28 September, 2006

Goethe on art

In 1786, a 37 year-old Goethe left Carlsbad for a two-year journey through Italy. He was already a celebrity novelist, accomplished poet, minister of mines, roads and armies at Weimar, jurist, amateur geologist and anatomist; but Goethe had wanted to see the great ruins and monuments of Italy since childhood, and a glance at a translation of Juvenal's Satires had only inculcated this desire further. So he snuck out at dawn—or so he wrote in his diaries, which he kept and later reworked as the Italienische Reise (1817)—and wandered down through Italy to Rome and then Naples, before returning in 1788. He stayed with the artist Johann Tischbein at Rome, who painted him in 1787; you can see that rather odd canvas here. On his journey, Goethe took many notes on local people, climates, rocks, art and architecture. Most notably, he discovered a love of Vitruvius and Palladio. Among his jottings are observations on paintings he saw, many of which are named and admired. Below can be found these works, in the order seen, with his remarks and where he saw them; I have used Jim Reed's Oxford translation, the accuracy of which I have not bothered to check (sorry!). Only a couple of paintings mentioned were not found online. . . such is the wonder of the internet.


Titian, Gloria (1554): Verona Cathedral

The Titian is very blackened and apparently it's a picture taken from his least good period. I like the way he makes Mary, as she's taken up into heaven, look not upwards but downwards, in the direction of her friends.


Tintoretto, Paradise (1588): Verona, Casa Bevi l'Aqua

The coronation of the Virgin as Queen of Heaven in the presence of all the patriarchs, prophets, saints, angels etc., a senseless conception carried through with absolute genius. Such lightness of brush, spirit, and richness of expression that you would have to own the picture yourself to fully admire and enjoy it, for infinite artistry went into it. . . Eve is the handsomest woman in the whole picture and still in the old way a touch lascivious.


Tiepolo, Martyrdom of St. Agatha (1755): Padua, Observatorio

The face not sublime yet astoundingly true, physical pain and serenity in suffering beautifully expressed. If only martyrdoms didn't always have to drag with them a crew with those wretched hangdog expressions.


Paolo Veronese, Martyrdom of St. Justina (1573?): Padua, Observatorio

He has the flaw I already noticed in Vicenza of putting too many figures into the picture and making them too small. As they look down from such a high altar, they have no presence.


Jacopo Bassano, Descent from the Cross (mid 16th-century): Padua, Observatorio

Well done, and as nobly as it was possible to do such a subject.


Guercino, Cristo Risorto Appare alla Madre (1629): Cento, Chiesa dell SS. Nome di Dio

The risen Christ appearing to his mother. She kneels before him and looks at him with indescribable depth of feeling, she feels his body with her left hand, just beneath the miserable wound that ruins the whole picture. He's put his left hand around her neck and is bending his body back a little to see her close up. That gives the figure something, I won't say constrained, but at any rate alien. Nevertheless it's still infinitely pleasing. And the calm sad expression with which he looks at her, as if his noble mind were filled with the memory of his and her suffering, which isn't healed at once by resurrection. . . Of Guercino's brush I say nothing, it has a lightness and purity and perfection that are unbelievable. He chose particularly beautiful colours shading into brown for the garments.


Raphael, St. Cecilia (1501): Bologna

It is what I knew in advance but now saw with my own eyes. He simply did what others wanted to do. . . About the picture [let us talk] when we meet, for the only thing to say is that it's by him. A group of five saints, none of whom are of any concern to us, but whose existence is so perfect that one wishes the picture may last for ever, though content with one's own dissolution.


Are we to wonder that these tableaux inspired awe from the greatest polymath of his age? There are indeed some fine paintings here, and from masters I am normally indifferent to. I can even tolerate the Tiepolo, which is rare for me. Goethe's eye is immensely respectful, but never reverential, and his tone can bite with a gentle wit. He also notices details to which our internet-heavy eyes are perhaps insensible; and his commentaries are purely formal, never weighted with religious convictions—an atheism we expect. Together, these observations possess an elegant unity, I think, and one to which amateur critics might well aspire.


Sir G said...

Hello C

Italienische Reise (in an excellent Eveyrman edition) was one of the more delightful experiences in my life. I read it alongside Mary W Montagu's "Letters" as part of my preparations for a trip to Italy 2 years ago. The book and its author are mentioned obliquely in Susan Sontag's Volcano lover, one of the more enjoyable novels I have had the pleasure to read in the last 2 years. The mention touches upon Goethe's visit to Naples, where he meets the hero, one of the leading explorers of the recently discovered Pompeii. The novel does not mention Stanislaw Kostka Potocki, one of my ancestors, who was there at the time, and befriended the same Lord Hamilton, and also dug in Pompeii. David painted an equestrian portrait of him there (googable if you look for "Potocki, David"). SKP went back to Poland to become a minister of education and to write a book for which he is still almost universally hated, an atheist's attack on the obsurantism of the Catholic church under a title which translates roughly as "journey to darkville" (it is a thinly veiled description of a pilgrimage to one of the most venerated shrines in Poland). Which is all fine except I can't get it through my head that you do not like Tiepolo. perhaps fates will be kind enough to us for us to meet in Venice one day. I will then take you to Palazzo Labia and show you a small grisaille trompe d'oeil of a cameo of a lovely scantily dressed woman which will take your breath away.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks again for this. Before your next trip it will have to be Ruskin, no? Re: the Palace of Lips, I look forward to it, G.