23 February 2021

Why Do I Sigh?

Franz Grillparzer, “Aesthetische Studien,” in Sämtliche Werke, Vol. 9 (Stuttgart: J.G. Cotta’sche Buchhandlung, 1872), pp. 70-71 (my translation):

The imitation of Nature has been set up as the supreme law of art. But I ask: Can one imitate Nature? Sculpture gives it form, but the highest charm, movement, and colour are lacking. Painting gives us landscapes, and the most it can accomplish is to render the outward appearance of the trees, grasses, and clouds as cleverly as possible. But can it also reproduce the rustling of these trees, the swaying of these grasses, the drifting of these clouds, which is precisely what constitutes the primary appeal of the actual scene? Where is the singing of the birds, the murmuring of the brook, the ringing of the bells? A landscape can be depicted in such a way as to express movement, albeit flatly, but in terms of vividness there can be no comparison with the real thing.

And yet monochrome, motionless Nature as it is painted and described in landscape art is able to move people who are left cold by reality. How is it, then, that a dull copy appeals more strongly than the living original? Technically perfect imitation cannot call forth any emotion — at most it may create astonishment, the sort of feeling that is aroused by the feats of so-called strong men, or at the sight of the countless tiny faces that one sees carved into cherry stones in our museums. What's more, does Nature (apart from being a way for us to satisfy our needs) truly have a direct effect on us? Why does it not also have an effect on animals? Why does it not move all human beings in the same way?

What is there in the redness of the clouds, in the fading of the light, in the falling shadows at sunset that is so touching that it brings tears to my eyes? Why do I pass the fresh, green trees and stop in front of the one struck by lightning to contemplate it, stand there absorbed, and finally turn away with a sigh? What am I sighing at? The tree? It does not feel its injury. Or do I sigh, half unconsciously, at the fall of all that is great, at the withering of all that blooms, at “the lot of the beautiful on earth”? 1 Do I transfer my feelings to the tree, and is it only a representation of what I am thinking? If this is so, and it is, then it can be understood why Nature only moves those who think and feel more deeply, while other people who are distracted by random, incidental things are not at all conscious of the forces that are really at work. 

But if someone who is capable of grasping and reproducing the natural things that appeal to the mind sits down to represent his sensations permanently — recording them from natural observations and leaving aside whatever is immaterial or disturbing — he portrays the effect that it had upon him. In this way the attention of the more shallow observer will also be stimulated and, since the extraneous, secondary elements have been cut away, he will be drawn to the actual point — the connection that previously escaped him will become clear. Standing before the work of art, he will feel something he never would never have felt in Nature — nor would have ever noticed without the artist, since it was not so much the object that communicated it to the observer as it was the observer who communicated it to the object. He will recognize the artist's idea and the imitation of the object will only have been the means by which he came to understand it. 

The “lot of the beautiful on earth” (das Los des Schönen auf der Erde) comes from a line in Schiller's Wallenstein, where he says that beauty is bound to be trampled under the hooves of fate.

Grillparzer has been in his grave for a century and a half but, as far as I can tell, his Aesthetische Studien remain untranslated. The harvest is plentious, but the labourers are few...


Caspar David Friedrich, Eiche im Schnee (1827)