Saturday, January 19, 2019

The mountain tops, like little isles appear'd

Salomon Gessner, Bucolic Scene, 1767

My post yesterday was about a nineteenth century French-speaking Swiss writer from Geneva; this one is about an eighteenth century German-speaking Swiss poet from Zurich.  However, as can be seen above, Salomon Gessner (1730-88) was also a visual artist.  Here is a snatch of his poetry, describing autumn. It is taken from an 1809 translation of Gessner's Idylls (1756-72).  According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, 'his pastorals were translated into 20 languages, including Welsh, Latin, and Hebrew. The English translation ran through many editions and was admired by the Romantic writers Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron, and Wordsworth.'  However, I see from Wikipedia that 'The New International Encyclopædia (1905) finds his writing “insipidly sweet and monotonously melodious,” and attributes Gessner's popularity to the taste of a generation nursed on Rousseau.'
O'er every vine of gold and purple hue
The sun its animating lustre threw;
And every curling branch, whose friendly shade
Waved o'er his cot, beneath the zephyr play’d.
Clear was the sky, o'er all the valley's bed
The low-land vapours like a lake were spread;
Amidst whose floating surface lightly rear'd
The mountain tops, like little isles appear'd;
Where smoaking huts and fruitful groves were seen
In autumn's richest vest of gold and green.

Salomon Gessner, Pastoral landscape with two women and a boy
playing a flute in front of a herm of Pan, 1787

Gessner was on my mind today as I saw the painting above in the British Museum.  It was in the Prints and Drawings room, in a display of art linked to the sketch by Joseph Anton Koch they recently purchased from the Brian Sewell estate (see my post on it last year).  Gessner's painting was the basis for an 1805 etching by another artist I have discussed here before, Carl Wilhelm Kolbe.  The British Museum also owns an etching by Kolbe of the memorial to Gessner which stands in Zurich's Platspitz Park.  In it, 'a well-dressed couple and child looking at Gessner's tomb in the form of a Greek memorial with a low relief sculpture, set behind a railing in woodland.'

Carl Wilhelm Kolbe, The Monument to Salomon Gessner in Zurich, c. 1807

In their current exhibition, the British Museum curators have put Gessner's Pastoral Landscape on show next to a different memorial to Gessner, this one by Johann Heinrich Bleuler.  The etching was published in the year of Gessner's death and shows a memorial to him situated by a lake.  Was it imaginary, like Caspar David Friedrich's proposal for a monument to Goethe?  If not, is there still something resembling this at Lake Klöntal, a permanent presence of a landscape painter in the landscape he painted?  Yes, it would seem there is, according to the local tourism website and you can do a nice walk to it. They describe the origin of the inscription thus: 'Sie wurde ihm von zwei Verehrern gewidmet, die sich 1788 zur Einweihung des Gedenksteins mit Tränen in den Augen um den Hals fielen und küssten.' ('It was dedicated to him by two devotees who fell around the neck and kissed each other in 1788 with tears in their eyes for the inauguration of the memorial stone' - Google Translate). The writing looks quite amateurish and crudely done, but clearly those admirers meant well.

Johann Heinrich Bleuler, Commemorative stone in memory of Salomon Gessner, 
at Lake Klöntal, Glarus, 1788

1 comment:

Mike C. said...

Google is close (and gets closer all the time), but "Um den Hals fallen" = "embrace, clasp in one's arms" or (in more modern terms) "hug", although the addition of "tears" and "kissing" may even allude to the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:20, where the Prodigal's father "fell on his neck and kissed him", in German "Er fiel ihm um den Hals und küßte ihn") but I have no idea whether this would be appropriate in the context.