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 Koerner’s Caspar David Friedrich and the Subject of Landscape and Helmut Börsch-Supan’s Caspar David Friedrich (Braziller, 1974; second edition, Prestel, 1990) reproduce masterpieces—The Large Enclosure near Dresden, Early Snow, Evening, Arctic Shipwreck, Chalk Cliffs on Rügen, Neubrandenburg, and the notorious Tetschen Altarpiece—without parallel in the score of works on loan from the Soviets. On the other hand, Friedrich was consistent in his themes and style—so consistent that one sepia work at the Metropolitan is dated “ca. 1806–11 or 1835–37″—and among the paintings on display in New York are Friedrich’s two largest surviving paintings, the complementary Moonrise by the Sea and Morning in the Mountains, and two of his most frequently reproduced, Swans in the Reeds by Dawn’s Early Light and On the Sailboat. The show affords only a taste, but a fair taste, of the artist, and a curious penetrating taste it is.
Friedrich’s name is reflexively linked to Romanticism; the very title of the show, and of the pleasant and relatively slim catalog edited by Sabine Rewald, is The Romantic Vision of Caspar David Friedrich. Yet Romanticism is so large and moot a topic it threatens to lead us astray, into philosophical and historical considerations far from the question of why the paintings on the wall win and hold our interest a century and a half after their execution. Friedrich spoke little in interpretation of his own paintings, and then in rather strict terms of Christian allegory. Nor was painting Romanticism’s chosen arena. The movement, if it is not too large and inevitable a cultural tide to be called that, had different father figures in different countries—Rousseau in France, Kant in Germany, Wordsworth in England, and none of them painters. Goethe and Schlegel first used the term in distinguishing the contemporary writing from “classic” writing, and the term derives from the late Latin romanice loqui—meaning the vulgar Latin vernacular as opposed to book Latin. The expression gradually extended to popular “romances,” or anything with a coloring of the irrational and the passionate. For the purposes of reacting to Friedrich’s paintings, and for guessing at his intentions, it is perhaps enough to have in mind T.E. Hulme’s famous epigram that Romanticism is “spilt religion” and Hegel’s epochal announcement, “The world of Inwardness (Innerlichkeit) celebrates its triumph over the outer world.”
The advance of inwardness in Germany dates back at least to Martin Luther; his anti-institutional bias, once the Lutheran church became itself an institution, passed to the Moravian Brethren and other pietistic sects that preached a religion of inner spirit and minimal outward trappings. Luther himself had stated, as Joseph Leo Koerner points out, that “it would be better to uproot all the churches and monasteries of the world and burn them to dust.” Friedrich was born in what was then the Swedish province of Pomerania, into a soap-boiler’s household of conventional Protestant piety. Through his first art teacher, his fellow townsman Johann Gottfried Quistorp, he encountered the pantheist philosopher and historian Thomas Thorild, and the poet, pastor, and theologian Gotthard Ludwig Kosegarten, who, Koerner says, “preached a particular theology of the heart, in which the subjective experience of nature’s primal, and therefore divinely created, beauty leads to a direct experience of God.”
Kosegarten sometimes preached outdoors, by the sea, in “Shoresermons”; the Baltic’s rocky shores frequently appear in Friedrich’s paintings, thrice in this small show, with the large Moonrise by the Sea and the two sepia works Two Men by the Sea at Moonrise and Boat by Beach by Moonlight. The mood, furthermore, of shoreline silence, of expectancy directed toward a distant horizon, of a barren yet pregnant vastness, pervades his landscapes. Religion has spilt into nature. Philipp Otto Runge. Friedrich’s contemporary, a less suggestive but more articulate painter, wrote of art reaching peaks at the junctures where the Greek Gods and then the Catholic God were dying, and claimed that
with us too something again is dying; we stand on the brink of all the religions that originated with Catholicism; the abstractions are fading away; everything becomes more airy and lighter than before; everything draws towards landscape, seeks something definite in this indeterminacy, and does not know where to begin.
For literal-minded Friedrich, Nature is a church not only in its numinous content but in its balanced form. His pictorial approach is strikingly frontal and symmetrical. The moon hangs in his pictures like a perfectly round rose window; in Two Men by the Sea at Moonrise it rests precisely on the horizon. The ecclesiastical ruins plentiful in the landscape offered the very image of a burst church from which religion has spilt. The Gothic arches of The Dreamer hold, instead of a stained-glass biblical scene, fir trees and a dying yellowish light. Friedrich’s depiction of linear elements—tree branches and trunks, the ropes of ship rigging—are, at the opposite pole from Impressionism, as rigorously, faithfully articulated as the vertical lines of a cathedral.
In On the Sailboat, the mast stays and the lines edging the sails turn the boat’s movement as much upward, into the sky, as forward toward the misty small city with its steeples. In Morning in the Mountains, Robert Rosenblum points out in his catalog introduction, the “mountain vista with two foreground peaks seems to be bisected exactly by an invisible but abiding vertical presence.” One’s focus travels backward, in the misty, paling ranges of this painting, from peak to peak along a carefully zigzag path; in the companion piece, Moonrise by the Sea, the same sort of path takes us from the foreground anchor to the two women on the rock, back and up to the two men on a farther rock, on to the two sailboats in the empurpled sea, and back at the reversed angle to the moon in its great bowl of tawny sky. The diagonals are regular and do not carry us out of the picture frame; in the depopulated mountainscape In Memory of the Riesengebirge the zigzag is for a while embodied in a receding ridge.
Friedrich’s method was to assemble pictures in his studio out of careful pencil sketches made on the spot; in even his slightest paintings an exquisite compositional balance reigns, an underlying formality that works tranquillity upon us. This insistent geometry accords with our modern sense of artistic decorum. If Friedrich meant to imply Presence with his controlled, emptied vistas, and we can feel only Absence, well, Absence is an old friend, and we wouldn’t know what to do with Presence if It came up and hit us in the face.
The nineteenth century—the Romantic century—sought to save God by empowering inwardness. Figures as disparate as Kierkegaard and Emerson strove to turn the tables on the creeping atheism of empirical science by making the Subjective a player in the game equal to the Objective. Things are composed of our perceptions; reality must include our intuitions. Friedrich’s landscapes usually exist in two planes: a dark foreground, the realm of the viewer, and a luminous background, the natural realm that is viewed. The actual substance of what is seen is not at issue. Is the misty city the young couple of On the Sailboat gazes toward really there, or is it a hopeful vision? Friedrich’s favorite dramatic device, the foreground Rückenfigur (“back figure,” figure seen from behind), inserts the act of viewing into the picture, and weaves mood and reflection into the natural reality. In Memory of the Riesengebirge, based in 1835 upon a sketch the artist made twenty-five years before, moves back, as if in Wordsworthian memory, from a rocky dark-brown foreground to the radiant whiteness of the Schneekoppe, a presiding purity that one can hardly avoid associating with God.
A glance around the single room where most of the Soviet pictures are hung reveals that all have a glow; even the nocturnal cityscape, Sisters on the Harbor-View Terrace, has a luminous sky, glowing as if with the foggy diffusion of city lights. In the case of the twilit, time-darkened small oil called The Nets, there is almost nothing to see but the glow. Moravian theology spoke of faith as not in the head “but in the heart, a light illuminated in the heart.” While light is the commonest metaphor for divinity, Friedrich’s skies, which often take up more than half of his picture-space, show an especial tropism toward the realm of the glowing impalpable. His skies are rarely distinctly blue, as if this color would opacify their luminosity. In a watercolor like Ruins of Eldena Monastery as well as such oils as Moonrise by the Sea and On the Sailboat, Friedrich gives the sky an anatomy as detailed as the land’s; his even focus leaves nothing scrubbed in or casually observed above the horizon.
Goethe, noticing this propensity, once suggested that he execute a series of cloud studies based upon the meteorological system recently developed by the British natural historian Luke Howard. Friedrich refused, according to Koerner, “because it would empty nature of any ‘higher’ meaning, and because the very attempt to classify would violate the essential obscurity of clouds, and with it the radical alterity of nature itself.” Yet his paintings do contain identifiable cloud types, so closely did he paint them.
God is in the details as well as the receding prospect. Friedrich’s early pen drawings of ruins and plants show a student’s careful precision, which he never relaxed. His explorations of branch patterns and rock shapes keep that Renaissance sense, exemplified by Dürer and Leonardo, of ontological discovery. He did not draw easily, and his human forms have little anatomy, yet drawing is everywhere in his pictures, pulling them tight—for instance, the beautifully airy sepia Boat on the Beach by Moonlight, with its gentle diagonal echoed by the elongated cirrus clouds, and Coffin on a Grave, its foreground thistle as momentous as its silhouetted birch bizarrely hung with funeral wreaths. Even his far-off trees, like those seen in the exquisite Window with a View of a Park, have the leaf-by-leaf quality of medieval illumination. Precise rendering is the ethical tool that unlocks each thing’s Eigentümlichkeit—a term favored by Romantic theorists and the theologian Schleiermacher, signifying “peculiarity” in both its English senses, of particularity and strangeness. For Friedrich’s owls and crooked, grasping oaks are strange, even sinister. The Gothic was the cradle of the Romantic. Among his eeriest, most original canvases are renderings, with no anecdotal or symbolic indications, of isolated thickets of trees, as if the most random piece of nature, bodied forth with enough attention to each thrusting twig, has a message for us.
Not that his precision is mechanical or spectacular; the two big mountain-scapes on display, with their rising valley fogs, have a certain recessive fuzziness. Friedrich’s color, save for the fruity tints of his sunrises and sunsets, is brownish and rather streaky. The marvel of the small Swans in the Reeds by Dawn’s Early Light lies not so much in the pink sky and the animated wealth of reed leaves but in the capture, in these leaves’ dull green and the white swans’ flat gray, of light before the sun has dawned. Generations before Monet, he has succeeded in painting the air that intervenes before the eye. Yet his appeal is not basically sensual, or a matter of paint; his method of repeated thin coats overlaid by a glistening varnish minimizes a sense of brush strokes. We are conscious of the painter mostly as the viewer of what we now see, a fellow contemplative, waiting like us for a clearer meaning or mood to emerge from the enigmatic vista with its ghost of a design. Friedrich expressed his theories sparely, but another artist of the time reported him as saying in conversation that “the most important thing about a work of art is that it should have an effect on each person who looks at it.”
With the afterimage of these twenty works fresh in my mind’s eye, I made my way through the Metropolitan Museum’s mazy treasure house to the American landscape painters of the nineteenth century, who share much with Friedrich. These men, too, had a transcendentalist, nationalist bent, and hoped to distill from vastness an inspiring Eigentümlichkeit. Thomas Doughty also gives us mountain views and foreground rocks, and Frederic Edwin Church lavishly provides, in his Heart of the Andes, a panorama climaxed by a snowy peak. But their canvases, bigger than any of Friedrich’s, seem clangorously crowded, bright, and busy; Church’s stupendous virtuosity, which throngs the foreground with botanically accurate Andean vegetation and throws a spotlight upon his name carved on a tree trunk, is itself a presence, full of braggadocio. We meekly bend to admire the dashing precision of each detail of the little religious vignette conveniently illuminated; we are in the hands of a showman God.
Even where a softer temperament approximates Friedrich’s expectant simplicity—as in Sanford Robinson Gifford’s golden gorge, for instance, with its almost invisible waterfall, and the luminist Martin Johnson Heade’s level quiet marshland—we are in a material world, where the vigorous act of painting suppresses all hints of symbolization, of sublimated appearance, of double meaning. John Frederick Kensett renders space and the mood of the sky, but all of a certain moment; he has come to the verge of Impressionism, where the painter, no longer a wistful, yearning Ruckenfigür, turns to face us with his brushes, his dancing colors. An irresistible materiality infuses the American landscapes, washing away those faint aftertraces of Christian faith, that delicate fog of the spirit, still visible in Friedrich’s church of Nature.
March 7, 1991