The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.
J. W. von Goethe
THE YOUTH, when Nature and Art attract him, thinks that with a vigorous effort he can soon penetrate into the innermost sanctuary; the man, after long wanderings, finds himself still in the outer court.
Such an observation has suggested our title. It is only on the step, in the gateway, the entrance, the vestibule, the space between the outside and the inner chamber, between the sacred and the common, that we may ordinarily tarry with our friends.
If the word Propylaea recalls particularly the structure through which was reached the citadel of Athens and the temple of Minerva, this is not inconsistent with our purpose; but the presumption of intending to produce here a similar work of art and splendor should not be laid to our charge. The name of the place may be understood as symbolizing what might have happened there; one may expect conversations and discussions such as would perhaps not be unworthy of that place.
Are not thinkers, scholars, artists, in their best hours allured to those regions, to dwell (at least in imagination) among a people to whom a perfection which we desire but never attain was natural, among whom in the course of time and life, a culture developed in a beautiful continuity, which to us appears only in passing fragments? What modern nation does not owe its artistic culture to the Greeks, and, in certain branches, what nation more than the German?
So much by way of excuse for the symbolic title, if indeed an excuse be necessary. May the title be a reminder that we are to depart as little as possible from classic ground; may it, through its brevity and signification, modify the demands of the friends of art whom we hope to interest through the present work, which is to contain observations and reflections concerning Nature and Art by a harmonious circle of friends.
He who is called to be an artist will give careful heed to everything around him; objects and their parts will attract his attention, and by making practical use of such experience he will gradually train himself to observe more sharply. He will, in his early career, apply everything, so far as possible, to his own advantage; later he will gladly make himself serviceable to others. Thus we also hope to present and relate to our readers many things which we regard as useful and agreeable, things which, under various circumstances, have been noted by us during a number of years.
But who will not willingly agree that pure observation is more rare than is believed? We are apt to confuse our sensations, our opinion, our judgment, with what we experience, so that we do not remain long in the passive attitude of the observer, but soon go on to make reflections; and upon these no greater weight can be placed than may be more or less justified by the nature and quality of our individual intellects.
In this matter we are able to gain stronger confidence from our harmony with others, and from the knowledge that we do not think and work alone, but in common. The perplexing doubt whether our method of thought belongs only to us—a doubt which often comes over us when others express the direct opposite of our convictions—is softened, even dispelled, when we find ourselves in agreement with others; only then do we go on rejoicing with assurance in the possession of those principles which a long experience, on our own part and on the part of others, has gradually confirmed.
When several persons thus live united, so that they may call one another friends, because they have a common interest in bringing about their progressive cultivation and in advancing towards closely related aims, then they may be certain that they will meet again in the most varied ways, and that even the courses which seemed to separate them from one another will nevertheless soon bring them happily together again.
Who has not experienced what advantages are afforded in such cases by conversation? But conversation is ephemeral; and while the results of a mutual development are imperishable, the memory of the means by which it was reached disappears. Letters preserve better the stages of a progress which friends achieve together; every moment of growth is fixed, and if the result attained affords us agreeable satisfaction, a look backward at the process of development is instructive since it permits us to hope for an unflagging advance in the future.
Short papers, in which are set down from time to time one’s thoughts, convictions, and wishes, in order to find entertainment in one’s past self after a lapse of time, are excellent auxiliary means for the development of oneself and of others, none of which should be neglected when one considers the brief period allotted to life and the many obstacles that stand in the way of every advance.
It is self evident that we are talking here particularly of an exchange of ideas between such friends as are striving for cultivation in the sphere of science and art; although life in the world of affairs and industry should not lack similar advantages.
In the arts and sciences, however, in addition to this close association among their votaries, a relation to the public is as favorable as it is necessary. Whatever of universal interest one thinks or accomplishes belongs to the world, and the world brings to maturity whatever it can utilize of the efforts of the individual. The desire for approval which the author feels is an impulse implanted by Nature to draw him toward something higher; he thinks he has attained the laurel wreath, but soon becomes aware that a more laborious training of every native talent is necessary in order to retain the public favor; though it may be attained for a short moment through fortune or accident also.
The relation of the author to his public is important in his early period; even in later days he cannot dispense with it. However little he may be fitted to teach others, he wishes to share his thoughts with those whom he feels congenial, but who are scattered far and wide in the world. By this means he wishes to re-establish his relation with his old friends, to continue it with new ones, and to gain in the younger generation still others for the remainder of his life. He wishes to spare youth the circuitous paths upon which he himself went astray, and while observing and utilizing the advantages of the present, to maintain the memory of his praiseworthy earlier efforts.
With this serious view, a small society has been brought together; may cheerfulness attend our undertakings, and time may show whither we are bound.
The papers which we intend to present, though they are composed by several authors, will, it is hoped, never be contradictory in the main points, even though the methods of thought may not be the same in all. No two persons regard the world in exactly the same way, and different characters will often apply in different ways a principle which they all acknowledge. Indeed, a person is not always consistent with himself in his views and judgments: early convictions must give way to later ones. The individual opinions that a man holds and expresses may stand all tests or not; the main thing is that he continue on his way, true to himself and to others!
Much as the authors wish and hope to be in harmony with one another and with a large part of the public, they must not shut their eyes to the fact that from various quarters many a discord will ring out. They must expect this all the more since they differ from prevailing opinions in more than one point. Though far from wishing to dominate or change the way of thinking of a third person, still they will firmly express their own opinion, and, as circumstances dictate, will avoid or take up a quarrel. On the whole, however, they will adhere to one creed, and especially will they repeat again and again those conditions which seem to them indispensable in the training of an artist. Whoever takes an interest in this matter, must be ready to take sides; otherwise he does not deserve to be effective anywhere.
If, therefore, we promise to present reflections and observations concerning Nature, we must at the same time indicate that these remarks will chiefly have reference, first, to plastic art; then, to art in general; finally, to the general training of the artist.
The highest demand that is made on an artist is this: that he be true to Nature, study her, imitate her, and produce something that resembles her phenomena. How great, how enormous, this demand is, is not always kept in mind; and the true artist himself learns it by experience only, in the course of his progressive development. Nature is separated from Art by an enormous chasm, which genius itself is unable to bridge without external assistance.
All that we perceive around us is merely raw material; if it happens rarely enough that an artist, through instinct and taste, through practice and experiment, reaches the point of attaining the beautiful exterior of things, of selecting the best from the good before him, and of producing at least an agreeable appearance, it is still more rare, particularly in modern times, for an artist to penetrate into the depths of things as well as into the depths of his own soul, in order to produce in his works not only something light and superficially effective, but, as a rival of Nature, to produce something spiritually organic, and to give his work of art a content and a form through which it appears both natural and beyond Nature.
Man is the highest, the characteristic subject of plastic art; to understand him, to extricate oneself from the labyrinth of his anatomy, a general knowledge of organic nature is imperative. The artist should also acquaint himself theoretically with inorganic bodies and with the general operations of Nature, particularly if, as in the case of sound and color, they are adaptable to the purposes of art; but what a circuitous path he would be obliged to take if he wanted to seek laboriously in the schools of the anatomist, the naturalist, and the physicist, for that which serves his purposes! It is, indeed, a question whether he would find there what must be most important for him. Those men have the entirely different needs of their own pupils to satisfy, so that they cannot be expected to think of the limited and special needs of the artist. For that reason it is our intention to take a hand, and, even though we cannot see prospects of completing the necessary work ourselves, both to give a view of the whole and to begin the elaboration of details.
The human figure cannot be understood merely through observation of its surface; the interior must be laid bare, its parts must be separated, the connections perceived, the differences noted, action and reaction observed, the concealed, constant, and fundamental elements of the phenomena impressed on the mind, if one really wishes to contemplate and imitate what moves before our eyes in living waves as a beautiful, undivided whole. A glance at the surface of a living being confuses the observer; we may cite here, as in other cases, the true proverb, “One sees only what one knows.” For just as a short-sighted man sees more clearly an object from which he draws back than one to which he draws near, because his intellectual vision comes to his aid, so the perfection of observation really depends on knowledge. How well an expert naturalist, who can also draw, imitates objects by recognizing and emphasizing the important and significant parts from which is derived the character of the whole!
Just as the artist is greatly helped by an exact knowledge of the separate parts of the human figure, which he must in the end regard again as a whole, so a general view, a side glance at related objects, is highly advantageous, provided the artist is capable of rising to ideas and of grasping the close relationship of things apparently remote. Comparative anatomy has prepared a general conception of organic creatures; it leads us from form to form, and by observing organisms closely or distantly related, we rise above them all to see their characteristics in an ideal picture. If we keep this picture in mind, we find that in observing objects our attention takes a definite direction, that scattered facts can be learned and retained more easily by comparison, that in the practice of art we can finally vie with Nature only when we have learned from her, at least to some extent, her method of procedure in the creation of her works.
Furthermore, we would encourage the artist to gain knowledge also of the inorganic world; this can be done all the more easily since now we can conveniently and quickly acquire knowledge of the mineral kingdom. The painter needs some knowledge of stones in order to imitate their characteristics; the sculptor and architect, in order to utilize them; the cutter of precious stones cannot be without a knowledge of their nature; the connoisseur and amateur, too, will strive for such information.
Now that we have advised the artist to gain a conception of the general operations of Nature, in order to become acquainted with those which particularly interest him, partly to develop himself in more directions, partly to understand better that which concerns him; we shall add a few further remarks on this significant point.
Up to the present the painter has been able merely to wonder at the physicist’s theory of colors, without gaining any advantage from it. The natural feeling of the artist, however, constant training, and a practical necessity led him into a way of his own. He felt the vivid contrasts out of the union of which harmony of color arises, he designated certain characteristics through approximate sensations, he had warm and cold colors, colors which express proximity, others which express distance, and what not; and thus in his own way he brought these phenomena closer to the most general laws of Nature. Perhaps the supposition is confirmed that the operations of Nature in colors, as well as magnetic, electric, and other operations, depend upon a mutual relation, a polarity, or whatever else we might call the two-fold or manifold aspects of a distinct unity.
We shall make it our duty to present this matter in detail and in a form comprehensible to the artist; and we can be the more hopeful of doing something welcome to him, since we shall be concerned only with explaining and tracing to fundamental principles things which he has hitherto done by instinct.
So much for what we hope to impart in regard to Nature; now for what is most necessary in regard to Art.
Since the arrangement of this work proposes the presentation of single treatises, some of these only in part, and since it is not our desire to dissect a whole, but rather to build up a whole from many parts, it will be necessary to present, as soon as possible and in a general summary, those things which the reader will gradually find unfolded in our detailed elaborations. We shall, therefore, be occupied first with an essay on plastic art, in which the familiar rubrics will be presented according to our interpretation and method. Here it will be our main concern to emphasize the importance of every branch of Art, and to show that the artist must not neglect a single one, as has unfortunately often happened, and still happens.
Hitherto we have regarded Nature as the treasure chamber of material in general; now, however, we reach the important point where it is shown how Art prepares its materials for itself.
When the artist takes any object of Nature, the object no longer belongs to Nature; indeed, we can say that the artist creates the object in that moment, by extracting from it all that is significant, characteristic, interesting, or rather by putting into it a higher value. In this way finer proportions, nobler forms, higher characteristics are, as it were, forced upon the human figure; the circle of regularity, perfection, signification, and completeness is drawn, in which Nature gladly places her best possessions even though elsewhere in her vast extent she easily degenerates into ugliness and loses herself in indifference.
The same is true of composite works of art, of their subject and content, whether the theme be fable or history. Happy the artist who makes no mistake in undertaking the work, who knows how to choose, or rather to determine what is suitable for art! He who wanders uneasily among scattered myths and far-stretching history in search of a theme, he who wishes to be significantly scholarly or allegorically interesting, will often be checked in the midst of his work by unexpected obstacles, or will miss his finest aim after the completion of the work. He who does not speak clearly to the senses, will not address himself clearly to the mind; and we regard this point as so important, that we insert at the very outset a more extended discussion of it.
A theme having been happily found or invented, it is subjected to treatment which we would divide into the spiritual, the sensuous, and the mechanical. The spiritual develops the subject according to its inner relations, it discovers subordinate motives; and, if we can at all judge the depth of an artistic genius by the choice of subject, we can recognize in his selection of themes his breadth, wealth, fullness, and power of attraction. The sensuous treatment we should define as that through which the work becomes thoroughly comprehensible to the senses, agreeable, delightful, and irresistible through its gentle charm. The mechanical treatment, finally, is that which works upon given material through any bodily organ, and thus brings the work into existence and gives it reality.
While we hope to be useful to the artist in this way, and earnestly wish that he may avail himself of advice and of suggestions in his work, the disquieting observation is forced upon us that every undertaking, like every man, is likely to suffer just as much from its period as it is to derive occasional advantage from it, and in our own case we cannot altogether put aside the question concerning the reception we are likely to meet with.
Everything is subject to constant change, and since certain things cannot exist side by side, they displace one another. This is true of kinds of knowledge, of certain methods of instruction, of methods of representation, and of maxims. The aims of men remain nearly always the same: they still desire to become good artists or poets as they did centuries ago; but the means through which the goal is reached are not clear to everybody, and why should it be denied that nothing would be more agreeable than to be able to carry out joyfully a great design?
Naturally the public has a great influence upon Art, since in return for its approval and its money it demands work that may give satisfaction and immediate enjoyment; and the artist will for the most part be glad to adapt himself to it, for he also is a part of the public, he has received his training during the same years, he feels the same needs, strives in the same direction, and thus moves along happily with the multitude which supports him and which is invigorated by him. In this matter we see whole nations and epochs delighted by their artists, just as the artist sees himself reflected in his nation and his epoch, without either having even the slightest suspicion that their path might not be right, that their taste might be at least one-sided, their art on the decline, and their progress in the wrong direction.
Instead of proceeding to further generalities on this point, we shall make a remark which refers particularly to plastic art.
For the German artist, in fact for modern and northern artists in general, it is difficult—indeed almost impossible—to make the transition from formless matter to form, and to maintain himself at that point, even should he succeed in reaching it. Let every artist who has lived for a time in Italy ask himself whether the presence of the best works of ancient and modern art have not aroused in him the incessant endeavour to study and imitate the human figure in its proportions, forms, and characteristics, to apply all diligence and care in the execution in order to approach those artistic works, so entirely complete in themselves, in order to produce a work which, in gratifying the sense, exalts the spirit to the greatest heights. Let him also admit, however, that after his return he must gradually relax his efforts, because he finds few persons who will really see, enjoy, and comprehend what is depicted; but, for the most part, finds only those who look at a work superficially, receive from it mere random impressions, and in some way of their own try to get out of it any kind of sensation and pleasure.
The worst picture can appeal to our senses and imagination by arousing their activity, setting them free, and leaving them to themselves; the best work of art also appeals to our senses, but in a higher language which, of course, we must understand; it enchains the feelings and imagination; it deprives us of caprice, we cannot deal with a perfect work at our will; we are forced to give ourselves up to it, in order to receive ourselves from it again, exalted and refined.
That these are no dreams we shall try to show gradually, in detail, and as clearly as possible; we shall call attention particularly to a contradiction in which the moderns are often involved. They call the ancients their teachers, they acknowledge in their works an unattainable excellence, yet they depart both in theory and practice far from the maxims which the ancients continually observed. In starting from this important point and in returning to it often, we shall find others about which something falls to be said.
One of the principal signs of the decay of art is the mixture of its various kinds. The arts themselves, as well as their branches, are related to one another, and have a certain tendency to unite, even to lose themselves in one another; but it is in this that the duty, the merit, the dignity of the real artist consists, namely, in being able to separate the field of art in which he works from others, in placing every art and every branch of art on its own footing, and in isolating it as far as possible.
It has been noticed that all plastic art strives toward painting, all literary art toward the drama, and this observation may in the future give us occasion for important reflections.
The genuine law-giving artist strives for the truth of art, the lawless artist who follows a blind impulse strives for the reality of Nature; through the former, art reaches its highest summit, through the latter its lowest stage.
What holds good of art in general holds good also of the kinds of art. The sculptor must think and feel differently from the painter, indeed he must proceed when he wishes to produce a work in relief, in a different fashion from that which he will employ for a work in the round. By the raising of low reliefs higher and higher, by the making of various parts and figures stand out completely, and finally by the adding of buildings and landscapes, so that work was produced which was half painting and half puppet-show, true art steadily declined. Excellent artists of modern times have unfortunately pursued this course.
When in the future we express such maxims as we think sound, we should like, since they are deduced from works of art, to have them put to the test of practice by the artist. How rarely one can come to a theoretical agreement with anyone else on a fundamental principle. That which is applicable and useful, on the other hand, is decided upon much more quickly. How often we see artists in embarrassment over the choice of subjects, over the general type of composition adapted to their art, and the detailed arrangement; how often the painter over the choice of colors! Then is the time to test a principle, then will it be easier to decide whether it is bringing us closer to the great models and to everything that we value and love in them, or whether it leaves us entangled in the empirical confusion of an experience that has not been sufficiently thought out.
If such maxims hold good in training the artist, in guiding him in many an embarrassment, they will serve also in the development, valuation, and judgment of old and new works of art, and will in turn arise from an observation of these works. Indeed, it is all the more necessary to adhere to this, because, notwithstanding the universally praised excellences of antiquity, individuals and whole nations among the moderns often fail to recognize wherein lies the highest excellence of those works.
An exact test will protect us best from this evil. For that reason let us cite only one example to show what usually happens to the amateur in plastic art, so that we may make clear how necessary it is that criticism of ancient as well as modern works should be exact if it is to be of any use.
Upon him who has an eye for beauty, though untrained, even a blurred, imperfect plaster cast of an excellent antique will always have a great effect; for in such a reproduction there always remain the idea, the simplicity and greatness of form, in short, the general outlines; as much, at all events, as one could perceive with poor eyes at a distance.
It may be noticed that a strong inclination toward art is often enkindled by such quite imperfect reproductions. But the effect is like the object; it is rather that an obscure indefinite feeling is aroused, than that the object in all its worth and dignity really appears to such beginners in art. These are they who usually express the theory that too minute a critical investigation destroys the enjoyment, who are accustomed to oppose and resist regard for details.
If gradually, however, after further experience and training, they are confronted with a sharp cast instead of a blurred one, an original instead of a cast, their pleasure grows with their insight, and increases when the originals themselves, the perfect originals, finally become known to them.
The labyrinth of exact observations is willingly entered when the details as well as the whole are perfect; indeed one learns to realize that the excellences can be appreciated only in proportion as the defects are perceived. to discriminate the restoration from the genuine parts, and the copy from the original, to see in the smallest fragments the ruined glory of the whole—this is the joy of the finished expert; and there is a great difference between observing and comprehending an imperfect whole with obscured vision, and a perfect whole with clear vision.
He who concerns himself with any branch of knowledge, should strive for the highest! Insight is different from practice, for in practical work everyone must soon resign himself to the fact that only a certain measure of strength is allotted to him; far more people, however, are capable of knowledge and insight. Indeed, one may well say that everyone is thus capable who can deny himself and subordinate himself to external objects, everyone who does not strive with rigid and narrow-minded obstinacy to impose upon the highest works of Nature and Art his own personality and his petty onesideness.
To speak of works of art fitly and with true benefit to oneself and others, the discussion should take place only in the presence of the works themselves. Everything depends on the objects being in view; on whether something absolutely definite is suggested by the word with which one hopes to illuminate the work of art; for, otherwise, nothing is thought of at all. This is why it so often happens that the writer on art dwells merely on generalities, through which, indeed, ideas and sensations are aroused in all readers, but no satisfaction is given to the man who, book in hand, steps in front of the work of art itself. Precisely on this account, however, we may in several essays be in a position to arouse rather than to satisfy the desire of the readers; for nothing is more natural than that they should wish to have before their eyes immediately an excellent work of art which is minutely dissected, in order to enjoy the whole which we are discussing, and, so far as the parts are concerned, to subject to their own judgment the opinion which they read.
While the authors, however, write on the assumption that their readers either have seen the works, or will see them in the future, yet they hope to do everything in their power for those who are in neither case. We shall mention reproductions, shall indicate where casts of antique works of art and antique works themselves are accessible, particularly to Germans; and thus try, as far as we can, to minister to the genuine love and knowledge of art.
A history of art can be based only upon the highest and most detailed comprehension of art; only when one knows the finest things that man can produce can one trace the psychological and chronological course taken in art, as in other fields. This course began with a limited activity, busied about a dry and even gloomy imitation of the insignificant as well as the significant, whence developed a more amiable, more kindly feeling toward Nature, till finally, under favorable circumstances, accompanied by knowledge, regularity, seriousness, and severity, art rose to its height. There at last it became possible for the fortunate genius, surrounded by all these auxiliaries, to produce the charming and the complete.
Unfortunately, however, works of art with such ease of expression, which instil into man cheerfulness, freedom, and a pleasant feeling of his own personality, arouse in the striving artist the idea that the process of production is also agreeable. Since the pinnacle of what art and genius produce is an appearance of ease, the artists who come after are tempted to make things easy for themselves, and to work for the sake of appearances. Thus art gradually declines from its high position, as to the whole as well as details. But if we wish to gain a fair conception, we must come down to details of details, an occupation not always agreeable or charming, but by and by richly rewarded with a more certain view of the whole.
If the experience of observing ancient and mediaeval works of art has shown us that certain maxims hold good we need these most of all in judging the most recent modern productions; for, since personal relations, love and hatred of individuals, favor or disfavor of the multitude so easily enter into the valuation of living or recently deceased artists, we are in all the more need of principles in order to pass judgment on our contemporaries. The inquiry can be conducted in two ways: by diminishing the influence of caprice; by bringing the question before a higher tribunal. The principle can be tested as well as its application; and even if we should not agree, the point in dispute can still be definitely and clearly pointed out.
Especially should we wish that the vivifying artist, in whose works we might perhaps have found something to remember, might test our judgments carefully in this way; for everyone who deserves this name is forced in our times to form, as a result of his work and his reflections, a theory, or at least a certain conception of theoretical means, by the use of which he gets along tolerably well in a variety of cases. It will often be noticed, however, that in this way he sets up as laws such maxims as are in accordance with his talent, his inclination, and his convenience. He is subject to a fate that is common to all mankind. How many act in this very way in other fields! But we are not cultivating ourselves when we merely set in motion with ease and convenience that which lies in us. Every artist, like every man, is only an individual, and will always lean to one side. For that reason, man should pursue so far as possible, both theoretically and practically, that which is contrary to his nature. Let the easy-going seek what is serious and severe; let the stern keep before his eyes the light and agreeable; the strong, loveliness; the amiable, strength; and everyone will develop his own nature the more, the farther he seems to remove himself from it. Every art requires the whole man; the highest possible degree of art requires all mankind.
The practice of the plastic arts is mechanical, and the training of the artist rightly begins in his earliest youth with the mechanical side; the rest of his education, on the other hand, is often neglected, for it ought to be far more careful than the training of others who have opportunity of deriving advantage from life itself. Society soon makes a rough person courteous, a business life makes the most simple person prudent; literary labors, which through pride come before a great public, find opposition and correction everywhere; only the plastic artist is, for the most part, limited to a lonely workshop; he has dealings almost solely with the man who orders and pays for his labor, with a public which frequently follows only certain morbid impressions, with connoisseurs who make him restless, with auctioneers who receive every new work with praise and estimates of value such as would fitly honor the most superlative production.
But it is time to conclude this introduction lest it anticipate and forestall the work, instead of merely preceding it. We have so far at least designated the point from which we intend to set out; how far our views can and will spread, must at first develop gradually. The theory and criticism of literary art will, we hope, soon occupy us; and whatever life, travel, and daily events suggest to us, shall not be excluded. In closing, let us say a word on an important concern of this moment.
For the training of the artist, for the enjoyment of the friend of art, it was from time immemorial of the greatest significance in what place the works of art happened to be. There was a time when, except for slight changes of location, they remained for the most part in one place; now, however, a great change has occurred, which will have important consequences for art in general and in particular. At present we have perhaps more cause than ever to regard Italy as a great storehouse of art—as it still was until recently. When it is possible to give a general review of it, then it will be shown what the world lost at the moment when so many parts were torn from this great and ancient whole.
What was destroyed in the very act of tearing away will probably remain a secret forever; but a description of the new storehouse that is being formed in Paris will be possible in a few years. Then the method by which an artist and a lover of art is to use France and Italy can be indicated; and a further important and fine question will arise: what are other nations, particularly Germany and England, to do in this period of scattering and loss, to make generally useful the manifold and widely strewn treasures of art—a task requiring the true cosmopolitan mind which is found perhaps nowhere purer than in the arts and sciences? and what are they to do to help to form an ideal storehouse, which in the course of time may perhaps happily compensate us for what the present moment tears away when it does not destroy?
So much in general of the purpose of a work in which we desire many earnest and friendly sympathizers.