Monday, January 30, 2012

The First Abstract Painting

Casper David Friedrich, The Monk By the Sea, 1810
"No situation in the world could be more sad and eerie than this—as the only spark of life in the wide realm of death, a lonely center in a lonely circle..." wrote an early admirer of this painting. "Since in its monotony and boundlessness it has no foreground except the frame, when viewing it, it is as if one's eyelids had been cut away."

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


  1. Hi Christopher I am wondering what size of painting Caspar's 'The monk by the sea'. I went along and read about the life of Caspar and wondered why the wife of Gerhard would feel the painting was so lonely as most of his paintings are very dark and with themes of moonlight and the setting sun and have a feeling of loneliness about them. It was sad to read how out of favour his work became as he is truely one of the finest painters. He was a melancholy soul though and his work does reflect this. It is possible that this could be seen as the first abstract painting and I believe the way he saw 'his world' was very much in the abstract way. An emotive painter whose paintings really did reflect his inner world. Great post, very interesting.

  2. Thanks for this Christopher... haunting and beautiful.

  3. Thanks for showing his relationship to abstraction and the comparison to Mark Rothko.
    I think of him as the first to express the
    Nordic loneliness that reaches a peak in Edvard Munch's paintings of isolated figures close to the sea.

  4. Friedrich was a great painter. I love his work. But when it comes to abstraction, I would also look at the work of the great J.M.W. Turner.

  5. Thanks for your showing us these type of Abstract Painting

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