For two hundred years Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) has had something to say to creative people. Goethe (pronounced GER tuh) was a German poet, novelist, playwright and scientist. Some things he didn’t get right. Going against the findings of Sir Isaac Newton who had determined that colour came from white light, Goethe figured colour was merely a form of darkness. Too bad. An aristocrat with financial resources and terrific connections, he could turn his mind in any direction he wished. He was fascinated with the spirit and methodology of art-making.
In his dramatic tragedy “Torquato Tasso” (1790) he tells of a young poet who fails to come to terms with his surroundings because of his lack of self-discipline. Sound familiar? In a novel “William Meister’s Apprenticeship” (1796) he describes a gradual, painful process by which a young person interested in the arts gains maturity, self-knowledge and social responsibility.
In Goethe we find truths for people like us. Often his remarks have broad meaning as well as specific application: “There is strong shadow where there is much light,” he noted, and, “One is never satisfied with the portrait of a person that one knows.” “Talent,” he pointed out, “is formed in stillness.” “Create, artist, do not talk,” he advised. “Theory is gray, but the tree of life is green.” Mournfully, he reports that “Art is long, life short, judgment difficult, opportunity transient.”
Goethe loved nature and what we would now call psychology. He treasured friendships as stimulants. He had imagination, curiosity and versatility in spades — he also knew when to drop projects or entanglements when they had run their course. Goethe came to regard naturalness, sincerity and simplicity as the prime virtues of art.
Goethe’s masterpiece was “Faust,” finished only months before his death. His central character makes a pact with the devil in order to get maximum satisfaction from life. The devil loses the wager because Faust continually sought perfection.
In life and art, Goethe’s motto was, “Without haste, but without rest.” His last words: “More light!”
PS: “Whatever you can do, or dream, you can begin. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.” (Goethe)
Esoterica: For Goethe there was a creative motivator beyond curiosity. For freethinkers like him, art is a kind of sensible, attainable immortality. “If I work incessantly to the last, nature owes me another form of existence when the present one collapses.”
by Cynthia Schelzig, Germany
Thank you for your letters and for reminding us this week what great work Goethe has contributed to the world. Here in Germany we have Goethe Fests where his plays are presented and his literature discussed and people even dress up like him. His Color Theory is used widely in Germany and children grow up reading his works from a very early age.
A better pronunciation of his name would be: Go Tay. That is about as close as you can get considering that the English language doesn’t have the equivalent sound for the “oe” that we have in German. Auf Wiedersehen.
(RG note) Thank you to all who helped me with my pronunciation. (see also letters below) Ironically, the World Book Encyclopedia recommends pronouncing Goethe GER tuh, so that’s where I got it. As you say, some of us are challenged in the “oe” department.
Nothing to sneeze at
by Ursula Rettich
I just have to write about the pronunciation you try to tell us Gerthu? Sounds like “Gesundheit” not like Goethe. Try Goo (with the mouth shaped as if you would whistle) tha as in “a” –Goota
by Ingeborg Raymer, Burnaby, BC, Canada
Goethe, who was one of the great thinkers and writers of Western Civilization, also said that “we should talk less and draw more.” However, his name is not pronounced Gerthe. It is hard to explain the German “oe” in writing as the English language does not have this sound. In thinking about all the wise thoughts Goethe had on life and death, he said “life is but a preparation for what there is to come.” Having spent the first 29 years of my life in Germany, I am very glad to know of somebody who knows about this great man and his profound thoughts.
by Anne Copeland
I read Goethe’s statement “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it.” Some years ago I printed out the entire saying and have kept it by my working areas so that I read it every single day. It really does make a major difference in what we can do if we but follow this philosophy. It is strange how the smallest action in the direction of a goal seems to grow with related events and things coming into play just when they are most needed, sometimes as if almost by magic. Goethe left behind much for the world, but of all he created, this is perhaps his finest statement.
by Lynne Woloshyniuk
I love the profiles and quotes included in your letters. I would like permission to cite the quotes by Abe Lincoln and Leonardo da Vinci found in your letter “Just for Today” and the quotes by Goethe in today’s letter. I’m leading a workshop for beginning artists and feel these would be inspirational for them (as well as a restatement of them for me).
(RG note) Abe’s, Leonardo’s and Wolfgang’s statements belong to them, and we too lift them for our Resource of Art Quotations. (take a look at it — we’ve now made it fantastic to get around in) I think all three of those guys would be happy to know that their thoughts are marching on. Please feel free to copy, and please mention the twice-weekly letter or the Painter’s Keys site. Other artists may wish to subscribe. Incidentally, an excellent resource for workshoppers is to print out entire letters, or groups of letters, using our free printer friendly versions. That way you can hand out printed material that complements your teaching.
by Judy Preston, Gabriola Island, BC, Canada
Sometimes I read one of your letters and nothing passes to me. Lately, every letter speaks directly to my heart and soul. Why is that?
(RG note) It’s called convergence. It works for the same reason that horoscopes do as well as they do. Somewhere, someday there’s someone out there who needs to hear such and such. Funnily, every time a letter goes out there is always one that comes back in that says: “This was your best one yet, Robert.” If I ever get the full fifty thousand for one letter I’ll let you know. Then maybe I’ll quit.
Never thought she was erotic
by Enid Baker
Regarding your letter Subliminal Art on covert symbolism in art: Some years ago I took a beginners sculpture course. About half way through the year, as we became more able at manipulating the media, I began seeing phallic symbols in almost everyone’s work. I commented on this to my neighbour. She looked around carefully and stated that I was imagining things. Two weeks later, she said “You know. You’re right!” I asked, “About what?” “They are phallic symbols.” We had a good laugh, and didn’t talk about that any more. I think that only verifies that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Then, again, do we see what we want to see? I never thought I was that erotic.
Signature in the painting
by Barbara Ettles
I must take issue with anyone who purports that judging of paintings can be anonymous in a Fall Fair or anywhere in a small community, be it island or no. Cover up the identifying signature if you must — but you can never cover up the artist himself for he is there, spread across the entire canvas or paper. For people who know the artist’s work, and most judges are familiar with many, many artists’ works, there can be no anonymity of the artist, even for those Fall Fairs that go to extremes to be a fair Fall Fair! Some judges will ignore those paintings they recognize; some judges will fall victim to judging by popularity; some judges will be more scientific by judging composition, contrast, movement etc. But few judges who have been invited to participate in a community’s show can judge a painting completely impartially for a judge must have been invited because he was known to the community and perhaps vice versa. Judges are people too.
You can take it with you
by Aikya Param, Oakland/Berkeley, California, USA
I have a traveling second easel. When the “master” is fairly sure the piece is finished, I carry it around with me for a week or so. I look at the painting in different kinds of light, and this is often extremely important to my truly seeing my own work. I can get up close or see it far away. I stand it up in the office for a day or so. As I go through my day at work, I can suddenly come upon the painting as if I’ve never seen it before. I get a completely different view of the work and engage others in conversations about it. What do they think of it? How does it make them feel? How would they change it? Likewise I bring it when I go to visit friends and acquaintances when the main business is something completely unrelated to my artwork. They give their reactions. Then I may hang the painting somewhere and listen to more comments, or put it away for a while. Finally I’ll take it out and make whatever changes were inspired by the trip of this second easel through my world.
Working while sad
by Tricia Migdoll, Byron Bay, Australia
I am only 15 months into painting, and recently something has happened in my life to make me very sad. I have a painting on the easel ready to go — a painting that is full of joy and spirituality. At this moment in time, I don’t believe I can continue with it, as it is very important to me in a spiritual sense. Do you believe I could still paint something of beauty and joy at the same time that my heart is breaking? I feel that if I am any bit of an artist, this painting will reflect my sadness, and I don’t want to depict this in my painting.
(RG note) When Lord Byron was imprisoned in a dungeon he wrote that the idea of freedom was at its greatest in dungeons. So too can extreme grief or sadness be re-programmed into beauty and joy. I rather think that art itself is a catharsis for the general disappointment that life often brings. Many artists learn to manage their natural and unavoidable depression with the balm of creativity.
Online progress report
by Lynette Hensley, Atlanta, GA, USA
You recently mentioned putting one’s art process up where it could be seen as a way of keeping on track, receiving feedback, and getting encouragement. As an evening and weekend artist, it took me about two months to complete a painting called “The Red Dress,” and I kept an online journal of each session –a session being a weekend or an evening. My thoughts, research, decisions that were made along the way, that kind of thing. I asked that people not tell me what to do next, nothing negative, and no input regarding ideas, please, because I didn’t want the influence of others. But I did ask for encouragement. So having set those parameters I started working. It felt like performance art in a way even though no one was in the room with me. There was some pressure to not only succeed and be brilliant, but to be quick about it. I learned to let go of the pressure to be speedy. I actually took a three-week break and a vacation in the midst of the process. So it was an interesting learning experience.
Paula Timpson, East Hampton, NY, USA
Friends as stimulants
Muses are blue green eyes of sea
Art is. Painters paint. Writers write.
Yes, Esteban Vicente
Go for your dreams and become as dust
A piece of the Earth’s lightness
We are small and humble
But strong in Heart!
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2003.
That includes Bonnie Austin who quoted Goethe: “Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you help them to become what they are capable of being.” This quote is to be found under Ability in the Resource of Art Quotations which has now been made larger and even handier to use.