Sunday, 29 November 2009

Call Me Tischbein

This is one of my favourite pictures. It stands, framed, on my bedside cabinet, alongside a couple of family photos and a heap of bedside books. That's how favourite it is. It's a watercolour sketch by Johann Tischbein of the young Goethe, looking down onto the street from a window of what is now known as the Casa di Goethe, in Rome. Tischbein and Goethe were room-mates in this very chamber, on their Italian adventure in 1786.

Tischbein's other portrait of Goethe, "Goethe in an Idiotic Hat in the Campagna", is very famous, of course, but this one is far superior. I love everything about it. I love the contrast of interior and exterior. I love the simple colour washes of Prussian blue and terra cotta. But, in particular, I love its informality, the unself-conscious crook of one leg playing with a slipper, the untucked shirt, and above all that sense of the young genius craning out of the window to watch the sunlit street life below, putting together in his head the legacy of his classical learning with the reality of Rome. It's the ultimate holiday snap.

Although the focus is on that sunlit head and the hunched shoulders, there's also an innocent, mildly homo-erotic quality that shines through so limpidly that's it's easy to miss. My daughter, aged six, spotted it straight away, though: "Daddy, that lady's showing her bottom!" That hint of a smile in Goethe's breeches does put one in mind of the lines in Rilke's poem "Archaic Torso of Apollo" (also, as it happens, about the afterlife of the classical legacy -- see my post "You Must Change Your Life"):
... Sonst könnte nicht der Bug
der Brust dich blenden, und im leisen Drehen
der Lenden könnte nicht ein Lächeln gehen
zu jener Mitte, die die Zeugung trug.

(Literally: "... Otherwise, the bow of the breast couldn't dazzle you, and -- in the gentle turn of the loins -- a smile couldn't run to that centre which bore his fertility")
But this is not a picture of sexual desire, though it is a picture of one of the oldest love stories: North meets South. It is a picture of loving admiration and friendship, and of the sheer happiness of being young, talented, and away from home, with a whole lifetime of achievement ahead. Yes, I realise Goethe was 37 in 1786, but I was 17 when I first saw this picture in 1971, and therefore so was Goethe, as far as I was concerned. I wanted, more than anything, to be the young man in that picture.

I'm happy to say, I have been there, and more than once; in a sense, my life has been measured by its "Tischbein moments". During the three summers, 1971-73, that I spent hitchhiking around Europe with a succession of friends (see the post Songs Are Like Tattoos) I had so many such moments that I began to think I might indeed be Goethe. However, the three following years as a student at Oxford put a brake on that fantasy. Goethe I was not. There was clearly more to it than leaning spellbound out of high windows.

I recall a later occasion on a tour through the Basque Country and Northern Spain, one of several I made with my girlfriend and various other couples in the years following the fall of Franco. I awoke one September morning in Santiago de Compostela, in a gigantic creaking wooden bed like a boat in an ancient hotel room without running water, that was equipped with a wooden washstand and ceramic bowls that could be filled from a tap down the corridor. It was impossible not to feel that one had gone back fifty years, if not a century or two.

Throwing open the shutters onto the morning life of an ancient city and centre of pilgrimage, I breathed it all in. The voices, the clap of pigeons, the traffic, the freshly sluiced cobblestones, the geological complexity of the architecture, and -- still asleep in the gigantic creaking wooden bed -- the complicated woman with whom, I realised in that moment (after five or so years of an on-again, off-again relationship) I was going to spend the rest of my life. I admit I had to stand there for a minute or two longer, composed in my Tischbein moment, to see what I thought about that.

Self-portrait with backpack in a distorting mirror


Gavin McL said...

The pigeons clapping their wings were exploiting the Weiss-Fogh effect. It allows them to generate more lift quickly and escape the ground faster than otherwise. They generally do so when startled. Various insects use it, its the reason bees can fly when according the "rigid wing" aerodynamics they can't
It's a lovely picture, you are right about it having more to say than they formal portrait, despite not even showing the subjects face.
A lovely post


Mike C. said...

Is that what they're doing? Cunning... I've come to admire pigeons -- their flying ability (and their obvious joy in it) is marvellous. And they share a certain dogged persistence with crows which I find admirable (unless I'm trying to reseed the lawn).


Bronislaus Janulis / Framewright said...


The poetical path you have woven is quite enjoyable. I'm off on one of the tangents, but thought I would mention this.

Late to JM; I like her paintings, too.

"Once I Was ...", Tim Buckley, haunts me still, probably due to my circumstances at the time.


Mike C. said...


I'm pleased you're enjoying the posts (and picking up the literary allusions -- full marks). I've never knowingly listened to Tim Buckley (somehow he seems not to have crossed the Atlantic) but will now. Some frame pictures will appear before Christmas, I expect -- we have a revolting 19th c. gilded baroque mirror my partner inherited last year in bubble wrap leaning against a wall at home. If I have my way (unlikely) it will stay in the bubble wrap...


Gavin McL said...

Your self portrait has been annoying me, not in bad way, but it reminded me of something.

I remembered - Gerhard Richter

It looks like some of his photo paintings not the hyper realistic ones but some of his earlier work the copies of newspaper photographs that he deliberately blurred.

As you say pigeons underrated birds along with most of our common birds, when you stop and look they are wonderful. If Starlings were as rare as hens teeth that multicoloured plumage they sport at certain times of the year would be considered a work of art

Mike C. said...


Yes, I know what you mean about the Richter, though he's covered so many bases over such a long time, stylistically, pretty much anything is reminiscent of a Richter. His website is exhausting!


Zouk Delors said...

"... the young genius craning out of the window to watch the sunlit street life below, putting together in his head the legacy of his classical learning with the reality of Rome"


"Oi! Keep it down, will you?! There's people trying to sleep up here!"

Mike C. said...


Ha! Definitely more sympathy with the latter these days!