Thursday, January 16, 2014

Caspar David Friedrich

Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) was the most romantic of Romantic painters. Almost all of his work focused on one subject: the encounter of the human soul with the sublime landscape.  (Abbey in the Oak Wood, 1810)

His best works powerfully express the longing to see the world as spirit that was at the heart of the Romantic movement. Friedrich looked for God in the landscape, and came as close as any artist to capturing that search in his work. (Wanderer in a Sea of Fog, 1818)

Friedrich had a grief-stricken childhood, which wikipedia summarizes like this:
Caspar David Friedrich was born on September 5, 1774, in Greifswald, Swedish Pomerania, on the Baltic coast of Germany. The sixth of ten children, he was brought up in the strict Lutheran creed of his father Adolf Gottlieb Friedrich, a candle-maker and soap boiler. Records of the family's financial circumstances are contradictory; while some sources indicate the children were privately tutored, others record that they were raised in relative poverty. Caspar David was familiar with death from an early age. His mother, Sophie Dorothea Bechly, died in 1781 when he was just seven. A year later, his sister Elisabeth died, while a second sister, Maria, succumbed to typhus in 1791. Arguably the greatest tragedy of his childhood was the 1787 death of his brother Johann Christoffer: at the age of thirteen, Caspar David witnessed his younger brother fall through the ice of a frozen lake and drown. Some accounts suggest that Johann Christoffer perished while trying to rescue Caspar David, who was also in danger on the ice.
In our safe world parents who lose children and children who lose their parents say that these are awful, life-changing events, and that afterwards things are never the same; how did it change society when most people had such experiences? (Monk by the Sea, 1808-1810)

Friedrich had a fairly conventional education for a painter of his time, studying in Germany and then at the elite Academy in Copenhagen before settling in Dresden. He was immersed in the theology and artistic theory of his age, which emphasized an emotional bond with a God who could be sensed in the landscape and felt in the heart. (Monastery Graveyard in the Snow, 1819.)

Friedrich was discovered by the great Goethe in 1805, after entering a contest that the Greatest German Poet had organized. Goethe sensed immediately Friedrich's gift for capturing on canvas the longings of his contemporaries. (Giant Mountains with Rising Fog, 1830)

Friedrich's perfect fit with his own age explained his rapid rise to prominence but also his rapid fall. From 1805 to 1820 or so he was popular and successful. But then tastes changed, and Friedrich's work immediately began to seem not just out of date but embarrassing. Romanticism is easy to mock; what sort of God can only be found hiding in sublime moonrises or lurking around certain picturesque crags? Isn't he with us all the time, just as much on the factory floor or in the drawing room as on windswept moors? A sentimental touch like the abandoned crutches in Winter Landscape with Church (above, 1811) made Friedrich's critics laugh out loud, and his misty graveyards only irritated them. Paint something real, they said.

Through the rest of the nineteenth century Friedrich had only a few admirers, who responded to his lonely voice despite or maybe because of his banishment from the official art world. Toward 1900 neo-romantics appeared who elevated him again for a while, before modernism swept him away. Rather to his misfortune he was then rediscovered by the Nazis, who made him one of the official painters of their regime; thus in the 1950s and 1960s he was not only out of fashion but politically suspect.  (Winter, 1808.)

He came back again with the neo-neo-romantics of my own generation, the lovers of Middle Earth and the Moody Blues, and he has remained prominent in our emotional age. Moonrise over the Sea, 1822.

Friedrich once wrote,
The artist should paint not only what he sees before him, but also what he sees within him. If, however, he sees nothing within him, then he should also refrain from painting that which he sees before him. Otherwise, his pictures will be like those folding screens behind which one expects to find only the sick or the dead.
 Temple of Juno in Agrigento, 1828-1830.

I long ago stopped trying to justify my own artistic tastes; I like what I like, and if you don't, so what? As Friedrich said,
I am not so weak as to submit to the demands of the age when they go against my convictions. I spin a cocoon around myself; let others do the same. I shall leave it to time to show what will come of it: a brilliant butterfly or maggot.
Above, Two Men by the Sea, 1817; below, Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon, 1820.

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