Thursday, November 21, 2013

Vanity and Goethe's mysterious "Kästchen"

The Morning Toilette, by Petro Antonio Martini
I was browsing the fall issue of the Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Vanities: Art of the Dressing Table, by Jane Adlin. As she points out in her introduction, "the history of the vanity begins, arguably, not with a table but a box." The first illustration is of the cosmetic box of the cupbearer Kemeni of the Twelfth Dynasty, which was made of cedar with ebony and ivory veneer and silver mounting.  The box, a storage container for ointments, face paints, perfumes, and other potions, was excavated in 1910 from the tomb of Reniseneb by Lord Carnarvon. Of course, I thought of Goethe's tale Der Mann von fünfzig Jahren as I browsed the Bulletin, which contains beautiful examples of portable boxes and tables.

According to Adlin, self-adornment and the use of cosmetics went into decline in western Europe in the fifth century, to reemerge in the Renaissance among the aristocracy. Thus, the demand for "specifically designed accoutrements," which for me would seem to be another indication of the way that fashion has transformed the West. It is no surprise that the dressing table, as Adlin writes, "reached the apex of its role as both a marker of social standing and an object of fine design and craftsmanship."

Dressing table, 1760-90 (MMA 62.171.14)
It was during this same period that another vanity was devised to address the latest personal grooming trend, this time among men: shaving. I must say that this is a subject that I have never thought of in connection with the "age of Goethe." Yet every picture of Goethe (Schiller, too, and others) shows him clean-shaven. Adlin writes that men, unlike women, stood at this morning ritual, which led to a construction with drawers for holding grooming supplies and an adjustable mirror. Did Goethe have one of these? Did he shave every day?

Toilet Service, 1683-84 (MMA 63.70.1-21)
Der Mann von fünfzig Jahren of course contains a "Toilettenkästchen" (has a study been done of the many mysterious Kästchen in Goethe's works, e.g., that of Ottilie in Die Wahlverwandtschaften?) with its promise of "Verjüngungskunst." The example above from the Met's Bulletin gives an idea of this object. The mock-serious scene at the top, also from the Bulletin, shows the practice of a fashionable young Frenchman at his morning toilette.

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