Monday, June 13, 2011

"The figure under the carpet"

The phrase is from Leon Edel, the biographer of Henry James. He uses other, similar figures of speech: e.g., "reading the reverse of the tapestry." The biographer's task is to get behind the mask that a subject presents in order to discover what Edel calls the "life myth" or "the inner myth we create in order to live." I suppose Edel was speaking of the subconscious or perhaps the unconscious of an artist. He indicates that we are not satisfied with the work that an artist presents us; we insist on figuring out the workings of his mind. I remember back in graduate school attending a lecture on Thomas Mann. Someone offered Thomas Mann's own opinion of a certain work, to which a young professor made the seemingly scandalous comment that Thomas Mann was simply one of many interpreters of Thomas Mann's works.

Autobiographies by writers and artists have also become suspect, though I have to admit that they seem to offer insight that the works don't, at least as far as the life goes, into the workings of the mind. One of my favorite books is Stephen Spender's memoir, World Within Worlds. Goethe's autobiography, Poetry and Truth, was much mocked in its own time by Romantic writers, on the grounds of its absence of "revelations" about the self. Still, I think it is a pretty fine "tapestry," to use Edel's term. The problem, I think, is reading too deeply into Goethe. He may have been more superficial than one has been led to assume. Or he may have been moved by other things.

I was thinking about this yesterday at the Museum of Biblical Art in Manhattan (MOBIA), the last day of the exhibition Passion in Venice, which does not feature paintings of luscious Venetian females but, instead, of the mortified, crucified body of Christ, half-risen from his tomb, an iconographic motif known as The Man of Sorrows (or Schmerzensmann, according to Panofsky). This particular motif allowed artists to use all their craftsmanship to portray Christ as "the most despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief" (Isaiah 53:3). It is quite amazing how this one Biblical verse inspired so many artists of the most varying temperaments. At the same time, it is evidence that a small number of themes is all an artist needs. Goethe wrote somewhere (and I have to trace this) that subject is all important. Well, before the modern period the subject was given, and artists ran with it.

Goethe might have approved of some works in the show, but I suspect very few, especially not the depiction of the gory details. Goethe is notorious for wishing to avoid suffering. I would like to have seen his reaction when faced with Crivelli's gruesome rendering (in Philadelphia Museum of Art) of the Man of Sorrows. Look at Christ's left hand and see if you don't cringe. And all the blood dripping from his wounds in Michele Giambono's painting (at the Metropolitan Museum of Art).

While visiting Bologna in October 1786, Goethe saw works by Guido Reni, of whom he wrote:

While you are attracted by Guido's beatific intent, by his brush, which should have painted only the most perfect things that can be gazed upon, at the same time you want to avert your eyes from the disgustingly stupid subjects, for which there are no words bad enough, and thus it is throughout. We cannot get away from the dissecting room, the gallows, the abattoir, and the sufferings of the hero ... Nothing is there to suggest humanity! (Robert R. Heitner translation, p. 88)

By "hero" I believe Goethe is here referring to Christ or other religious figures. To my ears, such a term is harsh; it bypasses what has been considered the redemptive nature of Christ's suffering. Goethe is of course indicating that he thinks Western art took a wrong turn in terms of subject. I think Goethe's "life myth" is pretty evident. Part of our problem with Goethe is not taking him at his word.

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