Sunday, January 15, 2012

Goethe in Venice

I mentioned in an earlier post three important things that had happened to me in New York. I should have mentioned a fourth, which is my association with The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Not only am I so fortunate as to live just across Central Park from the museum, but I have also been an editorial consultant for many, many years. Before I got my Ph.D., I had been a scholarly editor at the University of Texas Press, which led to my work in Tokyo at the University of Tokyo Press. Later, while writing my early novels and doing my doctoral studies in Manhattan, I continued to work on a part-time basis at the Met. It was while I was writing my dissertation that I met Rick. Though I did teach at local universities while a doctoral student, and later enjoyed my role as chair of the Columbia University Seminar on 18th-Century European Culture, my relationship with Rick precluded my accepting an academic appointment outside of New York. Meeting Rick was the best thing that has ever happened to me; I can't imagine now that I would include a tenured university position as among the important things in my life.

To return to that fourth important thing, my association with the Met. Not only do I enjoy the privilege of a close-up view of the workings, indeed the innards, of a great museum, but the steady exposure to works of art constantly prompts me to think about the issue of "taste," which was such an 18th-century concern. I have written on this subject in various posts (e.g., here and here). A small exhibit at the Met, Art in Renaissance Venice, 1400-1515, made me think anew about Goethe's taste in painterly subjects.

According to the Met's website, the exhibition "presents a comparison of the two primary artistic dynasties, the Bellini and the Vivarini, and explores their workshop practices and specializations in the context of the Venetian art market." Goethe mentions the Vivarinis in the essay Ältere Gemälde. Venedig 1790 (published in 1825 in Über Kunst und Alterthum), commenting (WA I, 47, 213) on their placement of small human figures in the painting of Saint Roch in his coffin.The essay begins with comments on the "oldest examples of the newer art," represented by mosaics and "Greek paintings." Of the former he has seen nothing that is worth devoting his attention to. The "old Greek paintings" (die alt-griechischen Gemählde") are to be found in the Greek Orthodox cathedral, and he opines that even the face of the Virgin appears to be modeled on portraits of the imperial family, e.g., Constantine and his mother. I am not sure whether Goethe was aware that these paintings date to no earlier than 1500. In any case, this is a narrative of progress, in techniques and subject matter, culminating with Goethe's favorites: Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese.

His comments on the techniques of these painters, for instance, the reason for the darkening of the colors over time, shows Goethe at his pedantic, art-student best. He even devotes two sections of this essay (again, illuminating for art historians) on the workshop in the monastery of Saints John and Paul ("eine Art von Akademie der Gemählde-Restauration"). Among other things, he describes the painstaking work that is carried out to repair holes in the canvases of older paintings.

He also seeks to show the emancipation of these artists from religious conventions. I think it is probably true that most of the works we now associate with them are of non-religious subjects, their luscious paintings of the earthly surface of life being heavily represented in public collections today. It's hard to know how many of such paintings Goethe ever saw; clearly in Venice he was viewing paintings in churches and monasteries, many of which are still in situ. The gorgeous photo above by "Maurizio 51," of the interior of the Church of San Giorgio dei Greci, reveals how Goethe probably viewed much of the art he saw in Venice.

His comments on Tintoretto's painting of the appearance of the angel to Saint Roch in prison are interesting. In order to render the "repulsive subject" more tasteful (schmackhaft), Tintoretto has drafted "beautiful female witnesses." (Detail at top of post.) How else to explain the presence of these courtesan-appearing women in such a setting? Really, should one have trapped a saint and females of bad reputation (Mädchen eines übeln Lebens) in the same cell with other criminals?

I posted earlier on Goethe's dislike of religious art, because of the "repulsive" or "gruesome" subject matter. The Met exhibit had a nice little painting of such a subject, by Antonio Vivarini. It is entitled Saint Peter Martyr Healing the Leg of a Young Man, from about 1450. It depicts the Dominican saint (as per the label) "healing a young man who cut off his own leg in penitence for having kicked his mother"! Since it was probably commissioned for a Dominican church or confraternity, Goethe may have even seen it. The notion of sin was becoming passe obviously.

Painting credits: MMA, Robert Lehman Collection (1975.1.81); MMA, Gift of Samuel H. Kress Foundation (37.163.4)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I enjoy the Goethe and the etcetera both, equally. I must say also that Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese do leave an almost indelible impression on the mind. It's thrilling to remember our semester in Rome (1973) and all the places, especially Venice! covered by the "Eurail Pass." Goethe's distaste for the "gruesome" seems wise and healthy altogether natural. Many of us are not comfortable with such images. I know one effective pastor who tends to focus on the Incarnation as opposed to the Cross and Resurrection. This image of the "blood of Christ" has always troubled me. I get about 75% of the theology. And when the Holy Father explains it, it makes sense and then some. But the image is undeniably gruesome and problematic. How does one present the "atonement" to children? These days, thank goodness, the priest sprinkles water on the flock, not blood as in ancient times. As for the basic message, in art or religion, that "suffering can bring Wisdom"...I totally get that...on the theoretical level.