Thursday, March 3, 2011

Goethe in Portrait

I wanted to add a couple of my thoughts on portraits since my last posting. In the meantime I have also had an opportunity to look at Cynthia Freeland's book Portraits and Persons. In the second chapter, entitled "Contact," she discusses Roland Barthes' book on photography, Camera Lucida, which he was prompted to write after his mother's death. Reflecting on the past, he claims that photographs "preserve the past, bringing us into the direct presence of people who are long dead."

When looking at photographs of 19th-century people, especially ethnographic photographs like the one of Arapaho Indian men below, I have indeed felt that one "knows" them in a way that one doesn't know people from paintings, drawings, or any other earlier visual document. I have so often wished that photography had been invented a decade earlier; then, we might have had a photograph of Goethe.

Freeland mentions Barthes' discussion of the way a portrait captures a person's "air, which Barthes describes as follows:

The air is not a schematic, intellectual datum, the way a silhouette is. Nor is the air a simple analogy -- however extended -- as in "likeness." No, the air is that exorbitant thing which induces body from soul -- animula, little individual soul, good in one person, bad in another.

Got that? Actually, I would reverse Barthes' terms: not "induces body from soul," but "soul from body." And, indeed, Freeland goes on to say that there is something in great portraits from history "that holds our attention just because we do seem to see in them a person's essence, their 'air.'" Barthes himself goes on to say: "Perhaps the air is ultimately something moral, mysteriously contributing to the face the reflection of a life value."

Freeland mentions a couple of paintings that, she claims, reveal this "air," in other words, "someone's essential nature or their character in a very deep sense." One was the portrait of Queen Elizabeth by Lucian Freud. Frankly I find it so ugly that I didn't want to put it on my blog. Another is Velazquez' portrait of Pope Innocent X, who "has the air of someone cunning and ruthless." I think she is onto something there.

The drawing at the top of Goethe, by Tischbein, sketched shortly after Goethe arrived in Rome in 1787, is not a portrait. It is obviously something like a candid snapshot. There is not the "engagement" between artist and subject that, for Freeland, characterizes the true portrait. At the same time, as Freeland mentioned (see my previous post), adult humans are self-enacting, presenting themselves to the world, most of the time. From Goethe's relaxed "pose" here, as he stares out the window onto the Roman scene below, one certainly glimpses the charming young man that so many were attracted to. One has the impression that Goethe is not aware he is being observed; Goethe, however, seemed able to withdraw into himself, even when he was observed, a quality that Tischbein captured in Goethe in the Campagna.

Picture credits: Recherche; First People

1 comment:

Bridget said...

I would say it is a portrait. Even though he isn't looking directly at the artist he is posed and that is the engagement with the artist/audience.