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Saturday, July 31, 2010

TRAVEL DIARIES: Berlin, Alte Nationalgalerie


Gottlieb Schick (1776-1812) "Head of a youth."
Berlin, Alte Nationalgalerie

July 11, 2010

Plato has famously suggested in his Symposium, that Eros is the young boy that seduces you into the contemplation of the Ideas. According to Diotima, the midwife from Mantinea who speaks last before the arrival of Alcibiades in Plato's dialogue, the love for a woman is the particular form of love required for the purpose of procreation, but the love for a boy, on the other hand, has no biological outcome, and becomes therefore a sort of womb of knowledge and wisdom, presumably because such a love is based on admiration. Such is the notion of Plato, as presented in both his Symposium and in the Phaedrus, that the love that arises from pederasty, which is according to him a love of knowledge, is an alternative to the animal love of man and woman, and that the love of boys leads to philosophy, and is, in fact, philosophy, for which pederasty is the maieutic.

The portrayal of Eros in ancient Greek, and in modern Western Art, is informed by this text, and ultimately calls for a consideration of the method of idealization, as Plato intended. The process by which knowledge and wisdom arise in the love of a boy, in the overall schema of the Symposium, is a synecdoche of idealization. For Plato, to know is to idealize.

I do not see in Gottlieb Schick's portrait of the head of his unknown youth the pure mechanism of Eros that Plato wrote about. I do not find here the maieusis that Diotima described as the locus of the birth of knowledge and wisdom, when she spoke at the party in Agathon's house. There is something pornographic about this image, particularly as the boy, with an expression of innocent wonder and anticipation, appears to be turning around, still giving us his back. There is a sensuality here that prevents a recognition of Plato's Eros at work, as a conduit to the higher realm of Ideas. However, the more I am withdrawn from this image, from the moment of its initial perception, the colder it becomes in my imagination, the more it leads me to think about it, in particular, and about the things that it beckons and betokens. And hence this boy becomes Eros. Plato seems to me to be correct in thinking that beauty leads us to the search for contemplation of a higher idea, which in this case may very well be the dynamic, both psychic and cultural, both phylo and onto-genetical, of idealization. Why do we idealize in Art? And what do we idealize? And why? These are the questions that this anonymous portrait raises.

It is not sufficiently satisfying here to quote Marx, or Feuerbach before him, to the effect that we idealize what we want to become. The old Greeks carved out of hard stone the image of what they were, not what they hoped to be. Modern European idealization of the Romantic type is born out of a lack, a need for beauty that was absent from its own historical time and circumstance. The ugliness of a growing and grasping bourgeoisie, and of the world it was creating, sought after beauty, and hence idealized it. It was an idealization born of a lack, not out of a plentiful feeling of adoration for the human form, as in the case of the old Greeks.

Can knowledge, as Plato argued, therefore be born from a contemplation of the beautiful portrait of Gottlieb Schick's anonymous boy? Can knowledge be an outcome here, as opposed to a mere satisfaction of the senses? Yes. I think that is what I seem to have concluded.


  1. Eros als kosmische macht die alles Leben bewegt und Schöne und Gute anstrebt (Kunst Brockhaus 3 pag 134)
    Für mich bleibt das Bild eine starke Homo-erotische Ausstrahlung haben wobei ich mich eher ungemütlich fühle und absichtlich mehr Abstand nehme als herausgefordert werde zum Kontemplation.
    Sie sind jetzt derjenige der mich zum Nachdenken anreizten.

  2. I thank you paba for your comment, which I have just read for the first time today, October 8, 2010. If I understand you correctly, I have encouraged you to review your earlier thoughts and feelings regarding the painting and the work's possible intellectual dimensions. I am very happy that I have had some impact. I also well understand your necessity for Abstand nehmen. Albert Sonntag