National Gallery turns a melancholy lens on Nietzsche

Gustav Adolf Schultz. Portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche in a Melancholic Pose, 1882 (printed c. 1900) photogravure on cardboard; 58 × 39 cm. Private collection. Courtesy National Gallery of Canada.

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote much about tragedy, and in the end he became one. 

The exhibition Friedrich Nietzsche and the Artists of the New Weimar, now at the National Gallery, has key images of the German philosopher as a man who looked haunted, even tormented by the thoughts in his head. It must have been horror for a man who previously had so influentially shared his thoughts with the world. 

“The last 10 years of his life he basically was deranged, not capable of communicating any more, not capable of entering dialogue with his contacts, he was very ill,” says Sebastian Schütze, the dean of historical and cultural studies and a professor of art history at the University of Vienna. “At the same time, only during these last 10 years of his life did he became so famous, and so much of a cult image, so people were struggling. People wanting images of Nietzsche, but the question was, how do you represent somebody who is so ill?”

Max Klinger. Friedrich Nietzsche, c. 1904
patinated bronze, 63.2 × 47.3 × 26.5 cm.
Gift of the Robert Tanenbaum Family Trust, Toronto, 1999. Photo: National Gallery of Canada

The short answer to that question is, as a man of melancholy. In 1882, Nietzsche invited Gustav Adolf Schultze to visit and take photographs, and one of those, here seen in a gelatin silver print printed in 1900, the year of Nietzsche’s death, is titled Portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche in a Melancholic Pose. The philosopher is seen from the side, his head rested on his left hand, and he appears to be fit and of sound mind. 

It would become the defining image of Nietzsche, like Karsh’s photograph of Churchill, or Arthur Sasse’s photograph of Albert Einstein with his tongue out. Nietzsche shows none of Einstein’s wacky impulse, but he does at least look self-possessed, if, perhaps, contemplative to the point of distraction.

The photograph was inspiration for the artists and writers who came to the city of Weimar, drawn by Nietzsche’s gravity. 

The exhibition includes a 1902 lithograph by Karl Bauer, and a 1905 coloured chalk drawing by Edvard Munch, and both use Schultze’s title and the same “melancholic pose.” Bauer’s is darker and is assertively tight in on Nietzsche’s face, as if forcing the viewer to see the man’s melancholy. Munch — best known, of course, for his painting The Scream, which seems an appropriate reference here — by comparison set his perspective a few steps back from Nietzsche, and allows the viewer some empty space in which to avert their eyes from the melancholic presence. 

Edvard Munch. Portrait of Count Harry Kessler, 1906, oil on canvas, 122.5 × 77.5 cm. Munch Museum, Oslo. Courtesy National Gallery of Canada.

Nietzsche is cast an even smaller presence in the largest portrait of him in the exhibition, Curt Stoeving’s 1894 oil painting of the man  on the veranda of his family home. Nietzsche is seated, his left arm rested on a wooden balustrade, surrounded by lush green vegetation and a smattering of red flowers. The scene brims with life, yet Nietzsche seems preternaturally still, his gaze distant and discomfited. 

The painting was a commission for the National Gallery in Berlin, and Stoeving was the first artist invited to the home to research the painting, including the taking of photographs of Nietzsche (even in 1894 painters were taking reference photographs). Nietzsche’s sister rejected the painting, Schütze says, for her brother looked like “a frail human being,” and not the Nietzschean superman. This was the gap between the public’s perception and the artists’ plight.

“It’s supposed to be representative of the heroic new man, so artists struggled with what to do,” Schütze says. That’s when the family “started to call in Munch, and Klinger.”

This exhibition is the latest in the gallery’s Masterpiece in Focus series, and the focus is on Max Klinger’s 1904, post-humous bronze bust. 

The bust began with a death mask of Nietzsche, completed in 1901. It was the basis for a plaster model bust completed in 1902, and, finally, the bronze bust of 1904, each included here. The plaster model is rougher, more natural, more faithful to the ravages of time and age. The bronze is more streamlined and “idealized a little bit,” Schütze says, as if, in modern parlance, it’s been photoshopped. Nietzsche looks clear and confident, the strength of mind still strong behind the mammoth moustache. (Oh, that moustache. I think I saw it once on the back of a Zamboni clearing the ice.)

The bronze bust rests on a plinth that’s perhaps six feet high, so Nietzsche is a commanding presence, looking down upon the room. Here, finally, is the superman, wrought by Klinger’s hand and so desired by the Nietzschean cult. 

Masterpiece in Focus continues to Aug. 25, and it includes works by Rodin, Henry Van de Velde, Pierre Bonnard and Aristide Maillol, and Munch’s colourful portrait of Harry Kessler, the patron and collector who was so important to the “artists of the New Weimar.”

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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.