Sunday, April 12, 2009

Goethe and Rubens

I came late to appreciating Peter Paul Rubens, just a few years ago, in fact. One recognized that there was something special, but I felt overwhelmed by the huge historical and allegorical dramas that demanded interpretation. Clearly, they required study and attention, but I couldn't find a way in. Then, the Metropolitan Museum of Art had an exhibition of Rubens drawings, many of which were studies for individual portions of the large canvases.

The show revealed the working method behind the achievement. Last summer I saw some wonderful portraits in Vienna, and now in New York the Frick has the beautiful painting of the women at Christ's tomb, appropriate for Easter, one of five works on loan from the Norton Simon Foundation in Pasadena.

It would be too much to expect that Goethe would have something specific to say about Easter, but looking through his writings on art I discovered that Rubens was a lifelong enthusiasm. He may have first seen paintings by Rubens in Dresden in 1768 and in Düsseldorf in 1774. His first mention of the artist is in connection with reflections on art in the very early (1775) writing called "Nach Falkonet und über Falkonet."

Étienne Maurice Falconet (1716-1791) was an important French Rococo sculptor. Madame de Pompadour was his patron, and he created many works that might have been considered insipid for the Sturm und Drang generation, but Falconet also wrote, for instance, the chapter on "Sculpture" for the Encyclopédie. It was his Observations sur la statue de Marc-Aurèle (1771), considered to be his artistic program for his statue of Peter the Great in Saint Petersburg, to which Goethe was responding in his essay.

Undoubtedly Goethe never saw The Holy Women at the Sepulchre (it was, e.g., created for a family in Antwerp in about 1611, went to the collection of Johann Rudolf, Count Czernin in Vienna in about 1804, was then in Salzburg, then London, from where the Norton Simon Foundation purchased it in 1972), but what Goethe says about Rubens in "Nach Falkonet" applies to the female figures here:

What the painter hasn't loved, doesn't love, he should not portray, cannot portray. You find Rubens' women too fleshy! I tell you, they were his women, and had he populated heaven and hell, the air, the earth, and the sea with ideal beings, then he would have been a bad husband, and powerful flesh would not have grown from his flesh nor [powerful] bone from his bone.

Let me give the German here, since it is so full of Goethe's own powerful writing style in the early 1770s, linking the natural talents of an artist like Rubens with "Genie," indeed with the creations of God, amplified in this passage by the Biblical echoes:

Was der Künstler nicht geliebt hat, nicht liebt, soll er nich schildern, kann er nicht schildern. Ihr findet Rubensens Weiber zu fleischig! Ich sage euch, es waren seine Weiber, und hätt' er Himmel und Hölle, Luft, Erd und Meer mit Idealen bevölkert, so wäre er ein schlechter Ehmann gewesen, und es wäre nie kräftiges Fleisch von seinem Fleisch und Bein von seinen Beine geworden.

As Goethe left his early enthusiastic language behind, he became more measured in later comments on Rubens, but his admiration did not lessen. In a draft for an essay on landscape painting, from 1818, he writes:

As a history painter it was not that he sought out what was significant [das Bedeutende] but that he knew how to endow every object with significance; for that reason his landscapes are unique. Whether it be on steep mountains, on limitless expanses, even on the quietest, simplest rural object, he knows how to endow it with its spirit [i.e., the spirit of significance] and, because of that, to render the most common thing important and charming. 

These are interesting observations, since Rubens (for me, anyway) is not primarily a landscape artist. I associate him with large works with impressive historical, mythological, religious drama, though it is true that many of the drawings I saw at the Met exhibit were of rural scenes. It cannot be denied that Rubens endows them with charm. Still, I couldn't help thinking, as I looked at the luscious women in the Easter painting, of Christiane Vulpius, who also represents a rather pulchritudinous beauty that might have attracted Goethe. What Goethe says in the "Falconet" essay, following the French artist's observations on marble, light, and color, applies to Rubens' work here. Goethe has clearly grasped the sculptural principle behind the figures Rubens created, an influence of his study of classical sculpture in Rome.

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