Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Friedrich: The Tragedy of the Landscape

At the same time that Constable was painting the ever-changing skies over England (1820 or 1822 or so), German painter Casper David Friedrich was working on Moonrise Over the Sea (1822). It’s almost a “negative” of a Constable or Dutch coastal painting; it’s night, instead of day; it’s full of shadows, mystery, and gloom instead of clarity, light, and freshness; the figures aren’t minimal yardsticks for scale, they’re large, front and center, projecting well above the distant horizon, and therefore we understand that, instead of just being a “picturesque” window on the world, Moonrise Over the Sea is about the relationship of the figures to the landscape (and by analogy a comment on humanity’s place in existence).

In the terminology of the day, Constable is about the picturesque and Friedrich is about the sublime. These are the two sides of the coin of Romanticism, a word that describes the eruption into European art, literature, and music of emotion, imagination, spontaneity, psychology, madness, the supernatural - the subconscious, dreams, extreme states, altered states, the otherworldly, the unknown - everything, basically, that the tidy, Godly, rational, clockwork world of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment wanted to believe didn’t exist.

I’m reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for a lecture I’ll be giving next month on Romantic art, and I keep seeing images from Friedrich’s work as I read. Compare the following passage with Friedrich’s stunning Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog (1818) (below).

"The abrupt sides of vast mountains were before me; the icy wall of the glacier overhung me…. a scene terrifically desolate…. rising like the waves of a troubled sea, descending low, and interspersed by rifts that sink deep. The field of ice is almost a league in width, but I spent nearly two hours in crossing it. The opposite mountain is a bare perpendicular rock…. and above it rose Mont Blanc, in awful majesty. I remained in a recess of the rock, gazing on this wonderful and stupendous scene. The sea, or rather the vast river of ice, wound among its dependent mountains, whose aerial summits hung over its recesses. Their icy and glittering peaks shone in the sunlight over the clouds."

Full of “a sublime ecstasy that gave wings to the soul,” reveling in the “solitary grandeur of the scene,” the haunted scientist utters a desperate (and mega-Romantic) creed, part death-wish, part prayer:

“Wandering spirits, if indeed ye wander, and do not rest in your narrow beds, allow me this faint happiness, or take me, as your companion, away from the joys of life.”

In this painting, because the figure’s back is turned toward us, the viewer can occupy his place in the landscape. We understand that the scene we’re viewing is being filtered through human sensation.

But this is not the case in The Polar Sea, also known as The Wreck of Hope, (above). Here Friedrich omitted the figure and pushed the sublime indifference of nature about as far as the public could take at the time.

Look carefully: amidst the vast, forbidding desolation and merciless, impersonal natural forces of crushing glacial ice and stone, you can see the stern of a ship trapped in the ice being slowly crushed to pieces. A writer in Time Magazine in 1974 nailed exactly what’s going on in this painting: “"the image he produced, with its grinding slabs of travertine-colored floe ice chewing up a wooden ship, goes beyond documentary into allegory: the frail bark of human aspiration crushed by the world's immense and glacial indifference.” His work is still so powerful that many give him credit for inventing die romantische Stimmungslandschaf the landscape full of Romantic feeling and mysticism.

Friedrich’s paintings channel the same Romantic sublime - the presence of the awe-inspiring (“awful” = awe full) power and vastness of nature, in the face of which one feels “solemnized” as Shelley wrote, aware of one’s mortality jolted from one’s routine personal cares, which suddenly seem petty, insignificant, and small.

"Close your bodily eye so that you may see your picture first with the spiritual eye. Then bring to the light of day that which you have seen in the darkness so that it may react upon others from the outside inwards." Friedrich in his collection of aphorisms (1830).

"Friedrich! … 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." - David d'Angers.