

This three-part narrative leads me to suspect a conscious literary strategy on Goethe's part, a way of framing his time in Naples. On March 29 he traveled to Sicily and did not return to Naples until mid-May. His last report on Vesuvius in Italian Journey occurs on June 2, as he prepares to return to Rome. He learns on June 1 from a servant that "a considerable flow of lava had erupted from Vesuvius and was making its way to the sea. It was already almost down the steeper slopes of the mountain and in a few days could easily reach the shore." Unfortunately, though the lava has captured his imagination, he must spend the next day making farewell calls. On the final evening, however, at the palace of the German-born Duchess of Giovane, he is rewarded for his good manners.

"We walked up and down in the room, and she, approaching a side with shuttered windows, opened one of the shutters, and the sight was something one sees only once in a lifetime. ... Vesuvius [was] directly in front of us. The sun had set long ago, and so the flames from the descending lava glowed distinctly and were beginning to gild the attendant smoke. The mountain roared violently, above it was an enormous stationary cloud of smoke whose various masses, at every eruption, were illuminated in separate sections as though by lightning. Down from there, towards the sea, a strip of fire and glowing vapors; otherwise sea and earth, rock and vegetation distinct in the evening twilight. ... To survey all this at one glance, and to see this most wonderful picture completed by the full moon, as it rose behind the mountain ridge, could hardly fail to cause astonishment."
Goethe's description here resembles the scene rendered in numerous paintings, including this image of Vesuvius (by Pierre Jacques Voltaire, 1729-92). When Goethe went to Italy in 1786, he was still undecided whether he would be a writer or a visual artist. It was during this period that he made his commitment to being a writer, but his account of Vesuvius in Italian Journey is evidence that he would continue to compete with painters. 

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Van Gogh at MOMA

Yes, I do go to other museums in New York, especially when friends visit from out of town. This week Philippe was visiting from Germany. We walked through Central Park to midtown and saw the small Van Gogh exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.

For me the most compelling painting was this early work, The Potato Eaters, considered his first "great" painting (though there are many greats among his oeuvre), from his Dutch period. The exhibition at MOMA was the kind I like best, showing not only the paintings but in this case also preparatory studies as well as letters Vincent wrote to his brother Theo and his sister Wil, in which he described what he was working on. The letters also occasionally included drawings.

This is what he wrote to Theo, on April 30, 1885, about his work on the painting of potato eaters: "The point is that I've tried to bring out the idea that these people eating potatoes by the light of their lamp have dug the earth with the self-same hands they are now putting into the dish, and it thus suggests manual labour and a meal honestly earned." You can certainly see the labor in the bony hands of the peasants reaching out for the potatoes on the plate. I also like the figure of the woman pouring what might be tea or coffee into very small cups. Food tastes good after hard physical work. So, why do we eat so much now (in the 21st century) when our labors are less physically arduous?

Credits: Van Gogh letter and images at WebExhibits