‘art and soul

Homage to greatness

The image that accompanies this piece was not part of the exhibition in Frankfurt. But, somehow, it evokes the quiet that is there in Goethe’s little poem, writes B.N. Goswamy

A group of trees seen in the evening
A group of trees seen in the evening. Detail from a painting of the Gita Govinda series. Pahari, ca. 1775

A colleague from Frankfurt brought me the other day a small, precious looking book: ‘an exhibition catalogue’, he said. "O’er all the hill tops `85" was the intriguing title it bore, and I saw that it had been published by one of the premier museums in that city: the Museum of Applied Arts. A book of poetry as a catalogue, I wondered to myself? But as I started browsing through it, things fell quickly into place.

The line was taken—translated from the original German—from one of those deceptively simple poems that practically every German child learns by heart. For it comes from Goethe, among the greatest names in literature that one can think of: one who is widely regarded as being to German what Shakespeare is to English, or Pushkin to Russian. But the line in the title of the book was meant to lead to other things: to the sub-title of the exhibition, for instance, which read: Experience of Nature, from Goethe’s time to the Present.

What the Frankfurt museum had done, as a tribute to one of the most illustrious sons of that ancient city—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born there in 1749—was to select, from its permanent collection, objects drawn from across time and across cultures, which said something about Nature, and put them up on show. This, because Goethe was so in tune with Nature, and celebrated it with a quiet passion, as in the poem from which the title to the exhibition was picked.

But the poem, first. It does not, naturally, read as well in its English rendering, for so much of the musicality of the original German gets lost. But it is still affecting:

"O’er all the hill-tops

is calm.

In all the treetops

you feel

hardly a breath of air.

The little birds fall silent in the woods.

Just wait... soon

you’ll also be at rest.

The rhyming, as in the original, of gipfeln (hilltops) and wipfeln (treetops), the delicate little turn given to a word like voegelein (little birds) is gone here, and when children sing this ‘Wanderer’s Night Song’, there must be very little realisation on their part of the sense of great quiet that the poem captures, or the subtle note upon which it ends: hinting at the end of all worldly existence, a liberation as it were from "the unimprovable confusion of mankind".

Goethe is said to have written the poem on the wall of a hunting hut, after a long mountain hike in 1780. But what some might regard perhaps as a work of casual origin, has come to endure. As has often been said, the poet here captures, in just twentyfour words, the connection of Man with the creation that surrounds him: mountains, woods, air, animals.

To go back to the exhibition in Frankfurt. It set out clearly to cast a look at the same connections between man and nature through a wide range of objects: an 18th century German engraving of a forest scene, for instance; a room-divider made up of plant-holders devised by an Italian artist; a bird-shaped incense burner from India; a Chinese scroll showing mountain tops; an intricate tapestry from Flanders; a ‘Thinking Man’s Chair’ by an English designer; and so on.

Each one of these objects was properly catalogued and described, against the background of Goethe’s masterly little poem. But the show went well beyond known objects, for the museum commissioned especially for it an installation by the renowned Frankfurt artist/architect, Claus Bury. The centre piece of the installation — which was spread over the museum — was a massive sculpture made of wood, in the form of a carefully crafted telescope, through which the eye could travel to "the new peaks of Frankfurt’s skyline", while sitting under the "waving treetops" of the park in the midst of which the Museum is located.

Not having seen Claus Bury’s installation, I am not able to make any comment upon it. But the idea, like the idea of the exhibition as a whole, I find intriguing.

The image that accompanies this piece, incidentally, was not part of the exhibition in Frankfurt: it is a detail of a clump of trees taken from an Indian painting. But, somehow, it evokes for me the quiet that is there in Goethe’s little poem. In any case it is good to see a work from this close. In fact, to see any work at all with a degree of intensity.

At one point, Goethe said: "One ought, every day, at least to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture." And then added: " And if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words."