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."