Brain Pickings

Harry Clarke’s Beautiful and Haunting 1925 Illustrations for Goethe’s Faust

“Part of that power which would do evil constantly and constantly does good.”

Great works of literature penetrate our psyche with what Frederick Douglass called “aesthetic force” — the beautiful and sometimes sublime experience they create courses through us, inevitably changing our interior landscape. This, perhaps, is why beloved works of literature lend themselves so powerfully to aesthetic interpretations like William Blake’s paintings for Milton’s Paradise Lost, Maurice Sendak’s formative etchings for Blake’s “Songs of Innocence,” and Gustave Doré’s striking art for Dante’s Inferno.

In 1925, the great Irish stained-glass artist and book illustrator Harry Clarke (March 17, 1889–January 6, 1931) was commissioned for a special edition of Faust (public library) — a take radically different from Eugène Delacroix’s illustrations for the Goethe classic, created exactly a century earlier.

Clarke’s unmistakable aesthetic, which became a centerpiece of the Irish Arts and Crafts movement and which he had applied to Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination just a few years earlier, lends the Goethe masterpiece an additional dimension of haunting beauty — the kind that calls to mind Rilke’s famous assertion that “beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure, and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.”

Complement the Clarke-illustrated Faust with Ralph Steadman’s illustrations for Orwell’s Animal Farm, Tove Jansson’s take on Alice in Wonderland, and Salvador Dalí’s paintings for Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and the essays of Montaigne.

Published October 19, 2015




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