Sunday, February 27, 2011

Goethe in Portrait

When I am wandering through Central Park I often listen to my iPod, mostly "podcasts." One of my favorite podcasts is "Philosophy Bites," a really cool program of short (15 minutes) interviews with philosophers. The subjects range from Plato to Nietzsche. Some people will talk about anything, and my only complaint is that the program features too much contemporary stuff: just war, vegetarianism, cosmopolitanism, etc. I would like to hear about Dun Scotus or Augustine or Boethius! Still, it is a great program, and recently it featured an interview with Cynthia Freeland, a professor of philosophy at the University of Houston, who talked about the relevance of portraits to philosophy, especially what they might tell us about the human self. If that seems like an odd connection, she reminded Nigel Warburton, who was interviewing her, that philosophers interested in personal identity often cite novels or other literary sources.

Professor Freeland finds that the neglect of portraits by philosophers is puzzling since portraits "represent the serious efforts of some of the world's best artists to study people (others or themselves). Hence, portraits might reasonably be though to embody accumulated cultural wisdom about what it is to be human."

What is a portrait? She works up to the subject by discussing animals, which are often depicted in art, and arrives at three criteria: a portrait is a depiction of an individual living being; the being has internal emotional states; and the being poses. Animals, however endearing they are and even possessing internal emotional states, do not "enact self-representation."

She was asked about candid photographs. Adult humans, according to Freeland, are self-enacting most of the time. Even in a candid shot you can find this self-representation to the rest of humanity, which would make it portrait-like. A candid shot, however, lacks the element of engagement between the portrait artist and the sitter. Portrait artists have often described this situation as one of conflict and tension, since the artist wants one thing, the subject something else. Warburton suggested that the subject puts on a "theatrical mask," but Freeland insisted that that is not a bad thing: we are like that as human beings, self-aware creatures, and it is natural and ineveitable that we present ourselves in a variety of ways.

The discussion sent me to looking at portraits of Goethe. First off, one must admit that, while there are many portraits of Goethe, he was never portrayed by a truly great artist, one of the caliber of Van Gogh or Rembrandt. How great it would be to have a portrait of him by Caspar David Friedrich. Perhaps the best one and even the most representative is that by Johann Heinrich Tischbein at the top of the blog. I will try in the coming days to focus on a few portraits that I particularly like.

The one at the top of this post is by Georg Melchior Kraus (1737-1806). Like Goethe, he was from Frankfurt and got to know Goethe in the latter's "Sturm und Drang" phase. Kraus even went to Weimar at about same time as Goethe, becoming director of the drawing academy there in 1776. He was also Goethe's companion on the third Harz journey and prepared many of the drawings of rock formations that Goethe wanted for his geological investigations. Thus, he knew Goethe quite well from early on. The dress and style in this portrait is definitely "Genie" period. Note that Goethe's hair is not powdered.

Goethe seems to be studying a Schattenriss (shadow cut) that he holds in his lifted right hand, alluding to Johann Caspar Lavater's work on "physiognomic fragments," which was published with Goethe's assistance. According to Lavater our physiogomy was a key to our character, and to illustrate his theory he had his friends make silhouette portraits.

Goethe is very engaging in the portrait by Kraus, and one gets a sense of why people were so captivated with him in this period. Note the similarity in the pose with the one in the portrait by Tischbein. The relaxed pose might indicate a lack of the kind of artist-sitter tension that Freeland mentions as often characteristic of great portraits. In the latter portrait, however, Goethe is not studying anything that we can see. Indeed, his eyes appear to be contemplating some inward prospect. One also can't help but feel that in both portraits Goethe is very reserved and self-contained, qualities that will continue to be seen in future portraits.

Picture credits: Recherche; Paint My Dog; Artblart


Anonymous said...

The portrait of Goethe could be titled, "Goethe in Contemplation." Somewhat reminiscent of Rembrandt's "Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer."

Goethe Girl said...

Though he is looking at a book or a text of some sort, with a picture in it, you almost get the impression he is looking at himself in a mirror. And, indeed, though it is not visible in the image posted here, he seems to be studying a silhouette of himself. Tischbein may have had Rembrandt's painting in mind here.

paintmydog said...

Very interesting article to read. As a painter of dogs, and one of my portraits features in the article -- this lead me here - I have long been interested in the way depicting animals feels so different, no "theatrical mask" from the sitter, and often candid. Thanks for a good read!