Exhibition | Goethe and France
Now on view at the Bodmer Foundation, just outside of Geneva:
Goethe et la France
Fondation Martin Bodmer, Cologny, 12 November 2016 — 23 April 2017
Curated by Jacques Berchtold
Martin Bodmer (1899–1971) placed Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) high in his personal hall of fame and at the center of his collection, one of the most important in the world. In many ways he owed the very concept of Weltliteratur to this towering figure. Goethe was familiar with French culture from very early on. Like many of his contemporaries of feudal and aristocratic Europe, he too felt the shock of the French Revolution, and his participation in the failed campaign against the Revolutionary forces (the Battle of Valmy in 1792) was a trauma that marked him for the rest of his days.
From his affinities for Rousseau, Goethe changed directions, and the work he did in Weimar, the new capital of the Aufklärung, established a uniquely German classicism. In the process, the ideologues of classicism at court drew on antiquity but also fostered a competitive relationship with their predecessors at Versailles. Goethe—who managed the library, theater, and opera—introduced Germans to the masterworks of French geniuses in literature, theater, music, and painting. Odd writers of the French canon were rehabilitated (Rabelais), and innovative authors of the period were discovered (Diderot).
The social, ethical, and political thinking that resulted from the shock of the French Revolution was crystallized in Goethe’s play The Natural Daughter (Die natürliche Tochter). Under the protectorate of the Confederation of the Rhine, Goethe met Napoleon—a great reader of Werther—in October 1808, and contemplated creating a portrait of him as Julius Caesar in homage to this genius of visionary and decisive action. And Faust, which Goethe pursued from 1808 on, had a special resonance in France. Taking off from the many Goethean gems in the Bodmer Collection, the exhibition shows the extent to which a complex and ambivalent ‘French question’ deeply influenced Goethe’s output for some sixty years.