Focusing on the work of the Kolleg’s namesake Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742-1799) and his colleague Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840) this exhibition examines a controversial part of Europe’s Enlightenment legacy and questions its relevance. Aiming to understand the motivations and methods of these key representatives of Göttingen’s Enlightenment, the exhibition aims to display historic images and ideas without perpetuating what we now critically see as errors and essentialisms.
Lichtenberg garnered an international reputation for his work in the natural sciences. For instance, his study of the radial patterns that formed from high-voltage electrical discharges on prepared glass plates led to these “dust figures” being known as Lichtenberg figures. This exhibition focuses on the other figures that Lichtenberg encountered in life and text. It highlights how Lichtenberg was central to ongoing discussions and disputes concerning the question of what was conceptualised as “human varieties”, of what David Hume and others identified as “the science of man”, known in Göttingen as “die Wissenschaft vom Menschen.”
Commercial voyages of Europeans in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries had given rise to new encounters with societies in Africa and what came to be known as the Americas. With the ships, returning to Europe’s metropoles came not only goods, but also people – usually not voluntarily – from other parts of the world. Another wave of expeditions – a number of which possessed scholarly ambitions – occurred in the eighteenth century. These voyages, especially those to the Pacific, made a distinctive mark on European society and its related knowledge praxis. In particular, the travel writings published from these became best sellers during their time.
The exhibition takes Lichtenberg’s reading of these travel writings and his own sojourn in London as its point of departure. In London Lichtenberg marvelled at the irreverent paintings and engravings from William Hogarth, whose unabashed portrayal of London’s new commercial and colonial society – and its most striking human characters – had quickly become famous. Through a series of bestselling commentaries published upon his return to Göttingen, Lichtenberg brought a German-speaking public closer to the work of Hogarth. Part of the interest was “physiognomic”. As Lichtenberg’s vociferous response to Lavater’s Physiognomische Fragmente (4 vols. 1775-1778) highlighted, the supposed correlations between a person’s appearance and their characteristic traits provoked heated debates. Lichtenberg made important, ironic and illuminating interventions.
In Göttingen Lichtenberg’s colleague, Blumenbach (professor of medicine and inspector of the academic museum in Göttingen), was equally fascinated with images of human varieties. He enlisted the artistic talents of Daniel Chodowiecki to visualise his theory of the unity of the human species, a purpose for which his famous (or infamous) skull collection was also employed. Blumenbach owned an important collection of travel writings and paintings, and these are on display in this exhibition.
Taken from the holdings of the Staats- and Universitätsbibliothek Göttingen, as well as the art and ethnological collections of the Universität Göttingen, this exhibition explores the ways in which visual representation was deployed by Lichtenberg and his contemporaries. What was at stake, for them and for us, is nothing less than the question what it means to be human.
The exhibition was curated by Demetrius Eudell (Wesleyan University/Lichtenberg-Kolleg) and Dominik Hünniger (Lichtenberg-Kolleg) with assistance by Jan Stieglitz. It will be shown from 12th April to 5th May 2018 in the Historic Observatory. Opening times: Thursdays and Fridays, 2 to 6 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Guided tours are offered 1 hour before closing time. If you prefer a guided to tour in English please contact us before your visit.
Public lectures in the green hall of the observatory (language as indicated by title):
Wednesday, 11th April 2018, 4:15 p.m.
Demetrius Eudell (Wesleyan University)
“A Language for the Eye”: Lichtenberg, Lavater, Hogarth and the Spirit of Observation in the 18th Century
Donnerstag, 12. April 2018, 18:15 Uhr
Rebekka v. Mallinckrodt (Universität Bremen):
Menschenbilder – Menschenrechte. Zur rechtlichen und sozialen Lage verschleppter Menschen im frühneuzeitlichen Europa
Wednesday, 18th April 2018, 4:15 p.m.
Temi Odumosu (University of Malmö):
The Taboo Touch: Artists, Africans and graphic satire in 18th century England
Donnerstag, 3. Mai 2018, 16:15 Uhr
Sünne Juterczenka (Universität Göttingen):
Göttinger Lehnstuhlreisen: Lichtenberg, Georg Forster und die Berichterstattung über James Cooks Pazifikexpeditionen
Friday, 4th Mai 2018, 4:15 p.m.
Katy Barrett (Science Museum London):
‘the pencle of an able painter’: William Hodges paints Cook’s Voyages of Exploration