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In November 1810, two large oils went on show under the same catalogue number at the Berlin Academy of Art, Monk by the Sea and Abbey in the Oak Wood, both now in the Old National Gallery in Berlin. According to one contemporary account, these identically sized works by the German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840) were originally hung one below the other, although how they were meant to operate as a pair is not that clear. We know that they had an unsettling impact on spectators, although they also gained Friedrich external membership of the Academy.
A letter in which Friedrich commented upon the works has recently come to light. Even he writes that ‘what I want to portray, and how I want to portray it, is in a way a puzzle’. Friedrich writes about the ‘uninvestigable hereafter’ as a ‘sacred intuition, to be seen and recognized only in belief’. The splendid new monograph by Johannes Grave takes this statement as key to understanding Friedrich’s approach to art, the way in which he combined a traditional Lutheranism with such aesthetic innovation.
Grave is at pains to acknowledge the problems of painting ‘the spiritual’, given the material nature of painting itself, and to emphasize how only radical aesthetic wrenching around of pre-existing pictorial conventions allows Friedrich to suggest intuitions for those able to recognize ‘in belief’. The result is a study deeply critical of iconographic or semiotic analyses and rich in extended pictorial analyses that often recast the way in which we view key works or features of Friedrich’s oeuvre.
Unlike contemporary landscapes, Monk by the Sea is not composed with internal framing elements and we cannot walk into and through the landscape space. Instead, as one contemporary (Brentano) put it, one sensed a monotonous ‘boundlessness’ and a confrontation with the landscape itself ‘as though one’s eyelids had been cut away’. Friedrich problematized traditional space by making the foreshore into simply a narrow strip and then relating the colour and tone on either side of the horizon, with a third zone of lit sky occupying a whole half of the picture at the top. We flip between flattened zones and depth readings in an extremely unsettling way.
Friedrich’s statement suggests that the man ‘walking on the beach’ is ‘deciphering the darkness of the future’ but that such an ambition is ‘vain presumption’, and Grave argues that the refusal of the picture to provide ‘clear conclusions’ is structured into its very fabric.
Similarly Abbey in the Oak Wood is not only unclear in its imagery (why are the monks with the coffin moving away from the grave and why are they in a deserted monastery?). It is also deliberately unclear in the way the dark mist smothers the visibility of the burial scene, only to allow the tops of the oaks and abbey to stand out against the lighter sky, which is formally more dominant. Grave argues that the threshold situation of death is suggested pictorially in the open-ended conflict set up between imagery and form.
Grave’s analysis, though chronological, is thematic, with one or two key privileged artworks receiving more extended discussion in each chapter. For example, the chapter where Grave discusses how Friedrich engaged critically with the problems of painting the sublime when the sublime itself was meant to be beyond representability is focused on The Waltzmann (1824/5, DekaBank, on loan to Old National Gallery, Berlin). Chalk Cliffs on Rugen (c1818-22, Oskar Reinhart Museum, Winterthur) is the key work in the chapter discussing Friedrich’s frequent use of rear-view figures, which Grave argues involve not identification with their view but an invitation to reflect on the process of looking.
Central to his discussion of Friedrich’s treatment of the cycle of human life is The Stages of Life (c.1835, Museum of Fine Arts, Leipzig), and the chapter on the late work is dominated by a discussion of The Large Enclosure (c1832, New Masters Gallery, Dresden). The chapter on how Friedrich responded to the French occupation, the wars of liberation and the dashing of liberal hopes during the restoration focuses on Friedrich’s Hutton’s Tomb (c.1823–4, Weimar Classics Foundation). Why the tomb of this 16th-century humanist (championed by the contemporary nationalists) is in a ruinous state and what the figure contemplating the tomb finds to reflect on there is unclear. For Grave, Friedrich’s politics involved an incitement to ponder and question.
Grave is keen to suggest always that Friedrich entangles the viewer ‘in a disturbing process of perception and reflection’. The resulting picture is a very modern Friedrich, for all his Lutheran upbringing. Whether such modernity involved inevitably the involuntary expression of religious uncertainty is, I feel, still an open question not addressed here. The discussion of Friedrich’s practice in the context of contemporary aesthetic debates is always very precise: how Friedrich struggled to move away from the classicist aesthetics of Goethe’s Weimar even as he had sought out its support is a particularly strong chapter. Nonetheless, seeing the work in the restricted context of its immediate connection in space and time does shy away from discussing broader developing debates and philosophical ideas. It also avoids confronting processes of deep social change.
Grave has the benefit of four decades of increasingly sophisticated writing on Friedrich and his analyses shows his indebtedness to his predecessors (such as, to name just one text, Joseph Koerner’s Caspar David Friedrich and the Subject of Landscape, London, 1990). Nonetheless, this is a masterly synthesis of recent new findings alongside older traditions of analysis, and one that offers considerable new insights and criticism. It certainly lives up to its own aim to show how Friedrich’s works do not illustrate thoughts but ‘transform them into a genuinely pictorial form of thinking’, and how the complexity of his new modes of representation made his contemporaries think, feel and see afresh.
Caspar David Friedrich by Johannes Grave is published by Prestel Verlag, Munich/London/New York, 2012 288pp. 230 illus, £80.00. ISBN 978-3-7913-4628-1
Media credit: Courtesy Alte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen, Berlin