View all newsletters
Sign up to our newsletters

Support 110 years of independent journalism.

  1. The Weekend Essay
17 February 2024

Caspar David Friedrich and the art of kitsch

The German artist, born 250 years ago, and his most famous painting The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog reveal the dangers of heroic politics.

By Peter E Gordon

This year marks the 250th anniversary of Caspar David Friedrich, the celebrated German Romantic painter who is best known for Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer, or The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. Painted in 1818, it is an image that evokes the full repertoire of themes we associate with European Romanticism: loneliness, sublimity, and the transformative encounter with spiritualised nature. It shows an unknown man whose back is to the viewer – a Rückenfigur, or figure from behind – a posture that draws us into the landscape that is spread out before him. Poised upon a rocky precipice, the Wanderer gazes down into a chaotic landscape of tempestuous clouds – a sea of fog that is pierced by jagged rocks.

I will confess that among the various critics who might offer their opinions of Friedrich’s work I may rank among the least sympathetic. The first time I saw his painting, nearly 40 years ago, the word that came to my mind was kitsch. It was Hermann Broch who once defined kitsch as “failed Romanticism”, an apt definition, perhaps, if only because it conveys the sense that kitsch wants to be more than it is: it aims for spiritual heights, but on its way to the mountain peak it stumbles and becomes an object of derision.

In his own time Friedrich became a symbol for the emergence of German nationalism: his landscape paintings are dominated by dark forests and craggy rocks, often infusing natural scenes with Christian symbolism. The first painting that brought him to public notice, the 1808 Cross in the Mountains (also known as the Tetschen Altar), portrays a crucifixion on a high rock flanked by pine trees and backlit by a pink sky. The image, at least to the modern eye, already betrays a kind of immodesty, a piety so extreme that it verges on the impious. But what marks its definitive fall into kitsch are the three shafts of light that pierce the clouded skyline like searchlights. With this illumination nature becomes not just supernatural but unnatural, and the sacred turns sanctimonious. A few years earlier, Friedrich had drawn a similar scene in muted tones of sepia on paper. The drawing is admittedly less garish, but the artist’s penchant for high drama still lapses into artifice: the crucified Jesus appears as if he were on a theatrical stage.

No painting better illustrates the difficulties of Friedrich’s aesthetic than the Wanderer. Over the course of more than two centuries nearly every component of its visual rhetoric has lost its original power, and, like so many images that are exposed to modern circulation and reproduction, it has hardened into a cliché. Even in the painter’s own time, variations on this moody scene were familiar in poetry and song. In 1816 Franz Schubert, borrowing from a poem by Georg Philip Schmidt von Lübeck, had composed a piece for voice and piano with the title “Der Wanderer”. The poem reads as if it were a script for Friedrich’s painting:

I come from the mountains;
the valley steams, the ocean roars. 
I wander, silent and seldom happy,
and my sighs forever ask: Where?
Here the sun seems to me so cold,
the blossom faded, life old,
and what is spoken mere empty noise; 
I am a stranger everywhere.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU

The poem, unlike the painting, conforms to the conventional genre of the melancholic’s lament. As is usual in cases of melancholia, the wanderer has turned his back not just on us, but on all of society. Conventional speech has degenerated to empty noise, the sun has lost its warmth, and life itself has grown old. But Friedrich’s hero is different. His emotions remain an enigma – since he is facing into the painting and not towards us, how could we know what he feels? Still, we can be sure that he is not afflicted with melancholia. The Wanderer who surveys the sea of fog hardly seems to have lost his way. Resting his weight on his back leg, he looks secure in his stance; he is clothed as a bourgeois tourist who has merely paused from his wanderings to take in the view.

True, the scene he confronts may induce in us a state of momentary disorientation: the hero gazes downward, but the sea of fog appears to flow towards him from distant heights. This spatial logic (a typical feature in Friedrich’s work) places us both below and above the horizon. But the disorientation is too fleeting to count as genuine vertigo. The ultimate mood of the painting is balance, strength, control. The dark figure at its centre stands at the points of convergence for all its diagonals: he dominates the disorder and transforms chaos into landscape.

This is a perfect illustration of what Immanuel Kant called the experience of the sublime. In a famous passage from his Critique of the Power of Judgement (1790), Kant seems to have anticipated the magical power in Friedrich’s artwork that seizes upon cases of overwhelming nature to awaken feelings of security rather than anxiety. Consider, Kant writes, cases of the “dynamical sublime”, such as “bold, overhanging, and, as it were, threatening rocks, thunderclouds piled up to the vault of heaven, borne along with flashes and peals, volcanoes in all their violence of destruction, hurricanes leaving desolation in their track, the boundless ocean rising with rebellious force, the high waterfall of some mighty river…”

One might have thought that through such experiences the spectator would be left in a state of outright terror. But Kant explains otherwise. “We gladly call these objects sublime,” he writes, “because they elevate the strength of our soul above its usual level, and [they] allow us to discover within ourselves a capacity for resistance of quite another kind, which gives us the courage to measure ourselves against the apparent all-powerfulness of nature.”

Friedrich’s Wanderer has learnt the alchemy of the sublime: in observing the formless sea of mountain fog he seems not humiliated but exalted. Natural sublimity leaves him with a deepened sense of Innerlichkeit, inwardness or inner power, which is uncompromised by the threat he beholds. The Wanderer, in other words, is not such an enigma after all. If he were to turn his face towards us, we might recognise him without difficulty as a paradigm of the heroic individual who has been wandering through literature and philosophy at least since Odysseus. Although the details may differ, a basic pattern remains largely the same: the wanderer gazes upon chaos with courage, and gains in strength when faced with disorder.

In Friedrich’s time, in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, it was not uncommon to see in his paintings the birth of German national identity. Classical values of order and harmony that some associated with French culture gave way to an aesthetic that was felt to be more properly northern and Germanic, abundant with gnarled trees and forests at sunset. It is not surprising, then, that when the spirit of Romanticism had faded by the mid-19th century, Friedrich’s legacy fell into partial oblivion and was only revived when the Nazis tried to install him in the pantheon of their national ancestors.

Stained by this reputation, Friedrich remains a figure of some controversy, and redeeming him from the worst chapter of German history has remained a challenge. Nearly a quarter of a century ago, the late Werner Hofmann, one of the most accomplished art historians of the 20th century, published a monograph on Friedrich that argued for a different view of the artist as a political liberal who sided with students during the post-Napoleonic reaction. According to Hofmann, Friedrich’s imagery suggests not heroism and bellicose nationalism but something far more critical: those brooding landscapes convey the vanity of human self-assertion. Anselm Kiefer, an esteemed German artist of the postwar era, clearly follows Friedrich in his monumentalism and his taste for ruins. But in Kiefer’s work one senses a moment of irony and self-criticism that is largely absent from the works of his Romantic predecessor.

It may be that such debates can never be fully resolved, least of all by consulting the intentions of the artist himself. Nor can we settle disputes over the political implications of a given artist, or any thinker for that matter, by drawing up a record of their alliances and advocates. The fact that the Nazis extolled Friedrich’s painting or Richard Wagner’s music says very little about their aesthetic value, unless we are willing to adopt the vulgar strategies of Zhdanovism that would police the line in culture between what is politically acceptable and what is not. To be sure, we can always detect a politics in aesthetics, but this is a truism since political values pervade all human things. Yet reducing art to its political implications can never tell us definitively whether the art itself has any merit.

This brings me back to my own allergic response when I see Friedrich’s work. This response is not even political, or perhaps it is not yet political. What troubles me in his art belongs to the art itself. Consider again the stance of the Wanderer as he confronts the sea of fog, and ask yourself: does this figure convey anything like humility? Vulnerability? Irony? Suffering? The only honest response we can give is that the entirety of the painting’s composition has the effect of fortifying the subject and elevating him above the landscape he surveys. Everything in his posture, even the walking stick that gives him a third support on his rocky perch, suggests an attitude of stoic ataraxia or non-disturbance. He is not threatened by the scene before him; he is not even implicated in it; his bourgeois dress dramatises the stark divide between his civilised subjectivity and the unruly world.

This is an attitude that can be traced through the history of philosophy from the Stoics to the present day. It is a disposition that comes to the fore especially in modern philosophers such as Nietzsche, whose writing bears so many metaphorical traces of Friedrich’s imagery. In the chapter that bears the title “The Wanderer” from his book Also sprach Zarathustra (published in the mid-1880s) we read that “when he [Zarathustra] arrived at the top of the mountain ridge, there lay the other sea spread out before him and he stood and was long silent”. Nietzsche’s hero further instructs the reader: “You are treading your path of greatness: now it must call up all your courage that there is no longer a path behind you!… Now the gentlest part of you must become the hardest.” 

Nietzsche is so frequently celebrated today for his irony and wit that we tend to forget how seldom he directs this irony at his own heroic ideal. He extols Zarathustra as a figure of strength precisely because he wilfully turns his back on all collective value: with the metaphor of mountain-climbing Nietzsche’s hero displays his elevation above or “over” the social commitments that inhibit an individual’s power (thus the Übermensch, or “Overman”). In at least one respect, however, Nietzsche’s wanderer appears to display a heightened measure of self-consciousness or irony. Unlike Friedrich’s Wanderer, Zarathustra is not a hero of stability, he is a virtuoso of constant change. When “all footholds disappear” he must climb upward, even beyond himself and his own subjectivity. “Life confided this secret: Behold, it said, I am that which must always overcome itself [muß sich selbst-überwinden].” The motif of self-overcoming betrays an unmistakeable moment of irony in Nietzsche’s thought that redeems it from the vulgar heroism of self-assertion. But it does not wholly silence the worry that Nietzsche’s wanderer makes too much of his own strength. “In order to see much,” Zarathustra says, “one must learn to look away from oneself – every mountain-climber needs this hardness.”

In the 20th century, the political and aesthetic values of Friedrich’s image come together perhaps most decisively in the early philosophy of Martin Heidegger, whose inquiries into the adventure of human existence once again appeal to the aesthetic of the sublime. This is by no means simply due to Heidegger’s notorious attraction to Nazism, though some intemperate readers persist in claiming that there’s no distinction between his philosophy and his politics. The problem, unfortunately, is deeper than this.

Consider, for instance, his 1929 lecture, “What is Metaphysics?” in which Heidegger, newly appointed to the chair at the University of Freiburg, asks us to entertain one of the oldest and most puzzling concerns in philosophy. What is the ultimate nature of reality? In responding to this question, Heidegger explains, most philosophers have fastened their attention on the array of particular beings that present themselves to us. We content ourselves with the thought that reality consists in the whole of such beings, and that metaphysics can mean nothing more than this whole. 

But to seize upon the whole of being in this way we necessarily need to gain some vantage that permits us to recognise that this is indeed all there is. The attempt to grasp reality as it is implies some understanding that there is nothing else. With some linguistic legerdemain, Heidegger insists that metaphysical insight implicates us in what he calls a “revelation of the nothing”. In such a revelatory experience, all of the particular beings in the world begin to slip away, and from this special vantage beyond the whole we gain a privileged insight into its constitution:

“Only on the ground of the original revelation of the nothing can human existence approach and penetrate beings. But since existence in its essence relates itself to beings – those which it is not and that which it is – it emerges as such existence in each case from the nothing already revealed. Dasein [in German, literally ‘being there’] means: being held out into the nothing.”

With this grandiose conclusion Heidegger takes his place in the long line of metaphysicians who share, with Friedrich’s Wanderer, the fateful belief that human beings best understand ourselves and our world when we imagine ourselves suspended over an abyss. This suspension is not a permanent condition – Heidegger never means to suggest that we can live out our lives in this strange posture of metaphysical isolation. But he believes that the suspension is nonetheless constitutive of being human:

“Holding itself out into the nothing, Dasein is in each case already beyond beings as a whole. This being beyond beings we call ‘transcendence’. If in the ground of its essence Dasein were not transcending, which now means, if it were not in advance holding itself out into the nothing, then it could never be related to beings nor even to itself. Without the original revelation of the nothing, [there is] no selfhood and no freedom.”

Unlike Friedrich, Heidegger argues that the ground beneath our feet is not secure. What may seem to be a solid ground (Grund) is actually an abyss (Abgrund). But the revelation of this “nothingness”, much like Friedrich’s sea of fog, is meant to provide us with a heightened awareness of ourselves and our world. What we lose in security we gain in self-possession, a condition that Heidegger calls authenticity. In Being and Time (1927), he tells us that it is anxiety for our own mortality that first reveals to us the “nothing” at the core of all our life projects, and with this revelation we are thrown back into “the hardness of our fate”.

What would it mean to derive a politics from this philosophical and aesthetic tradition? I am tempted to repeat the point – and this is surely an unfashionable point in today’s climate, when all topics seem charged with political significance – that we cannot identity any definitive politics that flows from Friedrich’s visual aesthetic. If pressed, however, I would say that little good can come from an aesthetic that places such emphasis on the elevation and isolation of the individual subject. What we can discern in Friedrich’s “Wanderer” is only one instance of a commonplace political disposition that can too easily recur when we believe that we must harden ourselves against the surrounding chaos. Call it heroism, or call it the longing for permanent security. Whatever its name, it is an ethic of hardness in the face of disorder, an attitude that arises whenever we clench our teeth against suffering and steel ourselves against catastrophe. This attitude, to be sure, does not belong to any one culture or political tradition, though it might be consoling to think so. Friedrich himself can hardly be blamed – he did not invent this ethic, he merely painted it – and perhaps by giving it such vivid expression he also made it possible for us to guard against its resurgence.

[See also: The man who lived at the end of history]

Content from our partners
Unlocking the potential of a national asset, St Pancras International
Time for Labour to turn the tide on children’s health
How can we deliver better rail journeys for customers?

Topics in this article : ,
Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU