In 1786 Germany’s greatest poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, heads for the Italy he has been yearning to see since childhood. He leaves behind his growing frustration with administrative work, a difficult love affair with Charlotte von Stein, and his lack of time for writing.
At the age of 37 he has become frustrated and divided against himself, overworked yet underachieving, disillusioned and depressed. The gloom of northern skies further intensifies his personal darkness.
At five o’clock in the morning on September 3rd, he leaves Carlsbad by stage coach. He will travel to Eger, Regensburg, Munich, Bolzano, Malcesine, Verona, Padua, Venice, Ferrara, Bologna, Florence, Perugia, Lojano, the Appenines, Assisi and Rome.
I have made precisely the same trip, visiting the same stations on exactly the same day as did the poet—only 223 years later. Many of my photographs relate to Goethe’s text, while some do not. Putting myself in the poet’s state of mind, I found other motifs he would have loved, but either didn't have the time to see or failed to mention.
My work on Italian Journey is a very personal portfolio. It has not at all been my intention to produce a comprehensive account of Goethe’s book.
by Gary Michael Dault
At 3 o’clock in the morning on September 3, 1786, writer, artist and courtier, Johann Wolfgang Goethe, stealthily left Carlsbad and, in so doing, left behind civic responsibility, an unfortunate romantic entanglement with a married court lady, and a host of unfinished literary projects. “I crept out of Carlsbad,” Goethe noted in his journal, “They wouldn’t have let me go if I hadn’t.” He was 37, and he was in search of a larger world—which he hoped to find in Italy—and the better part of himself.
In 2009, photographer Eric Klemm set out, alone, by car, eventually driving 8000 kilometres in a dedicated retracing of Goethe’s flight to Italy of 223 years before.
The photographs Klemm made during his pictorial recounting of Goethe’s journey—while walking, as he puts it, in Goethe’s footsteps—appear so effortless, so unmediated by any felt impediments of technique, so much like the simple, elemental act of seeing, that it is easy enough to forget that Klemm is really there at all.
The photographs look, in other words, like looking itself. “As you can see,” Goethe wrote from Venice to Charlotte von Stein, on the evening of October 3, “I’m just shooting everything on the wing. But,” he continues, “it’s caught for good in the perceptions of eye and heart.” (1)
For Klemm, “shooting everything on the wing” was actually a matter of the most careful, painstaking preparation and performance: he had to make many of the architectural photographs (cathedrals, palaces), for example, during an almost impossibly narrow window of opportunity—often in the ten minutes between 6:00am and 6:10 am—as a way of avoiding tourists. Always a perfectionist about light—and thus about atmosphere and, ultimately, meaning—Klemm would sometimes have to set up his large format camera in the dark (“when nothing at all could be seen on the ground glass and I felt essentially blind”) and work with exposures that were as long as two minutes.
While it was never Klemm’s intention actually to illustrate Goethe’s self-realizing journey from Germany to Italy, his subtle sense of the way illumination affects interpretation works constantly, in these photographs, to provide atmospheric equivalents to the young German writer’s changing spirits as he heads south, leaving behind Carlsbad’s pewter-coloured skies, longing for enlightenment—sometimes literally (“God grant me figs and grapes soon”).
The photographs, therefore, look not like views but, rather, like the result of the considering gaze. When, in Verona on September 16, Goethe comments that “I just wander round in my usual way taking a quiet look at everything, and I receive and retain a good impression,” you feel that Klemm, too, looked quietly and well, all the while making photographs that look like studied considerations of a vista, rather than entrapments of it—as with his exquisite photo-ruminations upon the grounds of the Villa Arvedi.
When, in Vicenza, Goethe comes upon his first building by Palladio (the Teatro Olimpico), he is first cautiously, then gloriously smitten (“There really is something divine in his talents, it’s absolutely the power of a great poet who makes truth and untruth and makes some third thing from them that entrances us”). Documenting the sites that have quickened so many others—and Goethe in particular—to rapturous response is surely a problem of considerable photographic subtlety.
Klemm’s solution is to position himself like a spectator, full of inquiring regard for what he sees rather than a confident encompassing of it. Looking at Klemm seeing for the first time, you also feel Goethe seeing for the first time. In Venice on October 14, Goethe remarks of a building (the Carita) by Palladio, “You could spend years contemplating works like this.” Even to hint, photographically speaking, at such commitment, requires some pictorial way of opening a site to its intellectual depth, as well as to its historical presence and importance.
To photograph Venice—given the millions who already have—is probably at best foolhardy, at worst dangerous. Goethe, however—who might reasonably have felt a similar (albeit cameraless) sense of over-touristed anxiety—seems to have been blithely undaunted by his newness to La Serenissima. He calls himself “a northern fugitive,” but he is far too eager for what Venice can teach him to be cowed by his own inexperience. Like any respectable visitor to the city, he hires a gondola—and promptly writes a page and a half of sonic analysis in his journal, about the how the songs of the gondoliers carry so enticingly across the lagoon (“the further they are apart, the more charming their song is; if the listener is between the two then he’s in the best place”).
And how is Eric Klemm’s Goethean Venice? Silvery and timeless, greyer than tourists like (tourists like blue sky). His Doge’s Palace, his St. Mark’s, his Salute (“one example of bad taste after another”), his Florian’s seem to look pretty much the same to him as they must have looked to the great poet. “I’ve been in Venice just this short while,” Goethe writes on October 10, “and all Venetian existence is as much part of me as if I’d been here twenty years.” There is in Eric Klemm’s Venetian photos, as well, a sense of having settled in, of deliberation, of claiming. To have shown Venice as mere splendour would have been distinctly un-Goethe-like; instead, Klemm pictures the city as a slow, sensuous fantasy—the stuff of rumination, not acquisition.
Rome is as difficult to photograph as Venice is, but in a different way—just as visiting Rome was, for Goethe, a distinctly different experience from that of visiting Venice. “Roman history,” he notes, “is starting to feel as if I was there when it happened.”
Goethe stands at a bit of a distance from Rome. So does Eric Klemm. On May 24, 1788, Goethe writes, bemusedly, to his old friend, Carl Ludwig Knebel, “In Rome not a stone was looked at that wasn’t shaped.” Form, he tells Knebel, had driven out all interest in matter. So too, is Klemm’s Goethean Rome a rather wary triumph of monumental form over the humanizing detail—as of the eternal city were becoming just a shade more eternal than was entirely good for it.
While it is true that Eric Klemm undertook to “follow in Goethe’s footsteps” from Carlsbad to Rome, but without any desire to actually illustrate Goethe’s account of his sojourning, the fact remains that in these splendid photographs—so full of longing and the need for wandering—there is an inescapable, persuasive sense that text and images continually echo and enrich one another. If only they could really have traveled together!
Sometimes they seemed pretty close to it. At the close of his journey, Klemm wrote me to say how, waiting in Frankfurt for his flight back home to Vancouver, he “saw his imaginary travel companion at the airport’s ‘Goethe Bar’, sitting on a rock, larger than life, made out of plaster, after the famous J.H.W. Tischbein painting (Goethe in the Roman Campagna, 1787). It suddenly felt as if he were a dear friend, one whom I knew very well, all his affairs, his weaknesses and his passions. For more than two months I had seen the phenomenal world with his loving eye, trying to find and capture what is left that he may have seen and what he would have loved to see.”
1) The Goethe text quoted in this essay is from T.J. Reed’s translation in Johann Wolfgang Goethe: The Flight to Italy: Diary and Selected Letters (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).