Saturday, April 23, 2011

Goethe: The Metamorphosis of Plants


Andre Masson, Goethe and the Metamorphosis of Plants, 1940, Israel Museum, Jerusalem 

          Above all, Goethe learned that the treasures of nature are not discovered by one who is not in sympathy with nature.  He realized that the normal techniques of botany could not get near to the living being of a plant as an organism in a cycle of growth.  Some other form of looking was needed which could unite itself with the life of the plant.  To obtain a clearer picture of a plant, Goethe would tranquilize himself at night before going to sleep by visualizing the entire cycle of a plant’s development through its various stages from seed to seed.  In the splendid ducal gardens at Weimar, in the Gartenhaus quarters given to him by the Duke, Goethe developed an acute interest in living plants, an interest which was sharpened by his friendship with the sole local apothecary, Wilhelm Heinrich Sebastian Buchholz, who kept a garden of medicinal herbs and plants of special interest and with whom Goethe built up a private botanical garden.

Andy Warhol, Goethe, 1982

          In the grander botanical gardens of Padua, where Paracelcus has preceded him, Goethe was most impressed by a high, broad wall of fiery red bells, Bigonia radicans, that glowed enchantingly.  He was also attracted by a palm because he was able to discern in its fanlike quality a complete development from the simple lance-shaped leaves near the ground, through successive separations, up to a spatulate sheaf where a branchlet of blossoms emerged, strangely unrelated to the preceeding growth.  From the observation of this complex series of transitional forms Goethe obtained the inspiration for what was to become his doctrine of the metamorphosis of plants.  In a flash he realized what had been accumulating in his mind through long years of association with plants:  the fan palm showed clear, living proof that all the outgrowths of the plant that were simply variations of a single structure: the leaf.  

Bigonia Radicans 

Padua Botanical Gardens (Orto botanico di Padova), 1545.  (Founded in 1545, it is the world's oldest academic botanical garden that is still in its original location.  The garden, affiliated with the University of Padua, currently covers roughly 22,000 square meters, and is known for its special collections and historical design.)

Goethe Palm, Padua Botanical Gardens

From:  Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird,  The Secret Life Of Plants.  New York, Harper & Row, 1973.


  1. Goethe wrote, in Elective Affinities, the Great Landscaping Novel. Landowner Eduard is preoccupied with the redesign of his estate: altering a water course, placing a bench only after careful consideration. A walk is a critical narrative event.

    The pair of tragic adulteries that the novel also features seem to happen in the background.

    The Penguin edition has great cover art, too: Caspar David Friedrich's Meadows near Greifswald.

    Friedrich, incidentally, is the only great painter I know of whose work losses something in the original.

    Still more incidentally, it was another Gunnery aesthete -- not you -- who introduced me to Friedrich's work: Peter Day.

    Had a visit with Kim Bellinger yesterday in Roxbury. He has retired from the sea.

  2. Your comment about Friedrich woke up a memory in me along those lines and a similar perception (I think) that I'd never resolved. It's a really, really interesting observation. Peter Day -- oh my. That wakes up some memories also, which we can discuss sometime. I think it's great that you saw Kim Bellnger, who I can see so clearly (and whose voice I can hear). I'm glad he's returned safely from sea. I can only imagine that kind of life; living it would scare me too much, I think. Hope you had a great Easter. Ours was lovely. We revisited our old (but we're still members) Quaker Meeting in Cornwall-on-Hudson, NY and that was very, very good. Accomplished some minor thinking and action in Tuxedo and returned to PA for a thoughtful, restful evening. I'm on the verge of one of my weekly "remaking the world" efforts. I'll let you know how it goes.

  3. Roddy -- One thing I wanted to mention (apart from my desire to read the Goethe work you mentioned) is that in preparing this, I think I've rediscovered aspects of Andre Masson's work that I'd either never taken sight of or never fully appreciated. I expect that at some point I'll have the time to do so. I was previously unaware of the Warhol version of the famous Goethe portrait; I like it a lot and wonder what prompted its creation? I think hearing Peter Day's name mentioned shorted out a couple of fuses. Curtis