Georg Büchner – Lenz,1835

 

 

On another occasion, Oberlin showed him coloured tablets and explained to him the relationship which each colour bears to man; he showed him twelve apostles, each of whom, he said, was represented by by a colour. Lenz took up the theme and continued with it; he was afflicted by bad dreams and, like Stilling, began to read the Apocalypse; and he read the Bible a great deal.

. . .

At the dinner table, Lenz was in good humour once again; they talked about literature, and here he was in his element. The Idealistic period was just then beginning; Kaufmann was an ardent supporter of it, but Lenz contradicted him vehemently; ‘The poets, who are said to mirror reality, have not the slightest idea of it; nevertheless, they are more bearable than those who try to glorify reality. The dear Lord has certainly made the world as it should be, and we most definitely cannot throw together something better; our sole effort ought to be dedicated to imitating Him a little. In all things, I expect to find—life, the possibility of existence, then I am satisfied; we have no authority to ask whether it is beautiful, or ugly. The feeling that anything that has been created is imbued with life, is stronger than these two sentiments and is the sole criterion in matters of art. It is only seldom, by the way, that we encounter it: we find it in Shakespeare, folk songs are full of its sounds, and we find it sometimes in Goethe; everything else is only fit for burning. The people cannot even draw a dog kennel. They strive for idealistic shapes, but all I have seen of them are wooden dolls. Such Idealism reveals the most shameful contempt for human nature.’–One ought to attempt it sometime, he said, and immerse oneself in the life led by the meanest human creature, and then translate this experience into convulsive movements, faint signs, and the delicate, almost imperceptible changes of facial expression; he himself had attempted to do so in his works The Private Tutor and The Soldiers–‘These are the most prosaic persons under the sun, but the emotional aspect is almost identical in all human beings, save that the outer shell through which it must break out is more or less solid. One need have only eyes and ears for it. Yesterday, as I was walking up the valley, I saw two girls sitting upon a stone; one was putting up her hair and the other was helping her; her golden hair hanging down, and a grave, pale face, yet so young, and her black dress, and the other girl so eager to help.–The most beautiful, touching works of the Old German school of painting can hardly convey an idea of it. At times, one could wish oneself a Medusa, to be able to turn such a group into stone, and call to the passers-by.–Then they stood up, the lovely group vanished; but as they walked down the valley, between the cliffs, yet another picture ensued.

The most beautiful pictures, the richest tones, group together and then fall apart. Only one thing remains: an infinite beauty which migrates from one shape to another, forever laid open to view, transformed. Of course, we cannot always capture them and put them into museums or written music, and then summon young young and old and let young lads and old men chatter about them and be filled with delight. One must love all human beings in order to penetrate in to inmost soul of each one; one must not consider anyone too mean or too ugly—only then can one understand them; the most nondescript face creates a deeper impression than a mere feeling of beauty, and one can create one’s own figures without copying into them external features devoid of life, of muscles, of a pounding, racing pulse.’

Kaufmann objected, saying that, in real life, Lenz would not find any models suitable for a Belvedere Apollo or a Raphael Madonna. ‘What of it,’ he replied; ‘I must admit that such things have the kiss of death for me. When I really make an effort I can certainly respond to them with feeling, but the work is more mine than theirs. Among poets and artists, I prefer the one who can present nature to me in the most realistic manner, so that his work arouses feeling in me; anything else disturbs me. I prefer the Dutch painters to the Italian, they are the only ones whose works are tangible. I know only two paintings, both by Dutch artists, which made the same impression upon me as the New Testament; one—I do not know the artist’s name—depicts Christ and the disciples on the road to Emmaus. When you read the description of how the disciples went forth, the whole of Nature is contained in those few words. It is a gloomy, twilit evening, a dull red streak can be seen on the horizon, the road in semi-darkness; a stranger approaches them, they speak to him, and he breaks the bread; then they recognize him by his plain human manner; and his divinely suffering features speak clearly to them, and they are afraid, for darkness has set in, and they are overcome by an inexplicable feeling of; yet it is not a feeling of ghostly terror, but as if a beloved person, now dead, were to come to meet you in the twilight just as he did before; such is the mod of the picture, overshadowed by a monochrome, brownish tone, the quiet, gloomy evening. Then a second picture: a woman sitting in her rom with her prayer-book in her hand. Everything clean and tidy, Sunday-fashion, sand strewn on the floor, everything cosily clean and warm. The woman has not been able to go to church, and she is performing her devotions at home; the window is open, she is facing the window, and one feels as if the sound of the bells from the village were sweeping across the wide, flat landscape through the window, and the singing of the congregation is echoing from the church close-by, and the woman is following the text in her prayer book.’

He went on speaking in this vein; everyone listened intently, for much of what he said rang true. His face had become red from speaking; one minute smiling, the next grave, he shook his blond curls. He had forgotten himself completely.

Georg Büchner,1813-1837. Lenz,1835. First partly published in Karl Gutzkow‘s and Wienberg’s Deutsche Revue,1839. Translation @Michael Fleming, 1997. Oxford University Press, World Classic’s paperback,1997.

Image: Raphael, 1483-1520. Sistine Madonna/  Madonna di San Sisto, 1512. Oil on canvas. 265 x 196cm. Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister  

Image: Nicolas Maes, 1634-1693. Old Woman Saying Grace (The Prayer Without End). c.1656. Oil on canvas. 134 x 133cm. Gotha, Schlossmuseum. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, on loan from the city of Amsterdam.

Image: Carel van Savoy. c.1621-1665. Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus, Oil on canvas 132 x 109cm.. Hessisches Landesmuseum,  Darmstadt

Image: Apollo Belvedere.  c. 130-140 AD. Marble copy of an original bronze statue of 330-320 B.C. by Leochares, who worked on the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus. Vatican Museums

Georg Büchner was a writer, poet and dramatist whose dramas include Dantons Tod,1835, (Death of Danton), Leonce and Lena, 1836, and Woyzeck, 1837 concerned with social and revolutionary change in response to the contemporary intellectual ideas of Idealism, Romanticism and Realism. Büchner’s documentary novella concerns a period of mental illness in the life of Jakob Lenz, 1751-1826, a Sturm und Drang poet and friend of Goethe, whose best known plays are Der Hofmeister,1774, (The Private Tutor) and Die Soldaten,1776, (The Soldiers). The narrative relates incidents when Lenz was in the care of Johann Friedrich Oberlin,1740-1826, a pastor in the Alsace, from November 1777 to January 1778, and is based on Oberlin’s diary, and a biography of Oberlin, published in 1831. The description of the internal life of a schizophrenic character was an influential text for modernist European fiction. Büchner challenged the ideas of Idealism and Romanticism, and Lenz notably combines Naturalism with Expressionism, through a factual observation and documentation of events, with an imaginative and poetic understanding of the human psyche. The references to paintings propose the aesthetic of Dutch realist painters, such as Nicholas Maes, 1634-1693

Lenz is an important text as the Kunstsgepräge, or art conversation presents an argument for realism and authenticity in art – promoting the importance of detail, and a less bourgeois and broader range of society reflected in the subject matter, in preference to the predominant idealistic aesthetic.

Christoph Kaufmann,1753-1795, introduced the term Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) to describe the German Romantic movement. Johann Stilling,1740-1817, published studies of the Apocalypse. Idealism – the dominant aesthetic and moral culture in late eighteenth century Germany. The Old German School – fifteenth century artists such as Altdorfer, Dürer, and Grünewald. Apollo Belvedere – A Roman copy of a Greek statue of Apollo in the Vatican Belvedere. Johann Joachim Winckelmann considered it the sublime expression of Greek art, “of all the works of antiquity that have escaped destruction, the statue of Apollo represents the highest ideal of art”. Raphael Madonna – Raphael’s paintings of the Madonna embodied the Renaissance idea of ‘transfiguring the real’ as an ideal aesthetic in Weimar Classicism. Winkelmann wrote prominently about the Sistine Madonna as a highpoint of Classical and Christian art. The altarpiece was commissioned in 1512 by Pope Julius II for the church of San Sisto, Piacenza. It was purchased by Augustus III, Grand Duke of Saxony, for  Dresden in 1754. The purchase price of 25 million Roman scudari, made it the most expensive painting in the world for a generation and its status as the world’s most important painting was particularly influential in Germany. Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus, a painting by Carel von Savoy, (c. 1621-1665), a pupil of Rembrandt. Buchner saw this painting in the Museum of Darmstadt.

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Author: jeh

Jeremy Hunt is Director of the AAJ Press (Art & Architecture Journal / Press) – a writer and consultant on art and public space - creator of art projects - writer on art

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