Monday, January 10, 2011

Goethe in Italy

Today I had a reminder of what did interest Goethe in Italy. We went again to see the exhibition of paintings by the Netherlandish painter Jan Gossart (1478-1532). Gossart might have remained true to his roots in Late Gothic Mannerism had he not traveled to Rome in 1508-9, where he made copies of antique sculptures.

It was still somewhat rare for Northern artists to travel to Italy to get a firsthand look at these works. Albrecht Dürer had already traveled there in the 1490s (when Columbus was crossing the Atlantic!). The experience had a great effect on Gossart's style, as can be seen especially in the sculptural quality of the subjects of his post-Italian paintings, whether it be the Virgin or a burgher from Bruges. The figures seem to stand forth from their background. I love the painting at the top, the Carondelet Diptych, from 1517. From the look in his eyes, the infant Jesus would seem to be a regular little terror, as if he would love to tear himself from Mary's arms and run after something beyond our view. (Click on image to enlarge.) For once I think the Met has named this exhibition correctly: "Man, Myth, and Sensual Pleasures."

In the two years Goethe spent in Rome and southern Italy, he studied the works of antiquity closely, as well as such "moderns" as Raphael and Michelangelo. He immersed himself in Wincklemann's works. Goethe had been a sketcher from childhood, but it is hard to believe that he still imagined when he went to Rome that he might become an artist himself, despite being famous throughout Europe as an author. Most of his friends in Rome were other German artists, who taught him a lot about drawing and painting. In the end, he was wise enough to see that he didn't have the talent to be a visual artist. The experience, however, was crucial for what would later be known as Weimar Classicism.

Image sources: Musée du Louvre, Paris; Universiteitsbibliothek Leiden Prentenkabinet

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The Baby Jesus is very rambunctious-looking! Also, his body-language resembles Moses--a la Michelangelo. The tension. The looking away, ahead. The readiness to act...The "individualism" of Modernity. One also thinks here of Tennyson's "Ulysses." That relentless drive to learn. By the way, my wife and I enjoyed last night an Italian masterpiece--talk about lively and entertaining and hopeful--"Life Is Beautiful." (1997)