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24 August 2022

Carl Blechen’s barren expanses let nature speak for itself

In his short life, the painter brought the mystical visions of German Romanticism back on to solid foundations.

By Michael Prodger

German avant-garde painting during the romantic period was dominated by two strands: the nature mysticism embodied by Caspar David Friedrich and Philipp Otto Runge and the spiritual revivalism of the Rome-based Nazarenes, precursors to the English pre-Raphaelite group. The biblical subjects and consciously retrospective style of the leading Nazarenes, Johann Friedrich Overbeck, Franz Pforr and Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, meant that their paintings were outliers during their own time and oddities subsequently. Runge’s art, meanwhile, was perhaps too complex and too full of personal symbolism to leave a stylistic legacy.

Friedrich, on the other hand, worked with a repertoire of motifs that were instantly comprehensible and affecting, even if his metaphysics was not so easy to understand. His landscapes, with their low horizons, barren trees, fogs, ruined churches and figures seen from behind, were carefully composed aids to contemplation and visualisations both of the transience of life and the isolation of the human condition. While Friedrich did call into service specific topographical views – the chalk cliffs of the island of Rügen on the Baltic coast, the river meadows near Dresden – his art is never simply about places but rather what they invoke.

[See also: How Patrick Nasmyth brought Dutch mastery to Scottish art]

One of the painters heavily influenced by Friedrich was Carl Blechen (1798-1840). Blechen learned from the older man how to express meaning through natural imagery but was more wedded to the reality of appearance. And while he was alive to nature’s emotive effect it was always less overt in his art. If there is a consistency to Friedrich’s conception of landscape, this is not the case with Blechen, who did not always appear to know just what it was he wanted from it.

Blechen’s landscape pictures can be realist, proto-impressionist, symbolic, anti-picturesque, classical and even industrial (one picture, of 1830, subverts a harmonious river scene with the smoking chimney of a factory mill). In them he frequently combined the conventional and the modern and saw them as the place where both life and art played out and, through capturing nature’s endless variety, he also saw them as a way of bringing himself closer to God.

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Nevertheless, he arrived as an artist via a haphazard route. His schooling was cut short when his parents could no longer afford to pay his fees and he was apprenticed to a banker instead. It was only after seven years in finance that, aged 24, he joined the Academy of Arts in Berlin, where he learned something about the techniques of painting but little about becoming a landscapist.

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It was on a trip to Dresden that he met Friedrich and his friend, the Norwegian landscapist Johan Christian Dahl, although he didn’t immediately profit from their example. When he returned to Berlin he took up a post as a scene painter at the Königsstädter Theater, a role that encouraged a variety of styles and a sense of drama. At the same time he exhibited as an independent painter, often of works with supernatural or gothic overtones, and continued with his dual roles until 1827, when he was dismissed from the theatre after falling out with Henriette Sontag, the lead soprano who had performed in the premieres of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Missa Solemnis.

[See also: Anna Boberg’s timeless Arctic landscapes]

It wasn’t until late 1828 that Blechen was jolted out of this impasse. Although married, he undertook a 13-month journey to Italy, working his way up and down the country from Venice to Florence, Rome (where he lived in the same house as Joseph Anton Koch, mentor to the Nazarenes) and Naples. The sights and atmospherics of Italy proved an inspiration and he worked outdoors making drawings and oil sketches to be turned into fully fledged paintings in the studio. Blechen, said the sculptor Johann Gottfried Schadow – the man responsible for the chariot and horses on top of the Brandenburg Gate – was an “unrivalled sketcher”. Indeed, some 2,500 paintings, watercolours and drawings have been ascribed to him.

Italy brought out a greater naturalism and more fluid handling in his work. Although he did paint ancient monuments, he was more interested in a realistic depiction of hot light and bleached rocks, rather than receding Claudian vistas washed in pastel shades. This greater objectivity was not always well received: as one critic wrote in 1832, Blechen’s “vast, barren expanses are effective only in nature herself, not in her image”.

This painting, Grotto in the Gulf of Naples (circa 1830), now in the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne, has its own share of barren expanses – a lot of rock, a lot of sky, a lot of water. It is a picture without an ostensible subject since the view frames neither Mount Vesuvius nor the city, while the pair of Franciscan friars are mere staffage rather than transmitting a moral message. The light on the opening of the grotto and cut-stone stairway, the complementary blues of sea and sky, and the numerous shades of ochre of the rock are beautifully observed. In a nice touch, the grotto roof mimics a gothic ogee arch so the two holy men sit in a natural church rather than a constructed one.

Blechen often painted enclosed spaces, whether of rock, masonry or trees, and many of these scenes have a brooding feel; not here, however. Monks were another regular feature, a means of giving his scenes both a sense of scale and, as with Friedrich, a way of imbuing a timelessness that didn’t require figures in classical or medieval dress. In 1808-10, Friedrich had painted The Monk by the Sea, in which a lone figure on the dunes is almost subsumed by a cold grey sea and sky. Blechen’s painting is almost a riposte, and here, unlike in some of his earlier paintings, he eschews such moody drama in favour of continuity, a gentle melding of Christianity and nature.

However, the contentment and calm evident in this painting did not last. Although on his return to Berlin he produced a great number of works after his Italian studies and, thanks to the advocacy of the architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel, was appointed professor of landscape painting at the Berlin Academy, Blechen’s mental health deteriorated. He was struck by a series of escalating depressive episodes which required hospitalisation. He died just shy of 42, only two months after his fellow depressive Friedrich.

[See also: Thomas Eakins: an American oddity]

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This article appears in the 24 Aug 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Inflation Wars