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Zurich honours a famous son

Charismatic, controversial and famous throughout Europe, Johann Caspar Lavater is being honoured in his home city Zurich, on the 200th anniversary of his death.

Lavater was a protestant pastor and theologian who was a pioneer of ecumenism, representing a form of Christianity that rejected rigid denominationalism. He also wrote several books on metaphysics. However, it is for his work on physiognomy, the art of determining character from facial characteristics, that he is chiefly remembered.

Described by Goethe as "a unique, outstanding individual, such as has never been seen before and will never be seen again", Lavater was the dominant spiritual personality during the Age of Enlightenment in late 18th century Europe.

But for some people, his approach to theology and his views on physiognomics were too unconventional. They disapproved of the intensity of his faith, his belief in miracles and his attempts to recognise people in the likenesses of God.

His book "Physiognomic Essays to Promote the Knowledge and Love of People" (1775-1778) was discussed throughout Europe and earned him many admirers - as well as bitter criticism. Perhaps the biggest controversy was over the theory - in fact rejected by Lavater - that physiognomy was a means of proving racial superiority.

While researching for that book and other works, Lavater built up an impressive collection of over 22,000 drawings and prints as study material, and some of these are now being exhibited in Zurich's fine arts museum, the Kunsthaus.

The exhibition - entitled "The Human Face, an Obsession" - focuses on the "Cabinet of Art". A representative selection of about 450 works shows Lavater's attitude to the art and artists of the Age of Enlightenment, with numerous portraits of contemporaries.

Seen alongside his correspondence, published work and other documents, the pictures give an insight into his idea of physiognomic sight.

Most of the material on display is on loan from the Austrian National Library in Vienna. After his death, Lavater's family was deeply in debt, and sold the "Cabinet of Art" to Emperor Franz I.

The exhibition is in Zurich until April 22.

by Richard Dawson


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