Hoka-Neni and Her Prisoner during the Grand Tour, 2001-2002

Oil tempera on canvas

40 x 312 in (100 x 80 cm)


But where can wisdom be found?

Where does understanding dwell?

Job 28:12


In her quest to experience the world, especially the historical past, Hoka-Neni is in good company. Such luminaries as Heinrich Heine, Lord Byron and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe all traveled in search of the classical world. In this panel, Hoka-Neni, having reached the height of her powers, has succeeded and has undergone a metamorphosis-she is now Goethe himself, as he appears in the famous portrait that Johann Tischbein painted during his Italian tour of 1786-88. "I am to be drawn the size of life," wrote Goethe on December 29, 1786, "enveloped in a white mantle, and sitting on a fallen obelisk, viewing the ruins of the Campagna di Roma, which are to fill up the background of the picture." Lustig has slightly feminized the image by adding a bunch of artificial flowers to the broad-brimmed hat, which has the effect of making the hat look like a heavy, oversized flowerpot. The disjointed anatomy of Hoka-Neni's body reminds me of Picasso's curtain-panel, The Running Women (1920), in which naturalism is totally subordinated to Cubist concepts.

       When Hoka-Neni experiences the challenges of the real world after her romantic reveries, she becomes vulnerable to the temptations, trials and troubles that test her personality. Draped in white, she gazes at her private talisman, a fish in an unusual container. This is the "prisoner" mentioned in the title of the painting, and its imprisonment symbolizes Hoka-Neni’s triumph over egotism, wickedness, and depravity. She is now serene and balanced, just like Goethe in Italy, who wrote: "I am now cured of violent passion and disease, and restored to the enjoyment of life, to the enjoyment of history, poetry and of antiquities, and have treasures which it will take me a long year to polish and finish." (Rome, January 4,1787)

       The background of Lustig’s panel is a parody of Goethe’s description of the Roman countryside, "Wherever one goes and casts a look around, the eye is at once struck with some landscape, forms of every kind of style; palaces and ruins, gardens and statuary, distant views of villas, cottages and stables, triumphal arches, and columns, often crowding so close together, that all might be sketched on a single sheet of paper." (Rome, November 5, 1786) Like many travelers of the time, Goethe tried his hand at sketching them. In the second part of his Faust, the astrologer in the Hall of the Knights says:


Before our eyes appears through sorcery

An ancient temple, massive as can be.

Like Atlas shouldering heaven long ago.

Here stand its many columns row on row;

And well they might suffice that weight of rock,

Two of them could support a city block.

(trans. Louis MacNeice)

Lustig has included an assortment of ancient monuments-the Colosseum, Trajan's Column, the Pantheon, the Arch of Constantine, and three imposing Corinthian columns from the Temple of Vespasian. As one would expect, his rendering of the scene is rich in incongruities. The relief on the stone block in the foreground -a woman swinging playfully from a gallows-is anything but classical. The monuments are not in their actual locations, and the perspective is peculiar: it seems to be perfectly conventional as far as the huge Corinthian colonnade, but from that point on the space has been compressed, so that Trajan's Column is too small and the Arch of Constantine pathetically minuscule. Overall, the landscape looks like a seventeenth-century architectural capriccio. I wonder whether this is an ironic comment on the transitory nature of glory, especially of glory achieved through war. Although Goethe praised the "majesty of ruins, which surpass all conception," Lustig's own attitude would seem better expressed by the little dog irreverently urinating on the base of a column. This single detail deflates the solemn grandeur of the scene.

Goethe is an apt embodiment of Hoka-Neni/Lustig's quest to enlarge her/his empirical horizon. Like Flaubert, Goethe has been recognized as one of the greatest, most versatile European writers and thinkers of modern times. An extremely sensitive and vulnerable individual, he struggled through a wide range of human crises and left a critical record of his experiences. Who

better to lead Hoka-Neni from romantic reverie toward science, history, and mythology? For Goethe, poetry and science were one and the same thing: his Faust, as he moves from one calling to another, seems to manifest the vocations of natural scientist, poetic artist and moral philosopher. Fascinated with "the drive for knowledge" and "the profundity of beings," driven to transcend the limits of human knowledge and discover the structure and function of elements, Faust joins in league with the Devil. When he forsakes his study in order to conquer the whole of reality, the "small world" as well as the "great world," his story becomes the story of humanity and the world itself. According to a long tradition of interpretation, Goethe's Faust is a vast allegory (or perhaps a series of allegories) about the human condition in the modern age. The relief sculpture of a woman swinging from a gallows (who may be Hoka-Neni herself) symbolizes all that went wrong during the past two centuries of German culture, ideology and society.


In this section of the cycle, however, Lustig was inspired more by Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus than by Goethe's Faust. In Mann's novel, the demon assumes an existential character, and resides within the protagonist himself, Adrian Leverkuhn. The old cosmic struggle between Heaven and Hell is relocated within the human psyche; the theological conflict between God and Satan is secularized and made to dwell in a single person. Mann's Faust, unlike Goethe's, remains hermetically sealed within his study, a passive witness to the painful changes afflicting German culture and society. Several characters in the novel, most notably Fitelberg, plead for more cosmopolitanism in German culture and warn of catastrophe if Germany persists in its narrowly nationalistic ways. Eventually, the nation that Hoka-Neni most admired, the nation of Kant, Schiller and Goethe, whose spirituality and powers of abstraction were second to none, perverted its genius and misapplied its energies to create the model of a modern secularized hell, where the incredible and indescribable came to pass. This, I think, is the primary subject of this panel: it is a visual synopsis of the decline of German culture from Goethe's age of enlightenment, classicism and utopian dreams (his Faust ends with scenes in Heaven) to the intellectual and moral decadence of the Nazis, to whose inhuman and anti-human barbarism Hoka-Neni, the Lustig family and a large part of the world fell victim.

© by Edith Balas