|Casper David Friedrich, The Monk By the Sea, 1810|
The tiny figure of the monk (simultaneously a symbol of the spiritual inner life, a self-portrait of the artist, and a stand-in for the viewer) is dwarfed by three different kinds of voids, land, sea, and sky: the bare and pallid grassless foreground, the iron-black bar of the sea that shuts down the middle, and the amorphous expanse of vastness that is the sky which occupies the majority of the painting.
Without a repoussoir—a framing device that leads the viewer's gaze into the image - the emptiness of the foreground disrupts the viewer's relationship to the picture's space. One cannot mentally "penetrate" the image: Friedrich has created an unbridgeable gap between the monk and the viewer. The monk is cut off from us spatially and existentially, and there are no traditional landscape elements that might soften the effect.
In June 1809, the wife of painter Gerhard von Kügelgen, an acquaintance of Friedrich, visited him and later wrote in a letter how shriveling she felt the loneliness of the setting to be, deploring the lack of consolation that a little more content - some sort of movement or narrative - might have brought to the painting's "unending space of air." If only she could have read Nietzsche or Sartre!
Critics have described The Monk By the Sea, painted between 1808 and 1810, as "perhaps the first 'abstract' painting in a very modern sense" because of its radical composition. Friedrich purposely left out the conventional devices that create depth. Friedrich wants the viewer to feel confronted by the question of mankind coming up against a vast and quite possibly "empty" universe. It's been compared to many other more or less abstract paintings, right up to Whistler and Courbet and, perhaps most significantly for our appreciation of a still often misunderstood artist of our own time, abstract expressionist Mark Rothko.
|Gustav Courbet - The Beach at Palavas,1877|
|James MacNeil Whistler - Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville, 1865|
|Mark Rothko - Light Earth and Blue, 1954.|
Above Rothko: William Nicholson, Mending the Nets, c. 1910