Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Goethe as collector

Philipp Hackert, Feuerwerk auf der Engelsburg in Rom, 1775
Most Goethe fans have had the experience of encountering Goethe in unexpected places. I wrote previously that I usually go to the index of books to see if his name is listed, whatever the subject matter of the book. So it was, while I was perusing a review in an old issue (Feb. 13, 2015) of the Times Literary Supplement that Goethe popped up. The book concerned the 18th-century English "marble mania," namely, the collecting of Greek statuary during the 18th century, when many northern Europeans ventured south of the Alps. As the reviewer Nigel Spivey writes: “The Rome of the Grand Tourists has not vanished. The houses where Goethe gazed ecstatically out of a window and where Keats breathed his last are both kept as shrines.”

But the book under review, Owning the Past: Why the English Collected Antique Sculpture, 1640–1840, by Ruth Guilding, also prompted considerations about Goethe as a collector, in comparison with the English variety examined by Guilding in the same period. These considerations in turn led me to look anew at his short “letter-novel” Der Sammler und die Seinigen, first published in the Propyläen in 1799.

The collecting of ancient works, regarded almost as heirlooms, was widespread among a certain class of men (for the most part), but Goethe’s concerns, as portrayed in Der Sammler und die Seinigen, were different from those of his English contemporaries. The difference is illuminating.
The Newby Venus
First to the English collectors. Unlike modern collectors, who pay huge sums of money for works of art (the Emir of Qatar paid 8 million English pounds for the so-called Newby Venus), for 18th-century aesthetes collecting was more than a capital investment. “Gentlemen," writes Guilding, "do no buy a statue in order to make a commercial profit.” She argues that the English collector collected Classical sculptures, in particular, “in order to transform  and define himself — as an English gentleman.” The development of what she calls a “nexus between aristocratic virtue and Classical sculpture” begins after the Tudors. And whether it was a bust of Seneca or a portrait of a gladiator, these were “monuments demanding display and personal emulation.”

Richard Payne Knight, a libertine?
By the way, it seems that not all reactions to Classical sculpture were devout in character, but were indeed carnal in appreciation, e.g., as attested in tales of the well-known antiquarian and numismatist Richard Payne Knight, who was known as a “libertine.” Knight traveled in Sicily in 1777 with Goethe’s friend Philipp Hackert, during which journey he kept a journal. It was not published, but Goethe was familiar with it when he traveled to Sicily, and he translated and included it in his biography of Hackert.

So, Goethe would have been acquainted with the collecting activities of English cognoscenti of Classical sculpture, but we can definitely say that he did not share the “Woosterish insouciance” that characterized the relation of the English collectors to their objects. Der Sammler is testimony to a very different mentality. The commentary on this work in the DKV edition of Goethe's aesthetic writings quotes Goethe, in a conversation with Kanzler Müller in 1830, about his collecting activity: "Ich habe mich nicht nach Laune oder Willkur, sondern jedesmal mit Plan und Absicht zu meiner eigenen folgerechten Bildung gesammelt und an jedem Stück meines Besitzes etwas gelernt."

Next up: Der Sammler und die Seinigen. Stay tuned

Picture credits: Klassik Stiftung Weimar; BBC

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