Thursday, December 31, 2009

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Go Green?

Friedrich Schiller in his first play was concerned with the problem of good and evil. It's a problem that has been relativized out of existence. I notice that young people, the ones I used to teach, hardly discuss such big questions anymore, not because they are uninterested in these questions, but because limits have been enforced on their thinking. In a world of postmodern relativism, however, they do cling to certain sureties. I always noticed, when I still taught, that no matter how bad the spelling, grammar, organization of their papers were, students never made the mistake of using the male pronoun. They always wrote, very correctly, "he or she." Similarly, they have all become environmentalists. If I had expressed skepticism about the influence of men (or, rather, humans) on global warming (or, now, climate change), they would have been very uncomfortable, because for nearly a dozen years they had been taught the opposite. I might as well have expressed doubt that the earth was round.

Reusable bags are everywhere, and Con Edison, when I receive my monthly bill for electricity consumed, reminds me to be "environmental." So does capitalism, as Marx observed, move in tandem with the reigning ideology.

Christmas lights thanks to "Queens Crap"

Thursday, December 24, 2009

"Christtag früh"

As a young man Goethe did express some enthusiasm about Christmas, as can be seen in a letter to Johann Christian Kestner, written on Christmas day, 1772. He begins the letter vividly, locating himself in a specific time and place, up in his famous attic room:

Early Christmas day. It is still night, dear Kestner, and I have got up early in order to write again by the light of early morning, which recalls pleasant memories of earlier days; I had coffee made to honor the feast and plan to keep writing until morning breaks. The crier has already announced his song; I woke up on account of it. Praise to you, Jesus Christ. I love this time of year, the songs one sings; and the sudden cold makes me feel completely cheerful.

This was at the height of the Frankfurter Gelehrte Anzeigen phase, the so-called Sturm und Drang era, when Herder, Merck, and Goethe formed a literary circle. His letters are of a piece with the poetry and other literary writings. He sketches in this longish letter his changing mood as day dawns and reflects on his days with Lotte and Kestner. He mentions the previous evening:

We had a beautiful evening yesterday, like people on whom fortune has bestowed a great gift, and I fell asleep grateful to the holy ones in heaven for wanting o bless us with childlike joy for Christmas. When I walked through the market and saw the many lights and the toys I thought of you and my boys ...

Soon day arrives: "The first sign of day [das erste Grau!] has arrived above my neighbor's house, and the bells call together a Christian congregation." Yes, some enthusiasm on Goethe's part for Christmas, though it must be remembered that the protagonist of The Sorrows of Young Werther killed himself at Christmas time. Kestner of course was the fiance of Lotte Buff, the inspiration for Werther's love interest.

The pictures accompanying this post are totally unrelated to Goethe. They are from an old advertisement featuring a watercolor by the artist Charles E. Burchfield, an American artist with whom I have recently become acquainted via my friend, the artist Maureen Mullarkey. A good cheer to all at Christmas! I will be reading tomorrow, as every year, Charles Dickens' Christmas tales.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Kayaking on the Hudson

Since this is the longest day of the year, it means that the daylight will be increasing every day from here on out, a minute or so a day at first, until by March it will be as much as six minutes a day. And, then, one fine day in April I will be able to join the folks on the Delaware River for the first kayak outing of the season!

Some of you may wonder what it is like to kayak here in New York City. Here is a link to a teaser for a new movie on that very subject, featuring the Downtown Boathouse (where Rick and I are volunteers) and many of the folks we work with there: Mike, Jeremey, Tim, and so on.

Here is more information on the movie.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Goethe and the Rebirth of the Sun

Last year about this time I started looking for Christmas material to post on this blog, only to discover that Goethe wrote very little in the way of poetry about this Christian feast. In the meantime I came across a small book at the Goethe Institute here in Manhattan: "Christmas with Goethe" (Weihnachten mit Goethe). Anyone hoping to find Goethe expressing heartfelt joy at Christmas, however, will be sorely disappointed. The longest entries in an otherwise slender book (137 pages of large-print text in a 5x7 inch volume) are literary selections, from the Wilhelm Meister novels (e.g., "The Second Flight into Egypt"), or are vaguely anthropological ("Christmas in Naples," in Italian Journey).

Apparently Christmas did not go uncelebrated in Weimar. In a letter dated 20 December 1816, Marianne von Willemer informs August von Goethe that she has sent a package to Weimar that includes the kinds of sweets that Goethe père likes, including gingerbread cookies, as well as hams and sausages for August. Moreover, wrapped up with a pair of slippers for August is a "Christkindchen." I am not sure whether this is a figure for the Nativity manger, or whether it is another baked good in the shape of the infant Jesus. I think it must be the latter, because she writes that it is a gift for August and is an "allegorical allusion to their childhood." (She and August, who are about the same age, had got to know each other earlier in Frankfurt when he was visiting with his mother there.)

Marianne goes on: "You are, true, grown up now, but I am and remain small [i.e., a child]; and if the rest of the year I am large [i.e., an adult], every Christmas I become a child again." Goethe apparently liked the sweets that were profuse at Christmas, but not the sentiments that accompany the occasion. Still to be researched is whether Goethe wrote or said so little about Christmas because he disliked its Christian associations or because Christmas fell in the depths of winter. A clue is this report from Eckermann, dated Sunday, 21 December 1823:

Goethe's good mood was radiant again today. We have reached the shortest day, and the hope of seeing the days becoming significantly longer every week seems to exert the most favorable influence on his mood. "Today we are celebrating the rebirth of the sun!" he hailed me as I came in this morning. I hear that every year he spends the weeks before the shortest day in a depressed mood and goes around sighing.

As we approach the shortest day, the East Coast has become decked in snow. The snowfall began last evening.

I can't resist adding this rather weird image of the Flight into Egypt by Caravaggio. What would we do without Christian art!

Photo credit: McCutheon

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Art and Morals

I have not posted for a while. I wanted to write something about Goethe's essay on Winckelmann, but that led me back to Winckelmann's own essays as well, and then it was necessary to read some of Gottsched, Lessing, and Herder, too. For about a week now I have been trying to wrap my mind around the literary criticism of "Classical Weimar," i.e., the writings of Schiller and Goethe.

I "get" Gottsched, Lessing, and Herder: they were men of the Enlightenment who believed that critics could help form the tastes of the reading and theater-going public. In other words, tell people why they liked what they liked, or why they should like it. And, conversely, why they should dislike a work of art or literature. "Taste" is about subjective pleasure and displeasure. There is no arguing with taste, as someone said. At the same time, we all want to feel that there is some basis for our subjective evaluation. Thus the job of critics, contemporary or in the 18th century: they tell us what to think about aesthetic objects. People read the book or movie reviews, and decide on the basis of what the critic says whether to read the book or see the movie. No doubt reviews even allow people to talk about books as if they had read them. A year or so ago some French psychiatrist wrote a book on how to talk about things one hadn't read at, say, cocktail parties or other sociable occasions.

The Classical Weimar literary criticism is different. Schiller and Goethe basically gave up on trying to form public taste. Schiller, in a number of essays and reviews, laments what might be called the lack of "ideological uniformity" of modern society. Like many Germans, he looked back to ancient Greece as the ideal of social unity where citizens, from high to low, were of "one mind" regarding the spiritual or non-material side of life. I guess you could say the same thing about, say, American Indians four centuries ago. Thus, they all shared the same religion, artists produced for all the people, etc.

Schiller would like for all members of a nation to share the same way of feeling about these essential things of life. In the modern world, however, with changes in labor, society has become fragmented and more differentiated, with a variety of tastes, most of which (according to Schiller) are bad: people like to be entertained, and not by the "highest" art. Schiller approved of attaining pleasure from art, but not the kind of pleasure that merely fulfills the sensual side of our nature.

The true "aesthetic condition" could only be fulfilled by art that restores the "unity of human nature," a unity disturbed by the contemporary laboring life. Obviously, someone working on a production line would prefer, after a day of work, some easy relaxation of his faculties. Schiller, however, made high demands on artists and on the reception of art. Both he and Goethe believed that a literary and artistic market that catered to the public was bad for art and for the intellectual culture of the nation.

The above was on my mind as I visited the Bauhaus exhibition at MOMA. The occasion was the visit of our friend Philippe (pictured above), who travels from Germany at this time of year to stay with his aunt (my friend Gigi) in Connecticut. After Thanksgiving, he comes to New York. He was greatly interested in the Bauhaus, because his brother is an architect.

The Bauhaus experiment is in a long line of prescriptions for restoring that "lost unity" that Schiller imagined existed in ancient Greece. The Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius, for instance, issued a call for artists in all media (according to the wall label) "to rally around a new constructive purpose, at once aesthetic and social. 'The arts have become isolated in the modern age,' he wrote in 1919, and the school must forge a 'new unity.'" Later László Moholy-Nagy called for "the creation of a new vision for the modern age."
A prospectus for a series of books begins: "Proceeding from the recognition that all branches for the fashioning of life [Gestaltungsgebiete] are connected with one another, the Bauhaus is publishing a series of book that will occupy itself with the problems of contemporary life."

It is interesting how many artists and artistic types, especially since we live at a time of comfort produced by the division of labor lamented by Schiller, are in favor of fashioning a society in which everyone is on the same page. I think this is a European tendency, the inheritance of an intellectual tradition reaching back to the Enlightenment.

It was the crucial innovation of Swiss-born Benjamin Constant to argue that it was not the role of government or elites to mold opinion through education or "to direct, improve, or enlighten" the lives of citizens. Rousseau, unhappy with dissent and diversity, advocated for the General Will, which was to emerge from "the voice of duty," not from the opinions of individuals. Constant argued for a collision of opinions. The U.S. seems to have been founded on the basis of Constant's insights.

The Old World seems to be continuing in the same path of enforcing uniformity, through the instruments of the E.U. Just two recent examples. The former Beatle Paul McCartney spoke before the E.U. advocating "meat-free Mondays" to save the planet. In a similar vein, a Canadian journalist has advocated a Chinese-like policy of one child per couple -- even though she has two children herself. There is a great discomfort, mostly among people of talent and even genius, with the messy differences of individuals. And I wonder if McCartney or the Canadian journalist have gone so far in their thinking as to calculate the bureaucratic costs or the unintended consequences of their ideas. Probably not, since they are not "thinking," but responding aesthetically to the world.

The worst part of such high-mindedness is the power it cedes to functionaries to control all aspects of our lives. Aesthetic criticism is implicitly moral advice, not simply about what one should think of a movie or a novel but about how one should live. And this advice is "regulative": if we don't follow it we are an uncouth person or worse. The Nazis had the same idea, as did the Soviets. The Europeans seem on the path of asserting a softer despotism, but a despotism nevertheless.

Despite the above, I enjoyed many aspects of the Bauhaus exhibit, especially among the early generation, for instance, this playful color grid by Josef Albers. I also understand the desire of intellectuals and artists to be "relevant" to the society in which they live, but I have learned to live with the fact that most people are not interested in Goethe. "Most people," however, also produce the things that make my life easier and more comfortable, unlike myself, who works for my own pleasure and profit.

Picture credits: Alvise Cosma; Civitas '99; Ecorazzi;

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Goethe and Japan

The title of this post is actually a teaser, for Goethe was really unfamiliar with Japan. From the beginning of the 17th century until 1853 Japan was closed off to most of the outside world, aside from limited trading relations with China and the Netherlands at the trading port of Nagasaki. Thus, Goethe died (1832) just before the end of the long period of national isolation. By the 1850s Japan mania was beginning among Western artists. Japanese prints, for instance, had a great influence on the development of Impressionism. Traditional Japanese art owes much to Chinese art. Though Goethe turned his attention to Chinese literature in the 1820s, and published the collection Chinesisch-deutsche Jahres- and Tageszeiten, he seemed unfamiliar with Chinese art.

Knowing Goethe's classical preferences in art, I am thus of two minds whether he would have appreciated the fine works on display at The Japan Society here in Manhattan. My friend Suzanne was visiting New York over the Thanksgiving weekend and phoned to ask if I would accompany her to a "textile show" at the Society. Little did I know that it was a major exhibition of the works of Serizawa Keiskuke (1895-1984), designated a "living national treasure" in his lifetime.

The works were imaginative and eye-catching, in the true sense of that word, and often drawing on Japanese and Okinawan folk tradition, then (after World War II) absorbing something like a modernist aesthetic. Since I spent several years living in Japan, I was also reminded of the very different Japanese color sense, a preference for bold, unmodulated colors. I can't help feeling that Goethe would have found this stencil print very jarring. On the other hand, he would have been compelled to try to understand it. It's a shame that Goethe wrote his essays on art and literature before the effects of the "world literature" that he envisioned came to pass. These essays often come across as pedestrian, indeed pedantic, an effect that seems dictated by the narrow nature of the mostly European subjects he wrote about. An exception, of course, is Goethe's foray into the literature and culture of the Middle East, with The West-East Divan, in particular the notes that accompany it. With Japan's opening in the 1850s, however, the era of "world literature," with its manifold possibilities of artistic and literary exchange, moved beyond its Eurocentric source. Interestingly, Islamic and Chinese cultures, which Goethe did explore, have been resistant to absorbing the "universalist" ideas implicit in the notion of world literature. Long-standing imperialist cultures have their own ideas of universality.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Franz Messerschmidt's Grimacing Figure Heads

Brigitte Kronauer is a major German novelist (a Büchner Prize recipient) who also writes wonderful essays on art. Many years ago I read her essay (in the collection Die Einöde und ihr Prophet) on the sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt. Last summer when I was in Vienna I finally had an opportunity to view the collection of Messerschmidt's "heads" at the Belvedere Museum. (Herewith a large selection.) Messerschmidt had always seemed unique to me, but I had to revise that opinion today at the Metropolitan Museum, when I encountered this bust of Marsyas from about 1680 by the Austrian sculptor Balthasar Permoser. Clearly there is quite a tradition of "non-classical" portrayals. "Connect, only connect," as Goethe reminded us.

Messerschmidt, born in 1736 in Bavarian territory, had a successful career as sculptor at the Hapsburg court in Vienna, turning out portrait busts of nobles and local prominences, what Kronauer calls "official masks, desired images for the public world." In 1775, however, Messerschmidt turned his back on Vienna, where he had failed to gain promotion because of his erratic behavior, perhaps a result of the lead poisoning from which he would die in 1783. In the decade before his death he turned out seventy "character heads," of which forty-nine are now extant. He never had a commission for any of the heads, and he sold none during his lifetime. The titles that now attach to the works have been added by later collectors.

Kronauer reviews the facts of his life and quarrels with the consensus that he was mentally ill. (She seems to underestimate the effect of the lead poisoning.) For the most part, she is interested in the effect of these smirking, pinched, dented, grimacing, puffed-up, wrinkled faces. Grimacing, she writes, urges us to respond by imitation, but with these character heads one recognizes immediately that their expression is not directed at us, the viewers, but, simultaneously, at some external object that we are unable to see (a ghost perhaps?) as well as at something that is trapped inside the head, behind the outer skin. "Even if it were technically possible, we wouldn't be able to mimick the expression of these variously old faces, since we can't know the soul- and mind-shattering and mobilizing impetus."

Messerschmidt was a contemporary of Lavater, the friend of Goethe's youth. With Goethe's assistance, Lavater produced his Physiognomical Fragments (1774-78), which sought to show that a person's character can be deduced from his facial features. The young Goethe might have found something to admire in Messerschmidt's busts, had he ever seen them, but the "classical" Goethe could not have approved. On a literary note, he advised readers to be careful about the work of E.T.A. Hoffmann. In 1827 he approvingly quoted the judgment of an English reviewer who wrote that Hoffman's tales are "the fevered dreams of an unsettled sick brain." If one wants to read a really good tale, he advised, one in which the impossible and the low-down, the unheard-of and the ordinary, are melded, one should instead turn to "Die neue Melusine," his own tale! I leave it to readers to decide whether Goethe's retelling of the Melusine legend ranks as high as Hoffmann's tales.

Picture credits: J. Paul Getty Museum; Metropolitan Museum of Art

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Goethe and Mantegna

The above is "The Corselet Bearers," the sixth painting in Mantegna's series The Triumphs of Caesar. In his essay on this series of nine paintings, which appeared in Über Kunst und Altertum (1823), Goethe described this part of the Triumph as representing the most precious, the greatest treasure gained (das Kostbarste, das höchste Gewonnene). Behind the bearers of perhaps gold coins in small vases and other vessels follows a bounty of greater value and importance, the bounty of all bounties (die Beute der Beuten), one that encompasses all that proceeds it. These are the armour of the defeated kings and heroes, each individual as its own trophy. And, then, he writes: "The strength and extraordinary ability of the defeated princes can be seen in the bearers who can barely lift their burdens [Stangenlast], who drag them or indeed have to set them down, in order to rest for a moment before, rested, they can continue." Notice the bald fellow at the back, struggling to keep his standard aloft.

I was prompted to look into the subject of Goethe and Mantegna by the recent issue of the Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Keith Christiansen, curator of European Paintings at the museum, has written a splendid and short (64 pages) overview of Mantegna's career. The Metropolitan has only three Mantegna paintings, including the small but exquisite Adoration of the Shepherds (ca. 1450-57) (below), which graces the cover of the Bulletin.

I thought this would be easy to write about. After all, very little has been published on Goethe and Mantegna. The Goethe-Handbuch does not have a separate entry on the essay, and the secondary literature cited in the Hamburg edition of Goethe's works is sparse, with references dating back to 1894 and 1901. But what resources these are: for instance, the 1901 publication is a work on Mantegna by the eminent scholar of Renaissance humanism Paul Kristeller (d. 1999) Kristeller knows his Goethe and the Mantegna essay quite well. (I have learned that Kristeller studied under Heidegger in Heidelberg before coming to the U.S. in 1939.)

Hugh Trevor-Roper, writing in The New York Review of Books about the 1992 Mantegna exhibition at the Met, introduced his essay with Goethe: "In 1786, on his famous Italian journey, Goethe came to Padua and visited the church of the Eremitani, the Hermit Friars. There he saw the frescoes by Mantegna, of the lives of Saint James and Saint Christoper, in the funeral chapel of Antonio degli Ovetari. He stood before them 'astounded' at their scrupulous detail, their imaginative power, their strength and subtlety, and as he recorded it, a cascade of epithets tumbled from his pen." Or, in Goethe's words in his letter to Charlotte von Stein of September 27: "I have seen some paintings by Mantegna, one of the older painters, and I am struck with amazement. How keenly an actual present is reproduced in these pictures! It was not the real Present -- not an effective, deceitful apparition appealing solely to the imagination -- but a pure, straightforward, clear, consistent, conscientious, delicate, well-defined Present, with a leaven of strenuous, enthusiastic and laborious effort in it, which formed a starting point for the work of succeeding painters, as I noticed in the pictures of Titian. From this time onward the living force of their genius, the energy of their nature, illumined by the spirit and supported by the strength of their predecessors, mounting higher and higher, soared away from earth and brought into being forms of heavenly reality and truth."

The paintings in the chapel were destroyed in World War II, though early copies (as at left) are reproduced in the Met's Bulletin. These were early works of Mantegna, from about 1454, and he was much under the influence of the "antique" style, which of course would have interested Goethe. I think Kristeller captures well what was at stake for Goethe: "Mantegna is not one of those happy persons who are blinded by enthusiasm. He is a clear-sighted realist who views the world as it is, who sympathizes deeply with the misery caused by the power of the material over the moral and ideal, who does not veil reality with a halo of rhetoric, and who would rather stand in questioning sorrow before the problems of life than dazzle our eyes with the brilliance of a merely apparent solution. In this," Kristeller continues, "he is so like Goethe that it is easy to understand the great poet's preference for him."

According to Kristeller, in Goethe's day, and even before, most artists and scholars were rather "aloof" toward Mantegna. Goethe was thus reliant on early accounts of Mantegna's life and work (for instance, Vasari), but was able to come to some original conclusions. Mantegna's early work was criticized by some contemporaries as hewing so closely to antique models, especially reliefs, that it was, as Goethe writes, "stone-like and wooden, rigid and stiff." From that moment on, however, Mantegna began to adorn (zieren) his paintings with the likenesses of his fellow citizens. The result is thus a combination of the ideal with "life."

Keith Christiansen comes to similar conclusions, writing, for instance, of Mantegna's disegno, or invention, the ability "to conceive a story or allegory around which to structure visual ideas." Christiansen refers to the treatise on painting by Alberti (1435), writing that "so important was invention that a well-conceived pictorial program gave pleasure merely by being described, even without being represented. " In this light, the descriptive detail of Goethe's essays on the visual arts seek to give pleasure to his contemporaries who were unable to view the great works in person.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Goethe's Serenity

The poet and scholar Eric Ormsby has an essay in the October issue of The New Criterion on the Library of America edition of Thornton Wilder's novels. He writes of Wilder: "Even when dealing with tragic events, he is possessed of a decided equanimity." Examples are the collapsing bridge in 18th-century Peru and the 12th birthday of Emily Webb recalled from beyond the grave in Our Town.

Serenity is not much in favor these days, writes Ormsby; it is not edgy enough, and we Americans tend to associate it "with such pedestaled behemoths as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (the full name says it all.)" Another term with this flavor bestowed on Goethe was "Olympian." It is true that Goethe often seems above it all, distant from the cares of the world. The Olympians, however, were not all serene. Thomas Mann points out about Goethe (in his 1932 essay "Goethe as Representative of the Bourgeois Age") that "there are in Goethe, on closer examination, as soon as the innocence of the youthful period is past, signs of profound maladjustment and ill humor, a hampering depression, which most certainly have a deep-lying uncanny connection with his mistrust of ideas, his child-of-nature indifference. ... Nature does not confer peace of mind, simplicity, single-mindedness; she is a questionable element; she is a contradiction, denial, thorough-going doubt."

I reencountered this quote from Mann today while perusing Harold Bloom's book Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds. Bloom begins his discussion of Goethe with reference to the trope, contrasting the energetic melancholia of Samuel Johnson with Goethe's "hard-won serenity."

Ormsby notes of Thornton Wilder his "acuity in spotting the eternal type under a character's idiosyncratic lineaments," which is on display throughout his work. I would add that Goethe's characters also have something of the "type" about them, which can be seen even in the names bestowed on them. (How many variations of "Otto" in Elective Affinities!) Bloom is of the opinion that, "since Goethe, unlike Shakespeare, could create no persons except himself, we are puzzled by his novels and plays. Faust is an idea (or matrix of ideas) but not an individual. Shakespeare invented the human; Goethe hardly needed to invent Goethe, who arrived as nature's masterpiece, the genius of potential happiness."

Very interesting observation by Bloom, certainly applicable to the figures that appear in Goethe's novels and plays, though it tends to obscure rather than illuminate the person of Goethe.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Goethe's Afterlife

The Goethezeitportal has recently posted a piece on the illustrations on Liebig meat extract packaging representing scenes from Hector Berlioz' opera The Damnation of Faust. Justus von Liebig (1808-1873) was a German chemist, one of the fathers of organic chemistry. From the 1840s Liebig began to study the relation of organic chemistry to agriculture and physiology, and in 1847 he developed the meat extract. Though the product went on to conquer the world, Liebig did not profit greatly, as he owned only 100 shares of the stock. The first illustrations or "Liebigbilder" appeared on the product in 1875 and are today a major collectible. Of course, Goethe has gone on to be the inspiration for numerous consumer products, even in the English-speaking world.

Series 791, Faust's Damnation, appeared in 1911. The Goethezeitportal offers a nice selection of Liebigbild images as well as information concerning the genesis of Berlioz' work. Berlioz was familiar with Goethe's drama from Gérard de Nerval's translation. By 1828/29 he had written eight scenes, which he sent to Goethe, who in turn sent them to his friend and "musical adviser" Carl Friedrich Zelter. Zelter adamantly rejected the composition, charging that Berlioz was intoxicated by Mephisto's "sulfur odour" (Schwefelgeruch). Berlioz' work was also influenced by Delacroix's illustrations of Faust.

Goethe never responded to Berlioz, who 15 years later took his composition on the road, touring Austria, Hungary, Bohemia, and Schlesia. According to Goethezeitportal, Berlioz' biggest alteration was the musically brilliantly arranged ride and fall of Faust into hell ("der musikalisch fulminant gestaltete Ritt und Sturz Faustens in die Hölle"). The first scene was set in Hungary, which allowed Berlioz to incorporate the popular Rákóczi March. According to the Wikipedia entry on La damnation de Faust, "The visionary French composer was inspired by a bold translation of Goethe's dramatic poem." Indeed. I look forward to listening to the opera this evening during our Sunday pre-dinner "cocktail hour."

Thursday, November 12, 2009

An Early Stage of "Goethe in the Campagna"

I came across this charming sketch by Tischbein recently in the "yearly report" of the Freies Deutsches Hochstift. It was acquired by the foundation in 1976 and has this annotation: "Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, Goethe with His Landlord and Landlady in Rome, pen and ink drawing, 20.2 x 30 cm."

Goethe, wearing a hat and a coat, sits at a table with three other people, gesturing with his left hand. The others seem to be listening carefully to what he is saying. The drawing suggests, according to the notes in the annual (1976, p. 444), not just an ordinary situation that Tischbein has decided to capture. Instead, it is an early stage of the famous portrait of Goethe (reproduced at the top of this blog). In his diary of 29 December 1786, Goethe noted that Tischbein seemed always to be studying him attentively. He soon learned why. At this stage there is no indication of the Italian scenery or Roman antiquity in the finished painting, but it already contains the idea that Goethe is a "traveler" or "wanderer."

The famous painting has been in Frankfurt since 1887, when it was given to the the Staedel Museum by Baroness von Rothschild.

The time is late afternoon or early evening. The place is the southeastern outskirts of Rome. The view is toward Rome, Frascati, and the distant, volcanic tumulus of the Alban Hills and takes in the tower tomb of Cecilia Metella, with the remains of the ancient city of Tusculum behind it and the ruins of a Roman viaduct to the right. I take these details from an article in the journal Monatshefte (80 [1988], pp. 187-99), by Rudolf M. Bisanz. As we know, the area was familiar to Goethe from his walking tours with Tischbein, especially along the ancient Via Appia Antica.

Bisanz's subject is the"eclecticism" of Tischbein's portrait. He obviously considers Tischbein a mediocre painter who nevertheless drew on various sources to produce the splendid painting. For instance, the half-recumbent, half-seated pose -- Goethe seems to be thinking, pondering, contemplating -- recalls the "Three Goddesses group" on the East Pediment of the Parthenon (but would Tischbein have see it?), the third-century Sleeping Ariadne in the Vatican, or even the poses on Etruscan sarcophagi.

Bersani also mentions contemporary portrait artists who might have influenced Tischbein: Gainsborough and Joseph Wright of Derby also pioneered "a type of portrait where the subject is posed informally, intimately, and naturally in an outdoor setting suggestive of relaxation, reverie, individualism, and spiritual union with nature." Bisanz goes to say that "a degree of melancholy, even morbidity, sometimes attaches itself to these statements of meditative introspection, especially with Wright."

Wright's subject here seems an ironic portrait of the influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. (See this interesting analysis of Wright's painting.) There is no sense of incipient Romanticism in Tischbein's portrait of Goethe. Tischbein clearly presaged the "classical" direction in which Goethe was heading.

Another painting tradition that may have influenced Tischbein is the pastoral, represented above by the painting of The Infant Jupiter with the Nymphs on Mount Ida, from 1650, by Nicolaes Berchem, now in The Wallace Collection, London. The profusion of sources in Tischbein's portrait do not take away from our admiration. It is unfortunate that so few contemporary artists have a knowledge of art history. They find it sufficient simply to "quote" from the works of other artists.

Ariadne picture credit: Brian McMorrow

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Berlin Wall falls, and so on

The pictures above represent the contrast between Berlin twenty years ago and today. The one on the right, however, barely indicates the vast material changes in East Germany. Indeed, much has been done to eradicate the material existence of the former DDR. It was a very drab place, as I recall from my two visits to Berlin back in the 1970s and even in 1990, when I spent the summer in Berlin and could travel in East Germany, including to Weimar.

Communism is not dead, however, and last month the Chinese organized big 60th-anniversary celebrations of the founding of Communist Party rule. I came across pictures by Elizabeth Dalziel on the Big Picture website. Dalziel is an AP photographer stationed in Beijing, and among the photos were several of activities in the "model village" of Nan Jie Cun, taken in August.

The village is "a mixture of the free market and government control." Note that the youth pictured in the military drill (many wearing Western T-shirts) do not have the smiling faces we used to encounter in Chinese propaganda. The kids actually look somewhat resentful. I suspect they would rather have been at the Mercedez Benz launch event or at "art biennale" (below), both held in Beijing in August.

China, like Russia, was a much more traditional and indeed materially primitive society than was Eastern Europe when the Communist Party took over. Despite the inevitably great inequalities, the Chinese seem determined to catch up with the West. Something to watch for.

The central square of the model village is adorned with old-fashioned communist art, a large picture of Stalin. People continue to be attracted to dictators. As you may have guessed, I am not.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

World Literature

Material conditions change and give birth to new ideas that shake earlier intellectual foundations and offer new suggestions for how best to live and act in the world. Goethe's idea of world literature is one such idea. For centuries contacts between countries had taken place, but the world had been suspicious of change, while innovation was the result of a slow, accumulating process. The Church and the institutions of society validated tradition and age-old ways of doing things. After the "discovery" of the New World, however, global commerce brought new products into the homes of ordinary people. Tea, coffee, spices, "china ware," tobacco -- all things Europeans had done without for centuries -- suddenly became necessities of life. People could not imagine living without them. Suspicion slowly gave way to curiosity about the world, and ethnocentricty -- which formerly had performed a crucial, protective social function-- became regarded as "narrow minded," intolerant, and unenlightened. Thus, the background of Goethe's concept of world literature, something that Goethe himself may not have been fully aware of. Call him a "medium" for spiritual contents. As I have written before, Goethe's metaphors with regard to world literature -- trade, exchange -- support his sense of a connection between the commerce in goods and that among peoples. World literature says: Let's all get to know each other!

Among the books I have been reading on early modern commerce is Vermeer's Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World. The hat in question is that worn by the gentleman in the painting The Officer and the Laughing Girl, now in the Frick in New York. The author of Vermeer's Hat, Timothy Brook, traces the head covering to beaver trapping in North America. Indeed, the details in Vermeer's paintings allow Brook to describe the beginnings of what we would recognize as "bourgeois life" in Holland (and the West generally).

Alongside these changes, of course, traditional life went on (and still goes on) its course, as can be seen by The Milkmaid (on loan from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam), currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is part of a small exhibit on Vermeer, the kind that doesn't overwhelm you. The Milkmaid, we learn, is not a one-of-a-kind work. Vermeer was relying on a long tradition of milkmaids in art, as can be seen in the examples here.

At the same time, even The Milkmaid, with its seemingly traditional subject, alerts us to a small sign of the changes introduced into Dutch households by world commerce. Alongside the foot warmer at the bottom right in The Milkmaid is a row of "Delft tiles." (Click painting to enlarge.) Brook mentions that in the decade of the 1650s Chinese porcelains began to take their place in Dutch art and life. Dutch potters, however, unable to match Chinese blue-and-white, made passable imitations, at the low end of which were blue-and-white wall tiles. In the process, they created a kind of folk art through what Brook calls (quoting Anthony Bailey) "long-distance plagiarism."

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Goethe and the Intelligensia

I am always encountering Goethe in new contexts. Today it is in an essay by Arthur Koestler entitled "The Intelligentsia" (in the collection The Yogi and the Commissar). As Koestler says at the beginning, it is one of those terms difficult to define but easy to associate, "logically blurred but emotionally vivid, surrounded with a halo, or rather several halos which overlap and vary according to period and place." He lists several varieties: the Romantic salon, the Bohemians of Montmartre, terrorist organizations of students and aristocracy in Russia in the second half of 19th century, Bloomsbury, Montparnasse. As he says, the "aura" of intelligensia changes all the time. To orient himself, Koester consults "the Oxford dictionary," wherein it stands written: "Intelligentzia, -sia, The par of a nation (esp. the Russian) that aspires to independent thinking." A little later is the passage in which he mentions Goethe.

"Among the upper strata of the Third Estate the aspiration to independent thinking was not a luxury but a dire necessity of survival. The young bourgeoisie hemmed in by the stultifying feudal structure, had to conquer its historic Lebensraum, and this conquest was only possible by blowing up the feudal totems and taboos with the dynamite of 'independent thought.' The first modern intellectuals were the Encyclopaedists, and they enter the historical stage as the great debunkers and iconoclasts. Goethe resurrected is unimaginable in our time, but Voltaire would be within a fortnight acclimatised in Bloomsbury, winning all weekend competitions of the New Statesman. For Goethe was the last Renaissance genius, a direct descendant of Leonardo, and his attitude to Society that of a courtier of some enlightened Florentine prince; whereas with Voltaire, the great debunking of feudal values begins."

I think the term "Renaissance man" is overused in connection with Goethe; the matter is really more complex, but Koestler is right in saying that Goethe was not a debunker or representative of typical attitudes of his era. The drive -- not simply the aspiration -- to so-called independent thinking characterized many Europeans at mid-20th century -- Koestler's essay dates from 1942 -- but he is reflecting on those who, in the 1920s and 1930s, rushed to proclaim the new world order being established in the Soviet Union, in the process seeking to debunk capitalism and bourgeois civilization. By 1942, when Koestler's wonderful novel Darkness at Noon appeared, alerting the world to the true nature of Soviet communism, Koestler was rather despairing about intellectuals. (See here for an irreverent take on this social category.)

Along these lines, I came across today a long review essay in The New Republic by Enrique Krauze concerning Gabriel García Márquez. Márquez is of course a great fan of the Cuban dictator, Fidel Castro. Márquez's most recent biographer, Gerald Martin, calls him the "new Cervantes," but Krauze will have none of it: in moral terms there is no comparison with Cervantes, who was a hero in the war against the Turks, wounded and maimed in battle, castaway and prisoner in Algeria for five years: "Cervantes lived his ideals, his tribulations and his poverty with Quixote-like integrity and enjoyed the supreme freedom of accepting his defeats with humor. There is not a trace of such greatness of spirit in Garcia Marquez, who has avidly collaborated with oppression and dictatorship."

In Krauze's account Garcia Marquez resembles the Western communists who, according to Koestler, were likewise blind to the truth about Soviet communism: "five million Cubans who belonged to the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, [Garcia Marquez saw] not as the spies and enforcers of the Revolution but as its happy, spontaneous, multitudinous 'true force,' or, more plainly -- in the chilling words of Castro himself, admiringly quoted by Garcia Marquez -- 'a system of collective revolutionary vigilance that ensures that everybody knows who the man next door is and what he does.'"

Well, I have certainly got far away from Goethe, haven't I? What I like about studying Goethe is that one is far removed from these contemporary intellectual disputes. As Yeats said: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Goethe and Industrialism

I have been asked by a reader of this blog if I could offer him some information on two topics: (1) Goethe's desire to distance himself from the Romantics; and (2) Goethe's opinion of industrialism and of machines. From what I have just been reading in the Goethe-Handbuch, in two entries by Michael Niedermeier, it seems that there is a connection between these two topics.

On Goethe's distance from the Romantics, Niedermeier writes the following in his entry on craft trades ("Handwerk"): "Goethe's growing recognition that a prerequisite for every serious creative occupation is manual training [handwerkliches Können] led to a greater appreciation and active promotion of all sorts of manual activities; thus, his critical assessment of trends in culture, art, and science that in his opinion were too fixated on the subject and its inner subjective processes." The latter, of course, refers to the Romantic writers. (Here, also, a nice article on "Handwerk/Kunsthandwerk" in English.)

At the outset it must be said that Goethe had virtually no experience with industry, as we have come to know it. In his capacity as a member of the Ilmenau mine commission, he was familiar with the mechanical processes involved in mining, in extracting minerals from the earth. (Bernd Wolff's novels Winterströme and Die Würde der Steine contain excellent passages describing 18th-century German mining in the Harz and also portray Goethe's acquaintance with miners and his descent into several mines.) The Ruhr, which would become Germany's major source of coal, was still mostly agrarian in his lifetime, though by 1850 there were almost 300 coal mines in the region. Goethe, however, certainly never saw a factory like the one above, the Borsig Machine Factory (in an 1847 painting by Karl Eduard Biermann). As part of the administration of the duchy of Weimar, however, Goethe is rather singular among major writers in actually having had real hands-on contact with the world of work and with the finances of the duchy.

According to Niedermeier (in the entry on "Industrie"), Goethe's understanding of the term "industry" is originally to be seen in the context of moral philosophy, thus, a virtue in the sense of "inventive diligence, industrious activity, industry or bustle" (eine Tugend im Sinne von erfinderischem Fleiß, eifriger Tätigkeit, Emsigkeit oder Betriebsamkeit: so many terms in Germany for industriousness!).

(Homage to American Quiltmakers, by Lori Smith)

Niedermeyer mentions that the coming machine age (das aufkommende Maschinenwesen) first began to concern Goethe after he saw his first steam engine in 1790 in Tarnowitz in Silesia (today the southern Polish Tarnowskie Góry). While recognizing the possibility of greater productivity, Goethe feared that the separation of the hand from the labor posed a danger for art ["sah er doch in der Trennung der Hand von der Arbeit eine Gefährdung für die Kunst"]; he also foresaw culture becoming more shallow with technical progress, not to mention a rise in unemployment because of technical reproduction methods. (We see here where Marx got some of his ideas.)

I mentioned in an earlier post that some scholars and others have claimed Goethe as a "Green" avant la lettre. It has to be said, however, that Goethe cannot be pigeon-holed in this way; he not only saw the advantages of the coming "technologisches Zeitalter" (see Walter Benjamin), but he also followed material developments with great interest. Thus, after learning from Alexander von Humboldt that a canal would be dredged through the isthmus of Panama, he spoke to Eckermann (February 2, 1827) about the resulting prospects for world shipping:

Should a dig of this sort succeed, so that ships of any size, with any cargo, could sail from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean, the consequences for the human race, civilized and uncivilized, would be incalculable. I should be surprised if the United States missed taking this project into its hands. ... I should like to see a connection forged between the Rhine and the Danube. But this undertaking would be so gigantic that I doubt it can be achieved, especially in view of our German resources. ... And finally I should like to see the English in possession of a canal at Suez. I wish I might live to experience these three achievements. It would be worth lasting some fifty more years.

(The Suez Canal was finished in 1869, the Panama in 1914, and the Rhine-Danube connection late in the 20th century.)

Picture credit: Dair House School; NASA (image taken by MISR satellite on January 30, 2001)

Translation credit: Nancy Boerner (from Peter Boerner's Goethe, 2005)