PRINT May 2006


Caspar David Friedrich

“THE WORLD MUST BE ROMANTICIZED,” the young German poet Novalis exclaimed in 1798. It was a call to give “the ordinary an elevated meaning, the commonplace a mysterious aspect, the familiar the dignity of the unfamiliar, the finite an appearance of infinity.” For Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840), this ambition—to bring forth the invisible from the visible—defined the highest mission of art. His unswerving pursuit of this goal established him as the quintessential German Romantic painter. A retrospective opening this month at the Folkwang Museum in Essen, Germany, investigates not only Friedrich’s pivotal contribution to the nineteenth-century movement but also his modernist impulses. “Caspar David Friedrich: Inventing Romanticism” will be the most important major exhibition of the artist’s work since 1974, when pathbreaking exhibitions in Hamburg and Dresden marked the bicentenary of Friedrich’s birth. The Essen show gathers together more than one hundred works on paper and eighty oil paintings, including The Chalk Cliffs on Rügen, ca. 1818, which has never been shown outside its home at the Museum Oskar Reinhart in Winterthur, Switzerland, and the seminal Cross in the Mountains (Tetschen Altar), 1807–1808, which will leave the Galerie Neue Meister in Dresden for the first time in thirty years.

The world that Friedrich set out to romanticize was indeed the one most familiar to him. He depicted his friends, family, immediate surroundings, and, above all, the landscape of his heimat—the moonlit coastlines of the Baltic Sea, the gentle shapes of Saxony’s mountain ranges, and the dramatic white chalk cliffs of Rügen, a northern island and favorite destination for the emerging bourgeois leisure industry. Only rarely did Friedrich venture beyond his own experience and imagine unknown places, as in his Sea of Ice, ca. 1823–24, where a great pyramid of shattered ice consumes the crushed remains of a majestic sailing ship, a cold grave for man’s hope and prowess. Mostly, he was concerned with immediate observation, focusing on such subjects as boats in the harbor and dreamy cloister ruins; gnarled oaks and evergreen firs; the shapes of rocks, mountains, and clouds; and the nuances of the weather. Nothing was too small or too insignificant to escape his probing eye and the commanding dash of his pencil. Once in his studio, however, he turned his back on the world outside. “Close your eyes,” Friedrich instructed the student painter, “so that your picture will first appear before your mind’s eye. Then bring to the light of day what you first saw in the inner darkness, and let it be reflected back into the minds of others.”

Before his inner eye, the ordinary, the commonplace, and the familiar collapsed into mysterious particles, from which Friedrich built his vision of human existence. He imbued this vision with a symbolic aura, produced through a subtle choreography of light and darkness, the isolation of single figures or trees against vast stretches of sky, and the mysterious effects of fog, mist, and haze. The results are highly personal, meditative images whose intensity does not derive from exotic settings, languid sensuality, passionate expressions of feeling, or an enforced sense stimulation, as do the works of French Romantics such as Delacroix. Rather, they seize the viewer through psychological depth and penetrating mood. Even in the face of disaster, Friedrich’s paintings are serene and tranquil. Instead of the pyrotechnics of Delacroix’s boldly applied colors, Friedrich favored the cool precision of line and thinly applied paint, as if to suggest that the totality of creation can only be known through the infinite diversity of exactly rendered things.

Despite their tranquility, Friedrich’s paintings hardly celebrate a harmony between man, nature, and God. On the contrary, they speak of a disturbing feeling of alienation. They project an unfulfilled yearning for a complete fusion with nature, a longing for a totality always absent in the present, and, above all, a desire for transcendence and the certitude of salvation that to a devout Protestant like Friedrich seemed achingly elusive. His pictures oscillate between evoking anxiety, despair, and inquietude and offering moments of hope, comfort, and consolation. To set up this dialectic, Friedrich often composed alternating works such as the well-known pair Village Landscape in the Morning Light (The Solitary Tree) and Moonrise on the Sea (both 1822), which evoke times of day as metaphors for our life’s journey and the soul’s resurrection from the darkness of death. Paradigmatically, The Cross in the Mountains leaves the viewer in doubt as to whether the crucifix is illuminated by the first rays of a morning sun that assures us of God’s promise of salvation, or whether this merely man-made symbol is sinking into the last dusk of a world abandoned by its savior. In 1834, the French sculptor David d’Angers was deeply moved by this unsettling quality. “Friedrich!” he exclaimed to Friedrich’s friend and follower, Carl Gustav Carus. “The only landscape painter so far to succeed in stirring up all the forces of my soul, the painter who has created a new genre: the tragedy of the landscape.”

The artist can still exercise such power over the twenty-first-century viewer. To unlock the secrets of this power, the Essen exhibition seeks to lay bare the visual devices behind Friedrich’s evocation of mood, feeling, and symbolic meaning. Renouncing earlier attempts at an iconographic resolution of his enigmatic images, the current show embraces their openness, if not their opacity, which forces the viewer into a key role in producing their meaning. Friedrich’s originality was immediately recognized when he first exhibited The Cross in the Mountains. A rebuke to academic rules, the canvas horrified conservative critics, who were shocked by the use of a landscape painting for devotional purposes and the work’s innovative pictorial strategies. But two centuries later, this exhibition celebrates Friedrich’s formalism, defining his technique as a form of montage that assembles almost photorealistic fragments of reality, collected at different times and from diverse sources, according to highly abstract geometric principles. Veiled by naturalistic details, pure abstraction governs calculated and rational compositions whose mathematical system is indebted to the Golden Section. Transformed into a mystic geometry, the exhibition argues, this aesthetic order is often the only assurance of meaning that enigmatic creations such as The Cross in the Mountains offer. While rooting Friedrich’s oeuvre firmly in the historical context of his own time, it is his modernity that the exhibition ultimately emphasizes.

Cordula Grewe is assistant professor of art history at Columbia University.

“Caspar David Friedrich: Inventing Romanticism” will be on view at the Folkwang Museum in Essen, Germany, May 5–Aug. 20, and travels to the Hamburger Kunsthalle, Oct. 7, 2006–Jan. 28, 2007.