Metamorphosis: A Portrait of Goethe

Oil on linen, 80x90cm

In this portrait, Goethe has been brought to life gazing directly at the viewer amidst a botanical backdrop, drawing emphasis upon his scientific and poetic explorations of the metamorphosis of plants. The creeping passion flower vines wind above and behind as an allusion to his intimate relationship with nature, which he perceived as an ever-changing process of transformation, unfolding according to archetypal patterns. The depiction of Goethe was reached by comparing a number of portraits painted during the writer’s life, working primarily from an etching by Johann Heinrich Lips made in 1791. 

Unlike contemporary science which typically attempts to observe nature with perfect objectivity, as if from a detached and external vantage, Goethe gave equal importance to the subjective inner responses of the observer, stating that “through an intuitive perception of eternally creative nature we may become worthy of participating spiritually in its creative processes.” The miraculous metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly, or the great oak tree emerging from its origin as a tiny seed, is an alchemical transformation echoed symbolically in Faust when the protagonist’s striving fragmented soul is carried to union in heaven. Goethe believed that through perceiving this process in nature, an inner metamorphosis could transpire in the perceiver, whereby a previous more limited mode of seeing and relating to the world is shed, and is replaced by a more expanded and refined perception that makes use of the higher faculties of mind.

In the same vein as Goethe I sought to reconcile poetic sensibility with scientific scrutiny. I was inspired by his scientific method of deep observation combined with ‘exact sensory imagination’ (‘exakte sinnliche Phantasie’) in depicting the stages of growth in the plant. Upon observing the plant’s outer pattern of unfoldment, I also intuitively sensed its inner vitality and consciousness. Akin to a human, it reacts to and learns from its environment according to its unique set of senses. Whilst a plant’s subjective experience of life may differ vastly to a human’s more evolved capacity to perceive, a sense of connectedness can arise in the subtle recognition of a shared impersonal awareness. A recognition that can be extended to all forms of life.

 Spirit and substance tied 
 So close together -  
 No angel could divide  
 One from the other. 
 When they are fused to one  
 Single duality, 
 Eternal love alone
 Can set them free. 

Faust, Part II (Verse 11955)