Sunday, February 27, 2011

Goethe in Portrait

When I am wandering through Central Park I often listen to my iPod, mostly "podcasts." One of my favorite podcasts is "Philosophy Bites," a really cool program of short (15 minutes) interviews with philosophers. The subjects range from Plato to Nietzsche. Some people will talk about anything, and my only complaint is that the program features too much contemporary stuff: just war, vegetarianism, cosmopolitanism, etc. I would like to hear about Dun Scotus or Augustine or Boethius! Still, it is a great program, and recently it featured an interview with Cynthia Freeland, a professor of philosophy at the University of Houston, who talked about the relevance of portraits to philosophy, especially what they might tell us about the human self. If that seems like an odd connection, she reminded Nigel Warburton, who was interviewing her, that philosophers interested in personal identity often cite novels or other literary sources.

Professor Freeland finds that the neglect of portraits by philosophers is puzzling since portraits "represent the serious efforts of some of the world's best artists to study people (others or themselves). Hence, portraits might reasonably be though to embody accumulated cultural wisdom about what it is to be human."

What is a portrait? She works up to the subject by discussing animals, which are often depicted in art, and arrives at three criteria: a portrait is a depiction of an individual living being; the being has internal emotional states; and the being poses. Animals, however endearing they are and even possessing internal emotional states, do not "enact self-representation."

She was asked about candid photographs. Adult humans, according to Freeland, are self-enacting most of the time. Even in a candid shot you can find this self-representation to the rest of humanity, which would make it portrait-like. A candid shot, however, lacks the element of engagement between the portrait artist and the sitter. Portrait artists have often described this situation as one of conflict and tension, since the artist wants one thing, the subject something else. Warburton suggested that the subject puts on a "theatrical mask," but Freeland insisted that that is not a bad thing: we are like that as human beings, self-aware creatures, and it is natural and ineveitable that we present ourselves in a variety of ways.

The discussion sent me to looking at portraits of Goethe. First off, one must admit that, while there are many portraits of Goethe, he was never portrayed by a truly great artist, one of the caliber of Van Gogh or Rembrandt. How great it would be to have a portrait of him by Caspar David Friedrich. Perhaps the best one and even the most representative is that by Johann Heinrich Tischbein at the top of the blog. I will try in the coming days to focus on a few portraits that I particularly like.

The one at the top of this post is by Georg Melchior Kraus (1737-1806). Like Goethe, he was from Frankfurt and got to know Goethe in the latter's "Sturm und Drang" phase. Kraus even went to Weimar at about same time as Goethe, becoming director of the drawing academy there in 1776. He was also Goethe's companion on the third Harz journey and prepared many of the drawings of rock formations that Goethe wanted for his geological investigations. Thus, he knew Goethe quite well from early on. The dress and style in this portrait is definitely "Genie" period. Note that Goethe's hair is not powdered.

Goethe seems to be studying a Schattenriss (shadow cut) that he holds in his lifted right hand, alluding to Johann Caspar Lavater's work on "physiognomic fragments," which was published with Goethe's assistance. According to Lavater our physiogomy was a key to our character, and to illustrate his theory he had his friends make silhouette portraits.

Goethe is very engaging in the portrait by Kraus, and one gets a sense of why people were so captivated with him in this period. Note the similarity in the pose with the one in the portrait by Tischbein. The relaxed pose might indicate a lack of the kind of artist-sitter tension that Freeland mentions as often characteristic of great portraits. In the latter portrait, however, Goethe is not studying anything that we can see. Indeed, his eyes appear to be contemplating some inward prospect. One also can't help but feel that in both portraits Goethe is very reserved and self-contained, qualities that will continue to be seen in future portraits.

Picture credits: Recherche; Paint My Dog; Artblart

Wednesday, February 23, 2011


A reader of this blog has alluded to a fondness for Goethe's novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. In the first part of the novel, when Werther was feeling happy, his favorite reading matter was Homer's Odyssey. When his mind took its southward turn, he began reading the cycle of poems named after Ossian, supposedly the Gaelic bard in the Scottish Dark Ages. Like Homer, Ossian was blind, and he sings, among other things, of the life and battles of a warrior named Fingal. The tone is elegiac, reflecting, Götterdämmerung-like, the end of the warriors' way of life. Though it was discovered that the poems were a fabrication of the Scots poem James Macpherson, they were nevertheless the rage in the 18th century. No doubt the "rudeness" of the more primitive way of life appealed to the growing civilized habits of Europeans. Homer portrayed the world of gods and men; in Ossian a more elementary portrait of nature is conveyed. Herder called Ossian "Naturpoesie." Goethe, with his friend Merck, published an edition of The Works of Ossian (1773/77), and prepared the engraving for the title page himself.

Goethe also translated "the songs of Selma" (Gesänge von Selma) of Ossian, which he included in the Werther novel. The songs of Selma begins with an address to the evening star ("Star of descending night! fair is the light in the west!") and narrates of the days "when the king heard the music of harps, and the chiefs gathered from all their hills and heard the lovely sound."

Why does Ossian sing? Soon shall he lie in the narrow house, and no bard shall raise his fame! Roll on ye dark brown years; ye bring no joy on your course! Let the tome open to Ossian, for his strength has failed. The sons of song are gone to rest. My voice remains, like a blast, that roars, lonely on a sea-surrounded rock, after the winds are laid. The dark moss whistles there; the distant mariner sees the waving trees.

The moment of highest emotional intensity in the novel is preceded by Werther reading aloud from the poems to Lotte, which produces torrents of tears and an emotional embrace, followed by a farewell. Not long thereafter, Werther prepares for his suicide.

I love the painting at the top of this post, Ossian Sings His Swan Song. It is by the Danish artist Nicolai Abraham Abildgaard (1743-1809). Interestingly, Abildgaard became familiar with Ossian as a pictorial subject in Rome, where he was a friend of Henry Fuseli, Bodmer's disciple.

Picture credit: Thaumazein

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Sublime (again)

I have been really remiss in keeping up with my "letter writing," which is my way of describing a blog. Long ago, I used to write long letters to friends. That was when I was living and working in far-away places (mostly in the Far East -- what a quaint term that now seems). The letters were a way of keeping friends and family up to date on what I was seeing and thinking about. If I sent out half a dozen letters at once -- and, indeed, I did have that many correspondents back then -- the content of the letters would be more or less the same.

How much could I vary my impressions of being totally overwhelmed by the subway stations in Tokyo? That was shortly after my arrival there. I had signed up for a Japanese-language course at the Naganuma language school (which a Google inquiry tells me is still in business). It was an evening class, and I went to Shibuya after work. (I was an editor at the University of Tokyo Press.) "Take such-and-such exit," I was told, "and walk up the hill. Fifteen minutes." Shibuya Station is one of the busiest subway stations in Tokyo, and at rush hour it was bedlam. (It was only later, when I had to navigate the train stations of India, that I encountered larger crowds at rush hour.) All the exit signs were of course in Japanese back then; in the meantime, so I've been told, there is much more English signage to be found in Tokyo. Still, even today I defy anyone who has just arrived in Japan and has learned very few Japanese characters to find the right exit at Shibuya Station. Perhaps it's a feature of the internet, but I notice that the Naganuma school tries to be access-friendly these days.

I digress. I wanted to write something about the sublime, with which I have been struggling for over a month, trying to write a decent scholarly article on the so-called "pre-Kantian sublime." Really, it's all about Bodmer and Breitinger again, with a dash of Goethe and Fuseli thrown in. Thus, it's not as if I don't have something to blog about, but the academic exercise demands a narrowness that is at odds with the freedom of posting one's thoughts.

It was a visit to Chelsea the other evening, however, in particular the sight of some really nausea-inducing works, that deepened my thinking about the sublime. These photographs, including the one at the top and at left, are by Coke Wisdom O'Neal. According to the gallery's propaganda, "O'Neal has become known for his monumental plywood boxes, where people are invited to climb in an be photographed." The new series, however, marks a "significant" change: "What was once a project about space, identity, and identification has become a venture exploring anonymity, constraint, and escape." Gallery-speak.

It was Edmund Burke who first associated physiology with the sublime, in particular feelings of pain, because of the danger the sublime object represents, for instance, such grand natural phenomena as the Alps. A tsunami or a flood wouldn't count, because both represent real danger, but the portrayal of such phenomena would evoke in us the feeling of danger, while at the same time we would be aware that we were safe.

On a gut level, the feeling of revulsion I experience with O'Neal's works would seem to corroborate Burke: looking at these paintings, one seems to feel the danger represented by situation the models are in. Of course, I am not trapped in one of the plexiglass boxes. On a reflective level, however, which is where Bodmer invites us to go in our contemplation of art, I am divided. I wonder to what purpose O'Neal chooses to represent such "human action." Is it to make us reflect about freedom, which would be commendable?

According to the gallery press release, the bodies on view in these photographs are "forever entombed in a static, yet performative, state." That is not much fun to think about.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Bodmer and Breitinger on "possible worlds"

Bodmer, in "Condemnation of Bad Taste" ("Anklagung des verderbten Geschmackes") of 1728, wrote that poets create new worlds in their imagination, which they populate with inhabitants who are of a different nature from ourselves but who nevertheless follow laws of their own nature. In 1740, in his Critical Poetics, Breitinger would speak of poetry as an imitation of "the Creation": art produces things that we have never seen or experienced but that we recognize as somehow "true" to their own essence. In the third essay in this treatise, on "the marvelous" in poetry, he writes that the "creator of nature has endowed all created things with a specific being, power, and capacity [Wesen, Kraft, Vermogen] as well as certain laws that ordain the activities of these beings." Poets likewise create new worlds and new beings, who following the same principle, do not have to obey the world in which we have our own being. The actions of poetic characters only have to behave with "probability" to be "true."

One hears echoes of Leibniz here, "the best of all possible worlds," the philosopher's defense against the presence of evil in the world, for which he was roundly mocked by Voltaire, especially in Candide. According to Leibniz, there was a possibility of other worlds that God had not actualized. God might have chosen a different world for us to inhabit. In other words, things could have been different. Indeed, God didn't have to create the world at all.

I just came across something that suggests that this idea was in the air already before Leibniz. In my research on the "natural sublime," I came across an article from 1951 by Ernest Tuveson (Modern Language Quarterly, vol. 12, pp. 20-38): "Space, Deity, and the 'Natural Sublime.'" Tuveson begins by discussing the reaction of poets and thinkers in the 17th century to the new conceptions of space and time that were being revealed by the "new universe." These conceptions upended the medieval view of the universe, one of limited size and harmonious in form: "about its center, our own planet, the heavenly bodies were arranged in beautiful concentric spheres, according to a scale of immutable values." All of this was shattered by the telescope, producing a terrifying universe, "one with no form, no center, above all, no plan perceptible to human reason." The next century, according to Tuveson, worked out an "imaginative symbolism" to assimilate the changes in philosophy, religion, and science. One of these symbolic forms was the natural sublime, imposing on nature conceptions of vastness and unlimited extent.

Tuveson then goes on to discuss one 17th-century thinker who was fascinated by the unlimited nature of space, Henry More. More was a philosopher of the Cambridge Platonist school, who was also a prolific author of verse and prose. Tuveson writes that More was "intoxicated" by the "sense of the unlimited expansion of the mind to comprehend all God's cosmic image" and quotes lines that remind me of the speculations of Bodmer and Breitinger:

To weet that long ago there Earths have been
Peopled with men and beasts before this Earth,
And after this shall others be again
And other beasts and other humane birth.
Which once admit, no strength that reason bear'th
Of this world's Date and Adams efformation,
Another Adam once received breath
And still another in endlesse repedation,
And this must perish once by finall conflagration.

That was stanza 76, by the way, of Democritus Platonissans (1648).

Picture credit: Gakuranman; British Museum