Goethe’s Weimar Honors Poet With Fossils, Michelangelo

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe Portrait
A portrait of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe from 1829 by Friedrich Duerck. The portrait is one of many of Germany's national poet in a new exhibition at the Goethe National Museum in Weimar. Photographer: Alexander Burzik/Klassik Stiftung Weimar via Bloomberg

Germany’s national poet is omnipresent in the pretty baroque city of Weimar. Walking from Goetheplatz to the Goethe National Museum, I passed the Goethe Cafe, the Goethe Kaufhaus and the Hotel am Goethehaus.

The time is ripe, then, for the comprehensive permanent exhibition dedicated to the author of “Faust” that has just opened in the museum building next to his house.

Over two floors, “Lebensfluten -- Tatensturm” (Flood of Life -- Storm of Deeds) explores Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s political career, his love life, his interest in art, his scientific research and, of course, his writing. (It turns out he didn’t actually write in later life; he dictated, and then made additions and corrections by hand.)

Exhibits range from his extravagantly embroidered suspenders to his collection of erotic cameos; from his heavy gray wool travelling coat to a copy of Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” that found its way into his collection.

Goethe was an obsessive collector. The museum estimates that he accumulated as many as 56,000 items, from coins to art, rocks to ceramics. Just a fraction is on display here -- his geological samples, fossils of fish, animal skulls and Renaissance faience plates.

Classical Staircase

The new show gives a sense of the times, and is a welcome complement to Goethe’s house next door, which brings alive the author in a way no exhibition could.

The grand classical staircase he added, inspired by a visit to Italy, the casts of Greek and Roman sculptures, and the walls covered in paintings and graphics provide insight into his tastes and varied interests.

Cabinets for his collections line the rooms, many of which are painted in cheery bright colors. As a young musician, Felix Mendelssohn entertained guests for hours on the piano in one of the drawing rooms.

The writer moved into the spacious house in 1782 as a tenant. In 1792, Duke Carl August of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach bought it for Goethe as an important mentor who was also his privy councilor.

Goethe held an astonishing array of offices under the duke’s reign -- he was in charge of the local copper mines, waterworks, road-building, taxes and fires and flood crisis management. Later, he oversaw the theater (where he staged many of Friedrich Schiller’s plays), the building of the city palace and the ducal libraries.

Crammed Study

He died in his house in 1832 at the age of 82, in an armchair next to the simple wooden bed, by his study crammed with his books and collections. The study is still exactly as it was at the time of Goethe’s death, thanks to a detailed inventory.

The number of visitors to Goethe’s house each day is limited and often there is greater demand than can be accommodated at once, so people are allocated times and sent away. The new exhibition offers a good way to while away the time before your time slot.

It also adds to a growing list of reasons to visit Weimar, which has experienced a rapid transformation in the past 20 years. A city of palaces, parks, cobbled streets with a remarkable literary tradition, it has this year already marked the opening of the Goethe and Schiller Archive after renovation.

The beautiful Duchess Anna Amalia Library with its gilded Rococo Hall, horrifically damaged by fire in 2004, has opened in renewed splendor after thorough reconstruction. A new Bauhaus museum is planned for 2015. The city palace is to be revamped to house exhibitions and be more accessible to the public -- at the moment, a lot of it is occupied by offices.

Weimar is still changing fast.

Information: http://www.klassik-stiftung.de/index.php?id=20

(Catherine Hickley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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