Andreu Alfaro’s meeting with Goethe, his time and ours








When Andreu Alfaro (Valencia, 1929) first showed the whole cycle of his sculptures about Goethe, José Martín made him a long interview published in the catalogue of the show exhibited in the Mapfre Life Cultural Foundation in 1989, where, at the very beginning, he was questioned: Why Goethe? Although we will have the chance to study in detail the reasons given by Alfaro, the answer given wished to stress from the start the ideas and the desire of living of the great German poet, as main reasons. We could, however, wonder, as well as Georg Lukács did in 1947, about Goethe’s present relevance, about the culture in Weimar court and about that time in our present time, at the beginning of the 21st century, or at the end of the eighties, when the Berlin Wall was about to fall down. An immediate answer would be because Goethe is a classic, and as every classic, his work never lacks validity and can enlighten our present time. Nevertheless, it would be even more interesting to remember the special circumstances of the history of Germany, as the Hungarian thinker does, its historical «maladjustment» compared to France or England. The turning point for Germany, Ernst Bloch[1] also agrees with this issue, would be in the war and defeat of the peasants in 1525, a defeat which could be interpreted as a break with the historical progress line. The German princes’ victory consolidated its position, and, with it, according to Lukács, it ensured for a long time «the perpetuation and crystallization of the feudal breaking of the German country»[2]. A fragmentation which would be terrible in order to reach Germany’s unification. Hence, its modernizing delay, in other words, the postponement in starting the path of the necessary bourgeois changes to become a modern state. Likewise, we could also mention its «political delay», the lack of democracy which is going to characterize Germany’s Second Reich from 1870 to 1918. Germany did not leave those authoritarian habits until the Second World War was over. As for culture, Lukács states that «the ideology of Junker’s small rural nobility will decisively influence the most relevant strata of the bourgeois intellectuality». Even in Bismack’s time, we can observe a lack of «civil values», the fear to assume one’s own responsibility, the brutality in dealing with subordinate people, the political incapacity of the German bourgeoisie, a bourgeoisie that only seems to demand order. And there is also the ideological sublimation of a Bismarckian Germany which believes in overcoming the contradictions of modern democracy through a «superior unity». Lukács, basing himself on the famous research on Lessing by Franz Mehring, considers the German literature from the end of the 18th and from the beginning of the 19th century as «the preparatory ideological work of the German bourgeois-democratic revolution». It is on this fact that the Hungarian critic has to devote himself entirely against those who try to interpret the German literature from the end of the 18th century as «an obscurantist anti-illustrated ideology», or else to oppose drastically the Sturm und Drang to the spirit of the Illustration. Lukács is right when he considers Montesquieu, Diderot and Rousseau as the real fathers of the Sturm und Drang. The radical contraposition between the historic conception of the world typical from the Sturm und Drang and the hypothetical anti-historicism from the Illustration was already satisfactorily disarticulated by Friedrich Meinecke. In The Genesis of Historicism, the great professor from Berlin demonstrates how the historic conception of Illustration has an influence on the initiators of the new historic sense in the 18th century: Möser, Herder and Goethe[3]. Lukács also criticizes the mechanical contraposition between reason and feeling, as if the first one belonged exclusively to the French people and the second one to the German literature of the time. Arnold Hauser states that Herder, Goethe and Schiller’s classicism «represents a synthesis of classicist and romantic tendencies»[4]. Besides, those classic Germans themselves, who when they were young belonged to the Sturm und Drang, and who, according to Hauser, cannot be understood without «Rousseau’s naturalist evangel», represent at the same time «an abandonment of the romantic hostility against culture and of Rousseau’s nihilism». It cannot be explained otherwise the bloom of immense spirits in the Germany of that time, comparable exclusively with the time of Humanism. However, even admitting what has been mentioned before, we have to accept, as well as both Hungarian sociologists taken as reference here, that the members of the Sturm und Drang invoked irrational powers as a way to run away from a reality which they did not like and which they did not feel linked to. This way, those intellectuals just followed the interests of the ruling classes, running away from reality and escaping from the urgent problems of the present. This spiritualization of the problems, this loss of the rational and positive sense, is translated into surrender to intuition and into a metaphysical vision. On this issue, we have to consider Lessing’s prevention to Goethe’s Werther and Goetz. Hauser states that German intellectuals were not able to understand that rationalism and empiricism were the natural allies of a progressive middle class and the best preparation for a social order, which sooner or later was going to come. We also have to consider the fact, as Lukács reminds us, that national life in Germany did not offer subjects which could directly be taken by poets as they did in France. Lukács remarks that «for that reason German great poets had to conquer and purify the current subject in the great social-historic sense through a complicated and deep elaboration of their experiences, through intellectual mediations; that is the reason why they had to sublimate their vital and poetic experience up to what is consciously aesthetic: in order to achieve the right shapes to that present time and to the national and human facts implicit within it». As for the escape from problems and his withdrawal from public life, Mehring proved that Goethe’s «flight» to Italy is not due to sentimental reasons as a result of his relation with Charlotte von Stein, but because he fails in his attempt to reform the principality of Weimar following the Illustration principles, some principles which officials and prince Charles August himself oppose. Goethe’s later withdrawal from public life which we have already commented, is a sign of dissatisfaction and of social-political disappointment, this could be interpreted as a critic to the social backward state of Germany in that time. As regards the French Revolution, we also agree with Lukács when he says that Goethe accepted the social objective of the Revolution, however, with a similar determination, he refused the plebeian methods to carry it out.

            According to Meinecke, Goethe’s grandeur basically lies in the intuitive fusion of the most extensive knowledge and one’s own internal experience». As he admitted himself, the greatest spiritual influences that he received were from Ancient Greek, Illustration, Neo-Platonism and Pietism. Among the spirits from the past, his historic sense was being shaped due to the influences from the Bible, Homer and Shakespeare; among the important figures of his century, Leibniz, Shaftesbury, Voltaire, Rousseau, Hamann, Herder and Möser. The three great subjects that he laid stress on were nature, art and life, likewise, the conjunction among intuition, sensibility and thought made possible for him to acquire a historical sense. The great German historian states that there is something as if it were «wonderfully natural» in all his thought. Goethe is in permanent contact with every existing thing, with all living beings on earth, and, if he could, he would melt with all of them, and would try to live their own experiences, in order to know and get inside all the secrets of man and cosmos[5]. Everything interests him and he wants to know everything, thus, he can be seen as a great intellectual empiricist as well as a hylozoist, that is to say, holding that all matter has life. He rejects pure speculation and the metaphysics of schools, therefore, he does not join any philosophical system. Menéndez Pelayo states that while Schiller is «the great poet of free will and of the generous exaltation of the soul», Goethe is «the great pantheist and realistic poet … who hopes to turn all nature into art, all reality into ideal». There is nothing more valuable than the correspondence relation between both poets, although it is fair to recognize that Schiller was more generous and explicit in his letters than Goethe. From that famous debate about Goethe’s Hermann and Dorothea, this one wrote a small treatise on epic and dramatic poetry which the great Spanish polymath writer examines. His aversion to chaos, disorder and to everything which is not properly done, is well known, likewise, he avoids extravagancy in his art and in his behaviour. He is unable to feel envy of his contemporaries, his benevolence and tolerance grows in his late years, and his eclecticism is made known in his famous Talks with Eckermann. In that old age he keeps a distance from his personal opinions of his youth and of his maturity and he comes near a conception of supraindividual and supranational art, the term Die Weltliteratur, that is, «universal literature» or «world literature»,  is owed, to a certain extent, to him.

            Whereas Hermann and Dorothea, according to Menéndez Pelayo, is a soft perfume work, being considered as the epic of the average German people, and symbol of their purest feelings in the middle of political chaos, Wilhelm Meister could be interpreted as the journey leading from art to society, from a individual-subjectivist conception to the experience of the spiritual community, from the contemplative attitude to the active life. As regards Iphegenia in Tauris, a work of a supreme formal beauty, it has a great aesthetic purity, whereas «thick clouds» hang over Elective Affinities. As for Faust, Spanish writer Francisco Ayala considered his outstanding universality, describing his effort as a titanic one, an effort in which the tragedy and tragic tragedy of modern man, that man who observes the universe from its centre,  is materialized in a wonderful parabola. That tragedy lies, according to Ayala, in the fact that all forms of action, which are indispensable and are valuable by themselves, have, nevertheless, a destiny of error, and they are loaded with the terrible consequences of that error, from which we cannot escape. The constant relapse into error, and the always renewed affirmation of the value of life, in spite of those unavoidable errors and the subsequent grief that they entail, can offer the best instance of the Goethian conception of the world[6].

            From a Spanish perspective, however, any approach to Goethe, even though it is a mere sketch as the one we are making here, requires mentioning something from the original interpretation by Ortega y Gasset in April, 1932. To start with, this one rejects the relation with the classics that we have mentioned at the beginning, as the European crisis, which is nowadays more present than ever before, «can be described as a crisis of all classicism»[7]. Nevertheless, that absence of presence of the classics at the present time may be the result of the way they have been studied, without valuing their own circumstance, the life around them in which they are immersed.  The «inside» of Goethe is not his private and subjective world, to Andreu Alfaro. "Mozart (La familia Mozart, 1764)", 1988. Hierro pintado. 208 x 138 x 70 it in other words, it is not approaching Goethe, trying to see his life the way he saw it, «but approaching it as a biographer» in order to «observe the remarkable objective event that his life was. For Ortega, however, life is not a mere object, it is an ever inconclusive event, which requires of us to move to the centre itself. Moreover, Goethe is a man, who «is aware that human life is the fight of man with his private and individual destiny», that is, that life is not thing but task. If Goethe is constantly worried about his life, this happens because «life is worry about itself». For Ortega, there is an evident contradiction between his ideas about the world and his own life, including his work in it. «This man, Ortega says referring to Goethe, has spent his life looking for himself or avoiding himself – which is the opposite, as well as taking care of the exact fulfilment of himself.  This is Faust’s tragedy and Meister’s history: in both works, a man is out looking for his destiny, wandering around the world without finding his own life. Neither of them «know who to be». Ortega explains Goethe’s bad temper, his distance from his environment, his bitter gesture, by saying that he was an unfaithful man to his destiny. In spite of his wonderful talent, «was Goethe, the man, at the service of his vocation, or was he a permanent deserter of his private destiny?» Such a great talent may disorient and disturb vocation. For Ortega, Goethe is, definitely, the man who refuses to live his own destiny, the man who instead of making an effective being of himself is satisfied with being in the world as a potential being, the man who refuses to fit into a destiny, the man who «wishes to remain …available. Weimar brought him closer to moderation, kept him away from the already sufficiently developed Sturm (storm, power, tempest), but it took «the substance of its destiny out», Weimar «separated him comfortably from the world, but, as a result, it separated him from himself».

            Andreu Alfaro, nevertheless, as we stated at the beginning, was especially interested in Goethe’s ideas, some ideas which he was not only discovering in his books but in a very special way in Talks with Eckermann. Besides, this engaging and profound book arouses his interest in the character, since as he reads it, he discovers profiles and shades hidden in the books of the great writer[8]. For Alfaro, Goethe is still a humanist, one of the last humanists, and, moreover, he is a man who makes an instrument of human progress, from reason and curiosity. Goethe’s curiosity was extended to everything, included, obviously, the ones typical from science.  In addition, Alfaro is particularly enthusiastic about the scientific curiosity of the German writer. Goethe’s fascination with nature is explained by Alfaro because he was also himself part of nature. Another issue which interests him is Goethe’s anti-messianism, his indifference for mysticism, his anti-trascendentalism and his anti-heroism, his indifference for sacrifice and suffering. Moreover, his unusual way of being German, that is to say, his passion for living, which, for Alfaro, together with his will and his sense of discipline, represents as if north and south, northern spirit and Mediterranean, classic spirit, joined together.  This makes us remember that well-known painting called Italy and Germany, made by the most famous of Nazarene German painters, Friedrich Overbeck, a painting from 1828, that is, from a time when Goethe is still alive, and which in those female figures, each one of them representing an allegory of their own countries, it entails in great manner that special fascination which Germany, or at least a certain German intellectuality, has always had with the south, an admiration which led those German painters to establish a brotherhood in Rome in 1810. It also reminds us of Julius von Schlosser’s words when his sublime work Art Literature was translated into Italian: «It comes back to its mother language» -not only because his mother was Italian, but because art literature was for him something basically Italian. Finally, Alfaro is interested in Goethe’s sincerity and pragmatism, which go together, because he used not only his most intimate experiences to make his works but also the books he read, without ever  hiding his sources. In fact, the special thing was the way he reinterpreted those books and those authors, how he assimilated them and how they were used by his powerful spirit.

            Regarding the criticism that some people have made to Goethe, stating that he was an egotist or that he did not like the French Revolution, Alfaro reminds that Goethe’s commitment was aimed to the individual’s liberation. Goethe’s fight is for the individual’s dignity. Goethe, according to Alfaro, is the way to culture through history.

             However, Alfaro’s empathy towards Goethe is due to something stated before, to methodological affinity. Alfaro uses any circumstance, any experience, to turn it into sculpture. As for those who criticized the «return to figuration» of this series by Alfaro, if we compare it with his previous work fifteen or twenty years ago, as if it were less abstract, less conceptual, Alfaro himself has answered this explaining that from the fifties he has been interested in the dialectic between simple form and communication, in other words, to express, successfully, to the viewer a concept, an idea, or the perception of a character by the sculptor. From my view, I consider that, without denying the correspondence between the main part of these sculptures and the engravings in which the artist has been inspired, we can, however, find in them an extraordinary work of synthesis, of reducing the character to the essential thing, to the most characteristic features of his face or of his physiognomy. Like Goethe, Alfaro does not hide his sources. In fact, the mentioned catalogue includes reproductions of almost all the engravings he has been inspired from. Nonetheless, we perceive an artistic intelligence, an ability to choose the definitive feature, an ability to reduce the figure to its essential lines. Alfaro is not a constructivist, he is not a normative sculptor, and however, he is not a figurative artist either. His work, placed half-way between sensitive perception and abstraction, is always linked to life, to experience, although in this particular series we have to admit as well, that we are dealing with the homage to a certain period of the history of culture in which real and quite human people lived, people from Goethe’s private circle, his friends, his family, his lovers, people who widened Germany’s and Europe’s cultural and intellectual life, like Herder, Hegel, Byron, Mozart, Beethoven and Schiller, or characters from his dramas and novels, like Faust, Hermann and Dorothea, Margaret, this fact can explain why the sculptor wished us to recognize them, although without falling in vain literary games, without rhetoric, but using a precise and essential language. A work based on drawing, which is the right means for the first idea to be materialized; hence, from drawing, volume and contour come into view, so that, finally, in some cases the silhouette can appear.

             The first figure of the whole series, which was started in 1981, is the one of Charlotte von Stein, a work which he first made in packing plastic and in a small size, making, then, some bigger drawings and a wok in plaster, this one will be the prototype of the work which is finally made in stone, to be precise, in white marble stone, in 1987, after having changed several times that initial prototype. Nevertheless, when Alfaro is creating this initial work, even though he will finally title it under the name of Charlotte von Stein, in fact the person he has in mind and the one he gets his inspiration from is Cornelia, Goethe’s sister, since, as it is well known, Goethe seemed to have been interested for all his life in a kind of woman, of heroine, with some kind of relation with the figure of his sister. Goethe’s women, Alfaro reminds us, are pure, melancholic women who fight against adversity, who surrender to their lover’s arms, while this one redeems them through love. Charlotte is perhaps the most important woman in Goethe’s life, performing the role of mother, adviser, friend and, who knows maybe lover as well. Charlotte is represented by Alfaro with a very distinguished and abstract head, divided into two planes by the line of his profile, which must, undoubtedly, be inspired in Modigliani’s and Brancusi’s works. Another great youth love was Lilí Schönemann, to which he represents in a very graceful and ethereal way, very stylized, with her wavy hair blowing in the wind.  In some cases, he has been inspired by black silhouettes, translated by him into a piece of cut marble. This is what happens in that Goethe’s profile in which his nose stands out, although one of his main achievements which we will not probable be able to see in Malaga due to its size, is the interpretation which he makes of the famous Portrait of Goethe in the Roman Campagna, by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein (1786-87), a monumental stainless steel sculpture of almost eight metres height and eleven metres length which in a very incomparable manner translates the internal architecture of Tischbein’s painting, as well as the position of the left arm and legs of the leant writer.



Traducción de José María Valverde Zambrana


[1] From Ernst Bloch, see Thomas Münzer, Revolution Theologian. Madrid, Ciencia Nueva, 1968.

[2] On Lukács views, see his book Goethe and his time. Barcelona, Grijalbo, 1968.

[3] Friedrich Meinecke, Historicism and its genesis. Madrid, Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1983.

[4] Arnold Hauser, «Germany and the Illustration», in Social history of literature and art. Madrid, Guadarrama, 1972.

[5] Marcelino Menéndez Pelayo expresses that view in his wonderful chapter about Schiller, Goethe, Herder, John Paul Richter and brothers William and Alexander Humboldt in his History of aesthetic ideas in Spain. Madrid, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 1974.

[6] See Francisco Ayala’s Preliminary Study on the edition of Goethe’s Faust of Éxito editorial. Barcelona-Mexico, 1968.

[7] On this issue, see José Ortega y Gasset, «Asking for a Goethe from inside», in Complete Works. Madrid, Revista de Occidente, 1947, volume 4, pages 395-419.

[8] On Alfaro’s views about Goethe, see the talk held with José Martín in the catalogue of the exhibition Alfaro. From Goethe to our present time. Madrid. Mapfre Life Cultural Foundation, 1989.


Publicado originalmente en el catálogo de la exposición de Andreu Alfaro que, bajo el título de Goethe y nuestro tiempo, se celebró en la

sala Alameda de la Diputación Provincial de Málaga entre el 8 de julio y el 3 de septiembre de 2005