Thursday, September 29, 2016

"After the Avant-Gardes"

The Southern Cross, Milky Way and Carina Nebula, viewed from Kenya
Yes, I am here, back from the Northwest, but I have been occupied these few weeks since my return to New York with several writing projects, including a book review that had to be turned around in one week. Amid the stack of mail on my return was a book that my Goethe colleague Elizabeth Millán very generously sent me. Elizabeth, who teaches in the philosophy department at De Paul University in Chicago, edited the volume After the Avant-Gardes: Reflections on the Future of the Fine Arts. It contains ten essays. I have not yet had a chance to immerse myself in the volume although I have the feeling that the "fallen" status of art weighs heavily. I notice that Elizabeth's essay, which I have only scanned, is hopeful in its predictions, particularly concerning art's humanizing power.

In this connection, I noticed that she quoted Alexander von Humboldt. It is not surprising, as she has done considerable scholarly work on Humboldt. Humboldt traveled in Latin America between 1799 and 1804. The results of his immense scientific research there appeared in the multi-volume Kosmos. Upon first seeing the Southern Cross in the night sky as he approached the South American continent, however, he did not think about measuring the sky in order to advance our knowledge of the constellations: a scientific enterprise that would in turn help us in predicting weather patterns. Humboldt's first thought was the lines of a poet:

"Impatient to explore the equatorial regions, I could not raise my eyes to the sky without dreaming of the Southern Cross and remembering a passage from Dante."

Humboldt goes on to quote the relevant passage, in Italian (see Purgatory, canto 1, 22–27).

As Professor Millán writes: "Dante's work made a mark so strong in the mind of Humboldt that lines from his poetry became part of the experience of seeing the night sky and understanding the meaning of the Southern Cross for the human observer gazing upon its brilliant light."

(Click photo at the top to enlarge.)

Picture credit: Babak Tafreshi/National Geographic Society, via Corbis

Friday, September 2, 2016

Mood Indigo

Asia, workshop of Jacob van der Borcht, Brussels
Coincidentally (since my previous post was on the "blue Goethe"), I had the occasion to see today the Mood Indigo exhibition at the Seattle Asian Art Museum. (Yes, I am back in the U.S., visiting relatives before returning to New York on Sunday). In the exhibition are 89 textiles from lightest to deepest blue from all over the world. The tapestry at the top, representing "Asia," is one of four monumental Flemish tapestries, with the continents personified by female figures, each wearing blue. The late 17th-century tapestry is the kind that Goethe might have seen, for instance, in Strassburg, as he relates in Book 9 of Poetry and Truth.

The Mysterious Draught of Fishes, studio of Pieter van Aelst
Shortly after his arrival in Strassburg in 1770, Marie Antoinette passed through the city on her bridal journey to Paris. A special hall was raised for her reception in which were hung tapestries based on cartoons by Raffael. They had been commissioned by Pope Leo X in 1515 and were to be hung in the Sistine Chapel. In his autobiography Goethe mentions that he returned on several occasions to see the tapestries. Nicholas Boyle calls Goethe's viewing of them his "first glimpse of Rome." As Goethe wrote: "I became acquainted with the true and the perfect on a large scale, though only in copies." The Vatican tapestries, representing scenes from the lives of Saints Peter and Paul, were woven in the workshop of Pieter van Aelst.

Herewith two others highlights from Mood Indigo.

Yoruban cloth
Japanese kimono

Friday, August 26, 2016

Was Goethe blue?

The Blue Goethe and a herd of imposters
I have frequently mentioned that one comes across Goethe in unexpected places. Today it was a piece on the site The Smart Set by the German writer Bernd Brunner. The title of the piece, “Encyclopedia Blue: A History of What May Be the World’s Most Beloved Color,” overstates things, for the piece itself is (for the internet) remarkably short. Brunner does nod to Goethe’s Farbenlehre, and his reference to the sky's color:

“Johann Wolfgang Goethe, the great German poet-philosopher who couldn’t help also being a natural historian, reminds us in his (otherwise debatable) Theory of Colors (1810) that ‘the highest is to understand that all fact is really theory. The blue of the sky reveals to us the basic law of color. Search nothing beyond the phenomena, they themselves are the theory.”

Following links attached to the piece, I discovered that Brunner has written the book When Winters Were Still Winters: The History of a Season (Als die Winter noch Winter waren: Geschichte einer Jahreszeit). His website has a nice description of the book, along with a quote from a letter of Ivan Turgenev to Gustav Flaubert, written in February 1870, while Turgenev was staying at the Hotel de Russie in Weimar:

I have been here for about ten days and my sole preoccupation is keeping warm. The houses are badly built here, and the iron stoves are useless.”

Clearly, France was a warm place to live in contrast to Germany in the 19th century.

While reading Sigrid Damm’s book Goethes Freunde in Gotha und Weimar, I came across complaints from Goethe about the freezing conditions at Friedenstein castle in Gotha. Goethe was a welcome and frequent guest at the ducal court. In a letter to Carl August in January 1782 he complains how the many court activities in Gotha are a waste of time, before mentioning that reluctance to go there has much to do with the coldness of his quarters:

Bedenk’ ich noch dazu den Zug auf dem Gotischen Schlosse, die Kälte und daß man weder Herr von seinem Rock noch Fußbekleidung bleibt, so schreckt mich das Ganze in mein Dachsloch zurück, wo mich ohnedies eine hypochondrische Vorliebe gefangen hält.”

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Goethe Girl goes to Echo Bay

Goethe Girl aboard the Islay Mist
Yesterday we went on an outing by boat to Echo Bay. When we departed Mitchell Bay at 7:30 a.m., the fog was so thick that we had to rely on the GPS for navigation.

Mitchell Bay fishermen

Jim and Joe plan the route
 It was, however, a typical morning for this part of the world. By 10, the fog began to burn off.
10 a.m.
But it was a glorious day by the time we reached our destination.

Pierre's at Echo Bay
Echo Bay marina
One goes to Echo Bay for the fishing, but also to visit Billy Proctor and his museum. Billy is what is called an inveterate collector, having begun when he was about five years old, to judge by the picture of him below, posted at the entrance to the museum.

As for the contents of this museum, I will let the photos below speak for themselves. Click to enlarge.

Remember the Dionne quints?

And a good time was had by all.
On the lookout for whales
Sighted, but no breaching.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Sointula scenes

Ferry from Port McNeill
Deer comes searching for plums

I got them

Sund's lodge scene

Alpacas are very silly looking

Sund's Lodge alpaca farm


Thursday, August 18, 2016

While I was not watching ....

Laser show of destroyed Bamiyan Buddhas
Somewhere between the Upper West Side of New York and Sointula, British Columbia, this blog passed the 250,000 page view mark and stands now at 260,000. As I mentioned when the 200,000 mark was attained, I cannot brag solely about my stellar posts. It is Goethe that people are looking for when they surf the internet, and many of them find me.

Truth be told, I miss a lot of things, for instance, the publication that I mentioned in my previous post, on Goethe and Göttingen, which appeared in 2000. So, let me acknowledge here a couple of recent books concerning Goethe, both discussed in a recent issue of the Times Literary Supplement: Ritchie Robertson, Goethe: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford UP) and The Essential Goethe, edited by Matthew Bell (Princeton UP). The first is 142 pages; the second is 1,007 pages. I have already noted Adam Kirsch's New Yorker review of the Bell volume in an earlier post.

The reviewer is Osman Durrani, who begins with something obvious to those of us who have taught Goethe: access can be arduous, and tools that facilitate it are welcome. The two works reviewed "reduce a prolific life’s work to manageable proportions," but neither can give us "the whole Goethe." Like Adam Kirsch in The New Yorker, Professor Durrani drags out all the old platitudes about Goethe: "the young genius who, in those heady days, took the literary world by storm with what looked like the outpourings of a frenzied iconoclast." His summary of the "action" of Tasso and Iphigenia omits what is most artistic about those plays: "The 'classical' Iphigenia may achieve her mission and impose restraint on homicidal barbarians, but the more 'modern' poet Tasso, stifled by court etiquette and reduced to a performing lackey, lashes out at his perceived tormentors in various tragicomic ways."

That said, such reviews are not written for Goethe scholars, yet Professor Durrani mentioned something very interesting. Goethe's abhorrence for Christian certain imagery "inclined [him] sympathetically towards Judaism and Islam, which refrain from depicting the deity in visual terms. For the same reason he condemned the lavish temples of India and, provocatively, praised the general who defaced the colossal statue of Buddha at Bamiyan centuries before it was dynamited by the Taliban."

That is the first I have heard of Goethe's knowledge about the Bamiyan Buddhas, and it led me to Google the representative terms and, then, to a book entitled The Buddhas of Bamiyan: The Wonders of the World by Llewelyn Morgan. According to Morgan, in inveighing against idols, "Goethe is stereotyping what was in actual fact a complex and diverse set of attitudes held by Muslims throughout history to figurative representations in general, and the Buddhas of Bamiyan in particular." He continues to say that "iconoclasm plays a larger role in caricatures of Islam than it ever has in the real thing." Fascinating stuff.