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24 April 2024

Caspar David Friedrich and the mystery of eternity

The great painter, born 250 years ago, made it his lifelong task to depict the numinous in nature.

By Michael Prodger

In early 1818, the painter Caspar David Friedrich, then 43 years old, married Christiane Caroline Bommer, a Dresden dyer’s daughter nearly 20 years his junior. A few months later the newlyweds honeymooned on Prussia’s Baltic coast near Friedrich’s birth town of Greifswald and, during an excursion to the island of Rügen, were joined by his brother Christian. For the artist this was a time of great joy and he commemorated it in a picture called simply Chalk Cliffs on Rügen.

It is a love painting. The trio, perilously perched, sit, kneel and stand on a grassy notch: Caroline and Friedrich look over the cliff edge to the depths below, Christian stares out to sea. Together, the curve of their viewpoint and the overhanging branches of framing trees trace the rough shape of a heart. Caroline is dressed in red, the colour of love; Friedrich in blue, the colour of faith; Christian in green, the colour of hope.

Although Friedrich drew numerous detailed sketches in nature, apart from a few cloud studies he almost never painted en plein air, preferring to use his drawings to make composite landscapes back in the studio. This is what he did with Chalk Cliffs on Rügen – meticulously reimagining those few minutes under the summer sun with those dearest to him, in the presence of the infinite.

It is perhaps precisely because this is a painting composed with great care over time rather than a snapshot of a moment of perfect contentment that it is a work of ambiguity too. Several years earlier, in response to a letter from the theologian Friedrich August Koethe, Friedrich had perfectly summarised the romantic painters’ mindset: “You ask what I am currently doing, what occupies me,” he wrote. “That’s something I can’t say in words. Perhaps in another half a year, I will have succeeded in putting down my thoughts on canvas with the brush.”

Chalk Cliffs on Rügen is full of things Friedrich both could and couldn’t say in words. Out on the sea are two boats, regular motifs in his art and symbols for him of the journey of the human soul – here, his and Caroline’s: these two are on different tacks. Caspar, in a posture of supplication or humility, has positioned himself leaning over the abyss, his precarious hold on a tuft of grass his only security against falling. Christian, as he gazes at the immensity of the sea, leans against a tree but his feet are on the whippy and slim branches of a shrub: like his brother, he too is a slip away from death.

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Indeed, Christian’s very presence was a reminder of the unpredictability and brutal transience of life. In 1787, Caspar was ice skating with his 13-year-old brother Christoffer when the ice broke and Caspar fell through. Christoffer dragged him free but in doing so went under himself, and could not be saved. Back home, traumatised at having caused his brother’s death, Caspar locked himself in his room and tried to kill himself; he was only saved when his family broke down the door. Christian was therefore doubly dear to him and if, in Chalk Cliffs on Rügen, he is drawn irresistibly towards the void, it is because he had already touched it.

Friedrich’s true topic was, and remained, what the Swiss poet, philosopher and theologian Johann Kaspar Lavater called the “prospect of eternity”. This resonant phrase was adopted by sensitive men and women of the age of Enlightenment and romanticism, and for Friedrich it came to mean a form of truth recognised by the mind but existing always beyond its reach.

He described the idea, or rather sensation, when talking about a large painting of 1809-10, Abbey Among the Oaks, in which, he said, he was “attempting to depict the mystery of the grave and of the future. That which is perceived and recognised only through faith, and will always remain a mystery to the finite knowledge of human beings.” He added a coda: “That which I want to represent, and the way I want to present it, remain a mystery to me.” That mystery and the implicit invitation to the viewer to unravel it, or at least interpret it, is present in almost everything he painted.

Abbey Among the Oaks shows a funeral procession in which a group of monks carry a coffin through the archway of a ruined building amid a cluster of bare oak trees at winter dusk. He exhibited it alongside a second picture, The Monk by the Sea, which, with The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818, the year of his marriage), has come to be seen as the defining existentialist image of the human condition: man’s solitariness and insignificance in the face of nature and eternity.

In these images, using the Rückenfigur – a figure seen from behind – he found a way to combine the interior and exterior worlds. That faceless figure is Everyman and his thoughts are every viewer’s own. Nature was both his subject and a means to an end. “The artist’s task is not to represent air, water, rocks and trees faithfully,” he wrote, “but rather to reflect his soul, his feelings in them. The task of the work of art is to recognise the spirit of nature and to imbue it with heart and feeling and to absorb it and represent it.”

The faith that Friedrich spoke of need not be religious and God’s creation need not be explicitly tied to Christianity. Indeed, Friedrich’s paintings can sometimes seem almost literal interpretations of Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” (1798), with: “… a sense sublime/Of something far more deeply interfused,/Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,/And the round ocean and the living air,/And the blue sky, and in the mind of man…”

The mind of man, Friedrich understood, could be an unquiet place. He once spent a week alone in the hills east of Dresden to “melt into the clouds and rocks” but confessed that “even for me it was a bit much. One ends by falling into melancholy.” His aim, he said, had been another romantic obsession: “To become what I am.”

This year marks the 250th anniversary of Friedrich’s birth, an event being celebrated by major exhibitions in Hamburg, Dresden and Berlin, where the biggest show, with more than 130 paintings and drawings spanning his career, has just opened at the Alte Nationalgalerie. So it seems hard to imagine that the painter was largely forgotten from the mid-1830s (a few years before his death) until the early decades of the 20th century. At a major exhibition of German art in Berlin in 1906 the director of the Alte Nationalgalerie wrote that “it is only now” that Friedrich “is being heard” and encountered “with astonishment”.

The painter was later co-opted by the National Socialists, who finessed his dislike of Napoleon and the invading French into a crude nationalism and his aesthetic concerns as pure expressions of the Teutonic soul. Their evidence was scant: in 1813 Friedrich left for the mountains rather than live in Dresden under the occupiers and in one painting, The Chasseur in the Forest (1814), he overlaid the modern conflict with folk memories of the Roman legions under Publius Quinctilius Varus being overwhelmed by Germanic tribes in the Teutoburg Forest. Friedrich’s solitary French soldier is doomed too.

Napoleon was just one of the forces that left Friedrich and his generation profoundly unsettled. Society, economics, as well as man’s relationship to God, had all shifted in the wake of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, and what Friedrich’s figures ask is: where is my place in the world now?

Nevertheless, his pictures don’t seek to provide answers. “What arrogant presumption to imagine you could shed light on the world beyond, to unriddle the future darkness!” he wrote. What they do instead is to acknowledge that the urge towards understanding is universal. He expertly shuffled a series of painstakingly recorded props – ragged trees, tumbled churches, rising suns and setting moons, blue distances, empty beaches and limitless seas – into a series of variations on yearning, alienation and aloneness. Friedrich’s contemporary Franz Schubert did something similar with his Winterreise song cycle of 1827.

In order to turn his paintings into emotive prompts he ignored the traditions of landscape painting and did away with the gentle progression into the far distance with near- and middle-ground trees as processional devices. He preferred instead to work to a strict grid, with the horizon often cutting across the horizontal axis of a painting and a key motif – a figure, a tree, a church – at the centre. He bemoaned that: “What the newer landscape artists see in a circle of a hundred degrees in Nature, they press together unmercifully into an angle of vision of only 45 degrees.” He opened up that field of vision: since his subject was the infinite, he needed to show it.

The effect on the viewer is not so much looking at nature as experiencing it: a painting, Friedrich said, “must be felt”. When the poet Heinrich von Kleist stood in front of The Monk by the Sea he recalled that it was “as though one’s eyelids had been cut away”. In many of Friedrich’s paintings there are no boundaries, meaning that at some indefinable point observable reality changes to an imaginative one – real space becomes the realm of thought.

Friedrich himself was not the solitary figure his paintings might suggest. He was one of a lively group of artists who trained in Copenhagen in the mid-1790s and when he moved to Dresden, where he spent most of his working life, he was a popular and convivial figure. The painters Johan Christian Dahl and Carl Gustav Carus were just two of his devoted friends and students, and as another acquaintance noted: “I have met few people who have such a gift for telling jokes and such a sense of fun as he did, providing that he was in the company of people he liked.”

Despite this, his last years were miserable, marked by poverty, ill health and two strokes that left him paralysed. To paint, Friedrich had once written, it was necessary to: “Close your bodily eye so that you can see your image now with your mental eye. Then bring out into the light that which you have seen in the darkness, so that it now has an impact on others, from the outside towards the inside.” He closed his bodily eye for the last time in 1840: his death went largely unremarked.

Caspar David Friedrich: Infinite Landscapes
Until 4 August, Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin

[See also: Goya’s lessons for a world at war]


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This article appears in the 24 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Age of Danger