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What Did the Romantics Mean?

Caspar David Friedrich, 1774-1840: Romantic Landscape Painting in Dresden

by William Vaughan, by Helmut Börsch-Supan, by Hans Joachim Neidhardt
Tate Gallery (London), 112 pp., £1.10

Robert Schumann: The Man and His Music

edited by Alan Walker
Barrie and Jenkins (London), 489 pp., £7.00


Does each art have its proper sphere, some aspect of reality that it may reflect or imitate that is closed to the other arts? The eighteenth century thought so and attempted to define the nature and the limits of each of the arts, and to fix the opposition between art and reality that seemed indispensable to the autonomous existence of art in general.

In the first decades of the nineteenth century, the writers and painters—to be followed shortly by the musicians—broke through these limits. “Does not pure instrumental music appear to create its own text?” wrote Friedrich Schlegel in 1798, thinking of the extraordinary development of symphonic music in the late eighteenth century. The ability of music to create meaning and significance out of its own elements, independent of any attempt to mirror the world outside, became the model for the other arts.

In his novel Franz Sternbald’s Travels, Ludwig Tieck predicted an abstract art of pure colors, with neither subject matter nor represented form. The poet-philosopher Novalis proposed tales and poems “without sense and without continuity…made up of associations like dreams…acting indirectly like music.” The painter Philipp Otto Runge wrote that “music must exist in a poem through the words, as music must also be present in a beautiful picture or building or in any ideas whatsoever which are expressed through lines.” When Schiller spoke of the musical effect of poetry, he meant not the sound but the order and arrangement of the images and the modulation of the whole poem. A generation later, Schumann and Berlioz were to integrate specifically literary techniques into their music.

Not only the barriers between the arts. but the autonomy of art itself was destroyed. This breakdown of the distinction between art and reality began playfully when, in one of Tieck’s plays, the audience climbs onto the stage while the actors complain of their parts. Novalis, protesting the romantic justification of Shakespeare as a pure artist, is more in earnest: “Art belongs to Nature and is, so to speak, self-reflecting, self-imitating, self-shaping Nature. [Shakespeare’s works] are emblematic, ambiguous simple and inexhaustible, and nothing could be more nonsensical than to call them works of art in the limited mechanical sense of that word.” In forms as different as Wordsworth’s prclude and Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. the work of art presents itself as autobiography, as fact, as part of Nature. Byron, with an international reputation as a Don Juan. wrote a poem called Don Juan, an open-ended work to which he continued to add as long as he lived. The characters in Brentano’s novel Godwi speak about “the author of Godwi,” and, at the end of the book, describe his death and write poems about him.

The elements of these works have a double status, fact and art, real and fictive at once. Two recent books, Robert Schumann: The Man and His Music, edited by Alan Walker, and Caspar David Friedrich, the catalogue of the recent exhibition at the Tate in London of the greatest of German landscape painters, show the difficulty that this ambiguity has made in interpreting Romantic art.


The artistic revolution of the early nineteenth century was the replacement of history painting (large formal depictions of historical or religious scenes) by landscape. It is not only that painters turned their attention to landscape and away from the largescale painting—frescoes or oils—of scenes from the Bible and the lives of the saints or from ancient or modern history. Their ambitions were much greater and more astonishing. They wished to make pure landscape without figures carry the weight, attain to the heroic and epic significance, of historical painting. Landscape was to be the vehicle of the Sublime.

In the seventeenth century, the landscapes of Poussin and Claude reached their full dignity only as depictions of classical Nature. with figures in antique dress. and often a mythological subject discreetly integrated into an ideally “Arcadian” countryside. The Romantics wished to make the elements of Nature alone carry the full symbolic meaning. Their project was, in fact, identical with the contemporary attempt of Wordsworth to give pure landscape poetry the force and gravity of Milton’s epic style.

That the replacement of history painting by landscape had an ideological purpose directly related to the destruction of traditional religious and political values at the end of the eighteenth century cannot be doubted. The artists were themselves acutely conscious of this. In 1802, the most brilliant and articulate of the young German painters, Philipp Otto Runge, wrote:

How can we even think of trying for the return of the art of the past? The Greeks brought the beauty of their forms and shapes to its height when their gods perished. The modern Romans brought historical representation to its farthest point when the Catholic religion was ruined.1 With us again something is perishing, we stand at the brink of all the religions which sprang up out of the Catholic one, the abstractions perish, everything is lighter and more unsubstantial than before, everything presses toward landscape art, looks for something certain in this uncertainty and does not know how to begin. They grasp mistakenly at historical painting (Historie), and they are bewildered. Is there not surely in this new art—landscapery. if you like—a higher point to be reached? Which will be even more beautiful than before?

In one sense, the Romantic landscape was a return to the serious tradition of the seventeenth century and a revulsion from the largely picturesque styles of the eighteenth. A famous essay by Schiller (on the landscape poetry of a very minor versifier, Matthisson) appeared in 1794 and prepared the way. Landscape painting and poetry for Schiller could only be raised to the dignity of major arts by the awakening of sentiment and by the representation of ideas. We demand, he wrote, that the art of landscape should work upon us like music. Sentiment is created by the analogy of sounds and colors with the movements of the emotions. Ideas are stimulated in the imagination of the reader or spectator by the form of the work of art, and this form controls the imaginative response. For Schiller as later for Freud, the symbolic function of the imagination follows certain laws and can be both interpreted and predicted.

In 1808, the thirty-four-year-old Caspar David Friedrich painted a landscape as an altarpiece. The picture created a scandal, was fiercely attacked and as fiercely defended. The frame, with its angels that look down on the scene and with the ear of wheat and the wine branch below as symbols of bread and wine, body and blood of Christ, firmly defines the work as an altarpiece. Yet the crucifix in the landscape, which is the only piece of traditional religious symbolism in the picture itself, is clearly not a representation of a historical event, but almost a part of Nature, a crucifix upon a mountain such as one may still see today in the German countryside. Moreover, the figure of Christ is turned away from the spectator toward the setting sun, and ivy grows around the stem of the crucifix.

The firm rock upon which the crucifix stands and the evergreen trees that grow round it are symbols only too easy to read. This was Friedrich’s first important oil painting: until then he had done only sepia wash, pen drawings, and designs for woodcuts. In later works the symbolism was far less intrusive, more nuanced and more dependent on the structure of the work—although even in this altarpiece an essential part of the effect comes from the perspective which seems to place the spectator in mid-air before the scene, a sensation about which early critics complained harshly.

Here is a man who has discovered the tragedy of landscape,” said the French sculptor David D’Angers after visiting Friedrich in his studio, and indeed Friedrich was one of the first European artists to restore landscape to the status of a major genre. The contemporary development in England with Constable and Turner as the major figures took place in a more empirical atmosphere, and gave landscape painting an explicitly scientific dignity as a means of investigating the visual aspect of Nature. The moral gravity is the same, however, and the explicit symbolism of Turner’s work is comparable to Friedrich’s. In return, Friedrich’s later work moves toward a genuinely realistic study of cloud shapes and light.

Few paintings by Friedrich are to be seen outside Germany; the Louvre, for example has none. The Tate exhibition last year was astonishingly the first large-scale showing of his work outside his native land. The catalogue contains an excellent introduction by William Vaughan, but the entries by Helmut Börsch-Supan on each picture impose a doctrinaire reading that does the paintings disservice, and distorts the tradition of Romantic symbolism.

Börsch-Supan claims that “if one is to decipher Friedrich’s pictorial symbolism, one has to look at his entire oeuvre,” but we need not wait for his forthcoming book to protest. A study of the entire oeuvre may bring a deeper comprehension of Friedrich’s art, but his symbols are to be read (not deciphered) within the individual works. That is, the meaning of the elements of Friedrich’s style are revealed in each picture, and are not an esoteric, private code accessible only to the initiate.

Perhaps the masterpiece of Friedrich’s last years is the Large Enclosure Near Dresden, the inundated meadows where the Elbe overflows its banks. In the foreground is the water with a very small ship that drifts near the edge of the mainland. The point of view of the observer is from far above so that the body of water seems to have a gentle curve as if it were the curvature of the earth, and small plots of land stand out from the inundating water like continents on a globe. To the gentle curve of the foreground responds symmetrically the inverse curve of the horizon: the land between appears only as a few clumps of trees on a thin strip between the water and the immense sky. The broken agitated forms of the water are unified by the evening colors of the sky reflected inversely so that the cool, distancing blue is in the foreground. The painting is a religious meditation, an image of the relation of heaven to earth.

The picture has a significance, but no message: the concentration is visual, and the meaning is general and inexhaustible, diffused through the forms, which force a reading upon us by the strange symmetry and the unusual perspective. The catalogue entry, however, is egregiously specific. I give it complete:

Painted in 1832, this picture marked a high point in Friedrich’s development as a colourist. It recreates with great vividness the atmosphere of the time of day just after the sun has set. The striking perspective of the foreground may well be the result of the view being taken from a bridge. Both the ship drifting over the shallow water where it is in danger of being stranded, and the abruptness with which the avenue of trees comes to an end in the open country, are images of approaching death. [No. 100, P. 89]

  1. 1

    Runge is alluding here to the exact coincidence of the High Renaissance style of Raphael and Michelangelo with the beginnings of the Reformation.

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