The Romantic Vision of Caspar David Friedrich: Paintings and Drawings from the USSR 23March 31, 1991
The Romantic Vision of Caspar David Friedrich: Paintings and Drawings from the USSR (paper, distributed by Abrams)
Caspar David Friedrich and the Subject of Landscape
The melting of the cold war, whose immediate global result seems to be the release of fresh energies of strife and destruction, has effected some benefits in the world of art, such as the Metropolitan Museum’s present show of nine oil paintings and eleven works on paper by the German artist Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840), on loan from the State Hermitage Museum in Leningrad and the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow. The pictures were purchased over a period of twenty years beginning when the future Tsar Nicholas I, then the Grand Duke Nikolai Pavlovich, visited Friedrich’s studio in Dresden. The visit was made at the urging of the grand duke’s wife, Alexandra Fedorovna, daughter of Prussia’s King Friedrich Wilhelm III, and his subsequent patronage was carried on through the intermediary offices of the poet Vasily Andreyevich Zhukovsky, Alexandra Fedorovna’s tutor in Russian and an enthusiastic admirer of the painter Friedrich. Zhukovsky frequently visited Dresden, and at each visit sent back to the imperial family descriptions and recommendations which resulted in purchases, the last of them from Friedrich’s impoverished widow in 1841.
The works thus accumulated—an indeterminate amount, but considerably more than eventually descended to the care of the Soviet state—constitute the only major collection of Friedrich’s work outside Germany. In all of the United States there is but one painting, and that one hides in Fort Worth, Texas, at the Kimbell Art Museum. The art merchants who sold to the great American collectors in the era before World War I focused on the Italians and French, and after 1914 geopolitical factors helped dampen appreciation of German art. Even German appreciation of Friedrich’s mystical, parochial, subtle, and stubborn talent—which for a time attracted approval from Goethe and patronage from the Weimar court—waned after 1820. By 1890 he was virtually forgotten.
A retrospective exhibition in Berlin in 1906 of a hundred years of German paintings revived interest, and elicited comparisons of his treatment of light with that of the Impressionists. But he was a thoroughly Nordic artist—he attended art school in Copenhagen and never traveled to Italy, and even balked at visiting Switzerland. He was a fierce anti-Napoleon patriot, who dressed his figures in an altdeutsch attire symbolic of the heroic medieval era of German unity. This nationalism won Nazi hearts; in 1940 a German critic dated Friedrich’s resurgence from 1933 and boasted that “the pinnacle of his influence coincides with the outbreak of World War.” Air raids on Berlin destroyed a number of his paintings there in 1945. In the postwar era Friedrich has arrived as the internationally best-known German painter of the nineteenth century.
The selection on view at the Metropolitan, though it ranges over nearly the full extent of his career and is supplemented by six early (c. 1803) woodcuts from the Met’s own collection, cannot approach complete representation; this is a mega-artist but a mini-show. Volumes like Joseph Leo …