Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Mountain Sublime

I love this portrait from 1736 of Albrecht von Haller (1708-1777), by the artist Johann Rudolf Huber (in the Burgerbibliothek in Berne). Haller's Die Alpen, a long poem of 50 rhyming stanzas, is one of the earliest poetic treatments of mountains. In it he contrasts the rural peace and innocent virtue of the inhabitants of the Alps with the vices and corruption of civilization. He clearly sounded Rousseauian themes avant la lettre. Haller was also an exceptionally important anatomist, physiologist, and naturalist. I read Die Alpen back in graduate school, never imagining I would ever think about it again.

Yet my present work on the sublime, in connection with Bodmer (another figure we read in grad school that I also never imagined I would consider anew), has led me to think about Haller and his poem of "mountain appreciation." The sublime, as I have written in an earlier post, was all about mountains. Well, not all about, but more than any other grand natural phenomenon -- the ocean, the starry skies above, erupting volcanoes -- mountains came to represent the sublime in nature.

I think that has something to do with the fact that people started interacting with mountains increasingly, beginning in the 17th century. The earliest 17th-century accounts of encounters with the Alps spoke of being both appalled and enthralled. John Dennis wrote in 1688, pondering the origins of the Alps, of his "delightful Horrour" and "terrible Joy." Marjory Hope Nicolson, who has written the most erudite account of the sublime in external nature, is the author of Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory.

Bodmer, in discussing the sublime (das Erhabene) as such -- in contrast to the sublime style, about which he more generally speaks of (das Hohe, or the high style) -- is loath to attribute it to nature. He does write of the often terrible and frightening effects of nature -- thunderstorms, landslides, volcanic eruptions -- but he does not consider these effects sublime. Even the dumbest person can be astonished (shocked, frightened, etc.) by these. And, when it comes to great works of nature and of art, well, God did not put us in the world in order to sit around and be astonished all the time. The experience of the sublime is of a different sort, the meeting of great minds with the ultimate truths of existence. Thus, in Bodmer little interest in the Alps, with which he was surrounded his entire life.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Goethe in Italy, once again

I got a little more insight into Goethe's stay in Italy yesterday, specifically his avoidance of things contemporary while he was there. Again, the insight was provided by a seemingly unlikely source.
After having given two papers this past fall on the pre-Kantian sublime, I am trying to work up the material into a publishable essay. The pre-Kantian sublime in German letters has much to do with Johann Jacob Bodmer, for whom the sublime remained always linked to a discourse about art and was not, as would later be the case with Kant, a way of establishing the conditions for the possibility of thinking. Kant's interest in the sublime led him so far as to make it the foundation of our knowledge of the world.

Though perception is subjective, the fact that all of us can agree that we are seeing the same object -- a rose is Kant's example -- argues for a common cognitive apparatus. Because we feel, because of our ability to respond subjectively, we can think and make judgments about the world. Thus, though Kant started out writing a work on aesthetics, called "Critique of Taste," about our judgments of art, the final product went beyond the realm of art and extended aesthetics to the moral and philosophical spheres: "Critique of Judgment."

For Bodmer, as I said, the sublime always remained tied to art and our reaction to works of art. His greatest influence was on a painter, namely, Henry Fuseli, who was a student of Bodmer and Breitinger at the Collegium Carolinum in Zurich in the 1750s and was known as Johann Heinrich Füßli. I will not go into his entire story here, but in 1770 he arrived in Italy (where he made the final change of his name to "Fuseli," which was easier for the Italians to pronounce). While now more known for the somewhat macabre works like The Nightmare (1781; the Institute of Fine Arts, Detroit), he schooled himself on the works of antique and modern masters in Italy. According to his first biographer, John Knowles, however, he was not primarily concerned with measuring proportions or copying but in studying the principles upon which these masters had worked, "in order to infuse some of their power and spirit into his own productions." This drawing nicely combines the division of the Classical and the Romantic spirit that would soon be articulated by Schiller and Friedrich Schlegel.

I am finally getting to Goethe in Italy, for Knowles includes Fuseli's own evaluation of Italy in a letter to a friend in 1778, a decade before Goethe was there. Fuseli was then getting ready to leave Italy and head north. Though he would miss his friends in Italy, he was not, writes Knowles, partial to the modern Italians who, Fuseli said, "were lively and entertaining, but there was the slight drawback of nerve feeling one's life unsafe in their presence." Fuseli reported the following: "When I was one day preparing to draw from a woman selected by the artists for a model, on account of her fine figure, on altering the arrangement of her dress, I saw the hilt of a dagger in her bosom, and on inquiring, with astonishment, what it meant, she drew it, and quaintly answered, 'Contro gi'impertinenti.'" It may be that Goethe ignored informing people of these aspects of contemporary life because they existed, so to speak, in the contextual earshot of what he did include.

Picture credit: Randel Plowman

Monday, January 10, 2011

Goethe in Italy

Today I had a reminder of what did interest Goethe in Italy. We went again to see the exhibition of paintings by the Netherlandish painter Jan Gossart (1478-1532). Gossart might have remained true to his roots in Late Gothic Mannerism had he not traveled to Rome in 1508-9, where he made copies of antique sculptures.

It was still somewhat rare for Northern artists to travel to Italy to get a firsthand look at these works. Albrecht Dürer had already traveled there in the 1490s (when Columbus was crossing the Atlantic!). The experience had a great effect on Gossart's style, as can be seen especially in the sculptural quality of the subjects of his post-Italian paintings, whether it be the Virgin or a burgher from Bruges. The figures seem to stand forth from their background. I love the painting at the top, the Carondelet Diptych, from 1517. From the look in his eyes, the infant Jesus would seem to be a regular little terror, as if he would love to tear himself from Mary's arms and run after something beyond our view. (Click on image to enlarge.) For once I think the Met has named this exhibition correctly: "Man, Myth, and Sensual Pleasures."

In the two years Goethe spent in Rome and southern Italy, he studied the works of antiquity closely, as well as such "moderns" as Raphael and Michelangelo. He immersed himself in Wincklemann's works. Goethe had been a sketcher from childhood, but it is hard to believe that he still imagined when he went to Rome that he might become an artist himself, despite being famous throughout Europe as an author. Most of his friends in Rome were other German artists, who taught him a lot about drawing and painting. In the end, he was wise enough to see that he didn't have the talent to be a visual artist. The experience, however, was crucial for what would later be known as Weimar Classicism.

Image sources: Musée du Louvre, Paris; Universiteitsbibliothek Leiden Prentenkabinet

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Goethe in Italy

Goethe's departure for Italy, in 1786, took place in greatest secrecy, of which some of his closest confidantes (Charlotte von Stein, among them) learned only after the fact. Goethe's father had traveled in Italy after his studies and later impressed on his son his own enthusiasms. Goethe went to Weimar when he was twenty-six and spent the next ten years immersed in administrative duties, while his literary efforts took a back seat. He seemed to become a different person, leaving all his youthful enthusiasms behind. When he finally made the trip to Italy, he was almost forty years old. It seemed to be now or never. As the detail from the above painting conveys, enthusiasm for Italy encompassed a lot of people in the 18th century.

To a scholar of Goethe, an interesting aspect is how little Goethe devotes to describing Italians or Italian customs. If you want to know about plants, minerals, rocks, architecture, monuments, and so on, Goethe is your man, though much of what he includes in his letters and later accounts (e.g,, Italian Journey) is artfully constructed rather than representing a spontaneous travel account. He mentions, for instance, meals taken, but he never discusses the characteristics of Italian cooking. A good contrast are the books of Friederike Brun, who traveled in Italy a decade after Goethe but whose Italian portraits were published before Italian Journey. Goethe had access to her books, and, though I have not yet investigated it, I think he was probably guided by her to some extent. (Like Goethe, she was also unnerved by the Roman Carnival.)

Thus, I enjoyed a recent exhibition of "vedute" and "capricci" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Italy Observed: Views and Souvenirs, 1706-1899. "Vedute," meaning views, are essentially topographical, while capricci are much more fanciful and idealized. The vedute portray those aspects of everyday life that Goethe seemed to ignore, like the scene above of a beggar outside a colonnade, drawn by Francesco Guardi ca. 1780-90, thus the very period when Goethe was in Rome. He even fails to mention that one could purchase souvenirs of the sites, e.g., the fan below with an image from the excavations at Herculaneum and Pompeii, from the same period. We go to Goethe to learn other things.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

New Year's in Manhattan

The temperature started climbing yesterday, and all the great mounds of snow clogging the streets of New York are melting away. It was mild last evening, when we walked out to our usual establishment for drinks. We had a ring-side seat at the bar for watching the festivities on Times Square.

Herewith a lovely image showing what lots of kids were doing in New York the past few days: throwing snowballs. Plus ça change ...

This painting is part of a fresco cycle (pictured below) depicting the monthly activities of peasants and nobles. The cycle dates from about 1400 and was commissioned by Bishop Georg von Liechtenstein for the Castello del Buonconsiglio in Trent, Italy, the bishop's residence. Trent was later, in 1545-46, the home of the Council of Trent, which is considered one of the most important of the Catholic Church's councils. This was the century in which the Church was engaged in condemning Protestant heresies and defining Church teachings. Nothing new there either.

Picture credit: Willyorwonthe