“Beware lest a statue slay you”: Nietzsche and Art in New Weimar
The 1902 portrait of Beethoven by the German symbolist artist Max Klinger is an astounding monument to the composer: The ten foot high sculpture features a nude Ludwig van Beethoven, wrapped in a sheet and seated on a throne, like a god from Mount Olympus. For a group of artists, writers and critics centred in Weimar at the turn of the 20th century, Klinger represented the new type of tradition-breaking artist foreshadowed in the writings of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and Klinger’s Beethoven, in turn, was understood to be an embodiment of Nietzsche’s ideals.
Klinger is the creator of the stylized bust of Nietzsche that is currently at the centre of Masterpiece in Focus: Friedrich Nietzsche and the Artists of the New Weimar, on view at the National Gallery of Canada. Guest curator Sebastian Schütze has built an exhibition around Klinger’s Bust of Friedrich Nietzsche (c. 1904), part of the Gallery’s permanent collection, in order to illuminate its historical context and help viewers understand its wider significance. Schütze says, “The exhibition brings a crucial moment of modernism to life, and shows, at the same time, how Nietzsche became a kind of reference figure for artists, writers and critics around 1900.” The exhibition concentrates on the period from the late 1890s onwards and shows how a carefully constructed public image of Nietzsche was created in Weimar at the time when his writings were growing in influence, but coinciding with the period that marked the philosopher's mental and physical decline.
It is worth keeping in mind that Nietzsche might not have fully recognized himself in this image that was being created for him by his contemporaries. In his Mixed Opinions and Maxims (1879), commenting on the relationship of earlier works of art to the present, Nietzsche pictures a scene where Beethoven comes back to life after 50 years to hear his music performed by a new generation of musicians. The philosopher imagines Beethoven remarking, “Well, well! That is neither I nor not-I, but some third thing.” One can assume that Nietzsche might have a similar attitude to his own posthumous reception and feel that some “third-thing” is captured in the way he has been portrayed since his death.
Indeed, Nietzsche was very conscious of his reception and reputation and during a fertile period of his career as an independent philosopher he commissioned a number of photographic portraits that he used for both friends and supporters. Gustav Adolf Schultz’s Portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche in a Melancholic Pose (1882), taken at this time, would become iconic amongst his admirers. Nevertheless, the famed thinker – whose writings on the concept of the Superman, the revaluation of all values and the Eternal Return are as well-known today as they have been variably (mis-)interpreted – would never be aware of his own success.
Plagued by frail physical and mental health for much of his life, the 44-year-old Nietzsche suffered a mental breakdown in 1889 that left him virtually catatonic until his death in 1900. It is this final part of his life that the exhibition encapsulates, when Nietzsche – having passed through two mental institutions and lived with his mother in Naumburg until her death in 1897 – was ultimately brought by his sister Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche to live with her in the Villa Silberblick in Weimar for the remaining three years of his life. It was here the Nietzsche Archive would be permanently established. It is also during this period that Förster-Nietzsche took increasing control over her brother’s image and his philosophical legacy and imposed her own interpretations and convictions on his unpublished manuscripts.
Förster-Nietzsche was not the only person actively promoting Nietzsche’s philosophy from the early 1890s onward. The exhibition and accompanying catalogue draw out the connections between the growing numbers of Nietzsche enthusiasts. Several were involved with Pan, a leading avant-garde arts and literary magazine first published in Berlin in 1895 that editorially aligned itself with Nietzsche by printing several of the philosopher's unpublished texts as well as related art and writings. A member of the editorial board with direct access to Nietzsche, Count Harry Kessler (1868–1937) was also a key figure in the cultural life of Weimar. From the time he met Förster-Nietzsche in 1895, he was actively involved in the establishment of the Nietzsche Archive in Weimar and in the dissemination of Nietzsche’s ideas.
A focal point for the growing Nietzsche following, the Villa Silberblick opened to the public as the Nietzsche Archive in 1903 after an extensive renovation by the Belgian architect Henry Van de Velde. A prominent practitioner and proponent of modern art and design, Van de Velde settled in Weimar after Kessler, along with Förster-Nietzsche, had orchestrated a successful lobbying campaign. They also extended invitations to and commissioned portraits from several leading artists, including Hans Olde, Curt Stoeving and Edvard Munch, whose work contributed greatly to Nietzsche’s iconography. Klinger was commissioned to create a marble herm of Nietzsche for the assembly hall. A provisional bust was made for the opening in 1903 until a suitable block of marble could be found and the herm was completed in 1905. The Gallery's portrait is one of the bronze copies that were made of the 1903 bust for the growing Nietzsche market.
With this market for the philosopher in mind, Kessler also worked with Van de Velde to design deluxe editions of Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra and the previously unpublished Ecce Homo in 1908, as well as an edition of Dionysos-Dithyramben in 1914. Initially held back from publication, the autobiographical Ecce Homo was Nietzsche's last book before his breakdown in 1889. It remained unpublished because his editors thought it would betray his mental illness and ruin his reputation as a philosopher. The death of Nietzsche and the increasing interest in his work created a more hospitable environment for the publication of the work, in which Nietzsche declared, “I am no man, I am dynamite,” and reiterated the ways that his philosophy destroys the values of society in order to create anew.
While Ecce Homo is a description of the way that Nietzsche “philosophizes with a hammer,” it was also written as a safeguard for the reception of his work. In a summation of his publications to that date, he laments that he is unappreciated and misunderstood. By the time the book was published, of course, the fortune of his work had turned. The exhibition captures this energetic moment when forward-thinking artists and architects embraced Nietzsche as a spiritual guide for their endeavours, and only hints at the darker times to come: Nietzsche’s philosophy would soon be tarnished with its adoption by the Nazis, enabled in no small part by Förster-Nietzsche. In Ecce Homo Nietzsche has the foresight to predict such a fate and says that his book was written to “prevent people from doing mischief with me." With no knowledge of the development of the shrine-like atmosphere of the Nietzsche Archive, the philosopher explicitly warns his readers of treating his texts with veneration. He closes the preface to Ecce Homo by quoting what Zarathustra says in Thus Spoke Zarathustra “One pays a teacher badly if one always remains nothing but a pupil. And why do you not want to pluck at my wreath? You revere me; but what if your reverence tumbles one day? Beware lest a statue slay you. ”
Masterpiece in Focus: Friedrich Nietzsche and the Artists of the New Weimar is on view at the National Gallery of Canada from April 18 to August 25, 2019. Consult the public program for a full listing of events. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery news, exhibitions and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.