Goethe – Exchangeable Part of the German Education or Irreplaceable Component of the German Soul?

Johann Wolfgang Goethe is the best-known German poet in the whole world. From 17 May to 15 September 2019, the first major exhibition in 25 years sheds light on Goethe’s life’s work, his biography in the context of early modernism and the extraordinary history of the reception of his work. The exhibition is a joint project of the Bundeskunsthalle and the Klassik Stiftung Weimar in cooperation with the Freies Deutsches Hochstift (Frankfurt am Main), the Goethe-Museum Düsseldorf and the Casa di Goethe (Rome), under the patronage of the President of Germany, Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

Exhibition view. Picture: Simon Vogel, 2019. © Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland GmbH.

Already during his lifetime, Goethe’s fame spread all over Europe. His literary works were translated into numerous languages and characters as Werther and Faust found their way into all artistic genres and all aspects of popular culture. Like no other poet of his time, Goethe reflected on the changes that shook the political, economic and cultural foundations of Europe around 1800. However, he was not only a critical observer of the dawn of modernity, but also an extremely versatile artist who continues to this day to inspire writers, painters, sculptors as well as composers, photographers and film directors.

Exhibition view. Picture: Simon Vogel, 2019. © Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland GmbH.

Besides paintings, sculptures, graphics and photographs, also the works of theatre, film and music will play an important role. The large-scale exhibition displays about 250 loans from public and private collections of the entire world. With works by Caspar David Friedrich, Auguste Rodin, William Turner and Angelika Kauffmann, Piet Mondrian and Paul Klee as well as Cy Twombly, Andy Warhol, Barbara Klemm and Ólafur Elíasson, the perspective of the exhibition ranges from the end of the 18th century/beginning of the 19th century to the present day. The exhibition seeks to answer the question about Goethe’s relevance in today’s world and the eventful history of the reception of his work and his person is an important starting point to do so.

Rein Wolfs, director of the Bundeskunsthalle, points out: “The exhibition does not only focus on Goethe’s life and the epochal turning point around 1800. It also deals with the eventful reception history of the poet’s multifaceted work. Goethe continues to be of great interest, as, for example, the current debates on the West–östlicher Divan prove.”

Exhibition view. Picture: Simon Vogel, 2019. © Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland GmbH.

In the exhibition, Goethe’s life, his work and the background of the time he lived in – from 1749, the year of his birth, to his death in 1832 – are presented in nine chapters. The exhibition focuses on the central turning points and events of his biography and on some of his most famous works. At the same time, the history of his time plays a key role: The ideological constructs and the political, social and cultural changes do not only provide the historical background, but also reflect the important questions of the time that Goethe has intensively dealt with.

The poet’s lifelong interest for gardens, nature and botany is reflected by “Goethe’s garden” on the roof of the Bundeskunsthalle, which was created especially for the exhibition. The roof garden complements the major exhibition Goethe. Transformation of the World.

The exhibition takes place in the Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Bonn.

As a complement to the exhibition, the Bundeskunsthalle and the Klassik Stiftung Weimar published the book Goethe. Verwandlung der Welt (only available in German).

Moreover, you can take a look at this video on the topic of the exhibition.

Goethe’s work even found his way into the popular culture of Germany, as the title of the most successful German movie of 2013 proves: Fack ju Göhte. You can watch the trailer on YouTube.

In his poem “Prometheus” it becomes more evident than in any other of his works that Goethe also had rough edges.