Friday, July 24, 2009

Goethe on Landscape Painting

After my visit earlier this week with my friend Barbara Cushing (one of her paintings is above), I began to think about Goethe's writing on landscape painting.  As John Gearey has written, however (in his afterward to the English edition of Goethe's writings on art and literature), Goethe had no particular "theory" when it came to art, landscape otherwise. That was Schiller's domain, and indeed Schiller, in a 1794 essay on Friedrich von Matthisson's nature poetry, devoted much thought to the subject of landscape. It is another instance of Schiller wrestling with the difference between the "ancients" and the "moderns." According to Schiller, it was the moderns who were the first "to consider inanimate nature a subject worthy of depiction for its own sake." I am quoting Jason Gaiger here (from his 2000 article in The Journal of the History of Ideas), who also points out that, from the perspective of classicist aesthetics, "the diffuse and ever-varied forms of the natural landscape appear[ed] resistant to the ennobling and ordering vocation of art."

Goethe's own numerous drawings of landscape (as the one above) are evidence of his interest in landscape painting, but, as John Gearey (who was my Doktorvater) writes, instead of theory, instead of abstract pronouncements, Goethe's essays on art were the products of "an occasion." At the same time, as John writes, "to speak of any work of art was to speak of all art."

Thus, Goethe's essay on three paintings by the Dutch landscape painter Jacob van Ruisdael (ca. 1628-1682) must be seen in this light. It is not so much a discussion of the qualities of landscape as it is a presentation, in 1816, of convictions that had been developing since his journey to Italy in 1786. Thus, the first painting Goethe discusses is The Waterfall (1660-70; National Gallery, London), which, as he writes, "presents successive periods of human history simultaneously."

When Goethe went to Italy in 1786, according to Gearey, he brought with him not only a preference but also a passion for realism in art, particularly the art of the North. He was familiar with such art from his home in Frankfurt, and he first encountered Ruisdael's paintings already in 1768 in Dresden. After Rome, Goethe's early "evolutionary" ideas about artistic creation (as expressed in the essay on the Strasbourg Cathedral) had to be fitted into a "broader framework of meaning." Though Goethe did not abandon an appreciation for "realism" in art, he now preferred "ideal" landscapes. His essay on Ruisdael praises the artist for "delighting, teaching, refreshing, and invigorating us through the health of his mind and his senses."

Goethe rejected the elegiac landscapes of Romantic artists, which reminded him too much of time's winged chariot. In his words, these were pure negations of life (Das sind ja lauter Negationen des Lebens). An example of such an "unhealthy" landscape is the one above, Cloister in the Snow, by Karl Friedrich Lessing. Goethe suggested (in a conversation with Friedrich F├Ârster) that Lessing could improve the painting by rearranging the moon illumination in such a way as to make the viewer forget the the subject was a cemetery! The image here is a copy of Lessing's famous painting by the German artist Klaus W. Kunze, who specializes in such historical reproductions. (No free copies of this painting on the Internet!)

Picture credits: ⓒ Barbara Cushing; Goethezeitportal

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