115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Kinship and Aesthetic Depth: The Tableau Vivant in Goethe’s Wahlverwandschaften

Heidi Schlipphacke, University of Illinois, Chicago

I propose that the inclusion of painstakingly staged tableau vivant scenes within Goethe’s Elective Affinities (1809) reflect the work’s highly conflicted relation to a nuclear family kinship model and, in turn, to a corresponding vertical depth structure that links the nuclear family with the birth of subjective interiority.

Proposal: 

Kinship and Aesthetic Depth: The Tableau Vivant in Goethe’s Wahlverwandschaften

Heidi Schlipphacke, University of Illinois at Chicago

heidis@uic.edu

 

Goethe’s Wahlverwandschaften opens with an idyllic tableau of the monogamous married couple. This idyll is, however, interrupted already on the second page of the novel and never reappears. Rather, Goethe’s Wahlverwandschaften is marked by scenes of performance (characters perform in plays and in tableaux vivants) that complicate monogamous couplings. In this paper I propose that the inclusion of painstakingly staged tableau vivant scenes within the novel reflect the work’s highly conflicted relation to a nuclear family kinship model and, in turn, to a corresponding vertical depth structure that links the nuclear family with the birth of subjective interiority. The tableau vivant not only stages characters from the novel in groupings that reshuffle their relationships to one another; perhaps more importantly, the carefully choreographed performances of paintings underscore the link between narrative kinship constellations and aesthetic form. If the emergence of the nuclear family coincides with the birth of depth psychology, then Goethe’s novel about marriage reflects an unresolved tension between surface and depth formally through detailed representations of tableaux vivants. By staging the characters in a manner that reflects the two-dimensional art of painting, Goethe seems to both “flatten” the characters’ identities and to complicate the vertical structure of the nuclear family. Yet we are reminded by Hegel that it is possible to understand painting as inviting a depth reception on the part of the viewer in ways that might not be possible in a three-dimensional work of art. In reflecting on these tensions between surface and depth, flatness and interiority, I will explore both Goethe’s narrative and aesthetic engagement with kinship. 

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