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German Museums Celebrate Caspar David Friedrich’s 250th Birthday


IF TOURITSTS’ SNAPSHOTS ARE ANY GAGUE, we remain under the spell of Caspar David Friedrich. The German painter is known for the motif of the Rückenfigur—a picture ofa figure posed with their back to us before an expansive view. A quick glance at Instagram confirms that people still like to assume that pose in front of majestic vistas. In the Rückenfigur’s most famous incarnation, Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1817), the artist staged an iconic confrontation between human and nature. The figure, positioned on the threshold of a mountainous panorama, primes the viewer to experience nature’s grandeur with that peculiar mix of awe and terror that the 18th-century philosopher Edmund Burketermed “the sublime.” A sense of deference to forces greater than oneself, the sublime was a way of reckoning with our species’ increasing efforts to control and dominate nature—and with the fear and vulnerability that accompanied these efforts.

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The wanderer’s bourgeois dress and evident leisure make plain that in the 19th century, at least, this contemplative posture belonged to the affluent and the masculine. But the trope’s adaptation in subsequent art and visual culture show that it resonates well beyond these initial confines.

Born 250 years ago, Friedrich lived in the dawning era of the forces that continue to shape our world: rapid technological progress, increasing globalization, and especially, an industrial capitalism that was literally remaking the surface of the earth. Museums across Germany are celebrating the artist’s birthday, with exhibitions including “Caspar David Friedrich: Art for a New Age” at the Hamburger Kunsthalle, “Caspar David Friedrich: Infinite Landscapes” at Berlin’s Alte Nationalgalerie, and ongoing festivities in Greifswald, the city of his birth. Friedrich is hailed by many as the most important German artist of the Romantic period, but the exhibitions don’t just celebrate the artist himself. They also showcase Germany’s contribution to a history of modern landscape often dominated by French Impressionists. Friedrich, who lived through the Napoleonic wars and consequently despised France, would likely be pleased.

Then there are the interpretations of his work that might have pleased him less. Friedrich’s intent may have been to turn to the world around him as part of a personal inquiry, but his work positioned Germany as a land of deep spiritual potential. By the 20th century, his vision of Germany was being used to support a nationalism based in those very landscapes, making him a favorite of the Nazis. (That Friedrich was born in a region that at the time was technically ruled by Sweden, and that he was trained in Copenhagen, does not seem to figure into these narratives.) Friedrich rarely wrote directly about his work, quipping “I am not one of those talkative painters of whom there are now so many.” However, in leaving his symbolism deliberately unfixed, he inadvertently opened himself up to such contortions.

WHAT STRUCK FRIEDRIC’S CRITICS MOST—both those who liked his work and those who despised it—was that he was doing something at once new and very much of its time. Emblematizing a movement of Romantic artists, writers, and philosophers who were redefining humanity’s relationship to nature, his was an “art for a new age,” as the title of the Hamburg show underscores.

Friedrich made his ambitions for landscape clear in his breakout painting, Cross in the Mountains (1807/08). He intended it as an altarpiece, though in centering a landscape rather than divine figures, it was unlike any altarpiece that came before it. Friedrich’s painting featured the kind of carved and gilded crucifixes commonly found atop mountain summits. Backlit against a pink-hued sky, the cross is subsumed within the visual spectacle of its surroundings. Rays of sunlight cast the foreground into shadow and draw the eye heavenward, endowing the landscape itself—not just the religious icon set within it—with spiritual connotations.

This audacious revision of religious iconography immediately established Friedrich as a public figure subject to both admiration and ire. He meant the painting to be displayed atop a pedestal in a chapel, set within an elaborate frame he’d designed: a heavy gilded arch laden with Christian symbolism. But it was never shown that way: instead, it was exhibited in his studio and later hung in a countess’s bedroom, an indication that there were still limits to what landscape could do.

A gilded alterpiece shows a painting of a cross on a mountain in sillhouette and surrounded by rays of light in a pink sky.

Caspar David Friedrich: The Cross in the Mountains (The Tetschen Altar), 1807–08.

©State Museum in Berlin

While the scene depicted in Cross in the Mountains wasn’t one anyone had ever seen before, it is a view that could plausibly exist. Although many of Friedrich’s landscapes are invented compositions, they are based on numerous sketches he made outdoors. He was known to hike around Saxon Switzerland with his sketchbook. A pencil drawing of a rocky peak (“Felsige Kuppe”) uses sparse but deftly placed lines to create a craggy formation limned with squiggles of hardy grass. Friedrich noted the date—June 3rd, 1813—and the position of the horizon, which extended beyond the page. With these textual annotations, he securely located the picture in space and time, only to subsequently displace that rock formation beneath the feet of his Wanderer, where, faced with the unfolding foggy expanse ahead, the same careful detail barely registers.

To link the dramatic surge of the Wanderer to the very particular sketch that preceded it is, I think, to get at something essential about Friedrich’s paintings. They are at once grand and small, provoking our most potent feelings while preventing us from getting lost within them. Art historian Joseph Koerner has similarly observed that one of the most remarkable things about a Friedrich painting is that “somehow, the painting places you.”

Friedrich gives us a world that looks like our own, but his is an undoubtedly subjective picture, a world imbued with feeling. This feeling derives from what he includes within the view, but also from what he leaves out: his works can feel still, empty, silent, and haunting. Monk by the Sea (1808–10) shows the apex of the artist’s restraint. It is mostly sky, the kind of dense, tonal atmosphere typical of a cold Nordic place. The sea itself is almost black, a dark strip of waves capped with slivers of white foam. The titular monk stands atop a dune of pale sand, seemingly undisturbed by the seagulls swooping around him. Friedrich had originally drawn three sailboats in the midground, but he painted over them in the final version, resulting in a startlingly minimal composition that is often compared to the abstractions of Mark Rothko.

A hazy blue gradient looks almost completley abstract, but a faint horizon line and tiny figure—a monk—reveal the scene to be a seascape.

Caspar David Friedrich: Monk by the Sea, 1808–10.

Photo Andres Kilger/Courtesy State Museum in Berlin

Monk by the Sea was meant to be paired with a pendant painting, The Abbey in the Oakwood (1809–10). The diptych continues the spiritual exploration of Cross in the Mountains but dispenses with the apparatus of the altarpiece. The Abbey offers more narrative content than its companion: it includes a funerary procession passing beneath the Gothic ruins at its center. But both works are ultimately about an overall atmospheric effect, one achieved through subtle and precarious pictorial means.

Though Friedrich was trained principally in drawing and took up oils only in 1807, he claimed not to make preparatory studies for his paintings. Instead, acquaintances described him waiting around until an inner vision took hold. Only then would he begin, starting with an underdrawing. He added color in very thin layers, rarely building up any areas of texture or impasto; part of the strange wonder of his paintings is the absence of any evidence of their making. Subject to flaking, those thin layers of paint have been the object of serious conservation efforts in recent years. Monk by the Sea, then, represents a fragile world rendered in equally fragile pigments.

Silhouetted against the swallowing blue depths, the monk, whose contemplative posture pulls the painting back from abstraction, offers another example of a Rückenfigur, one sometimes taken to be a stand-in for Friedrich himself. The Rückenfigur may have been Friedrich’s attempt to contend with a problem his friend the artist Johan Christian Dahl described thus: “One does not or cannot paint nature itself, but only one’s own sensations.”

THE (IM)POSSIBILITY OF an objective view of nature is a scientific dilemma as much as it is an artistic one, and it’s a quandary that intellectuals across disciplines were actively engaging in Friedrich’s time. His circle in Dresden, where he was based for most of his life, included geologists, naturalists, writers, and philosophers who were together exploring Naturphilosophie, a way of understanding the world as a unified whole encompassing both external reality and inner subjectivity. Naturphilosophie was at once metaphysical and rigorously scientific, engaging with new research into the invisible forces of magnetism and electricity to find the place where mind and matter merge. The movement was closely associated with the philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling, who claimed that “Nature should be Mind made visible, Mind the invisible Nature.” To explore nature was to explore the self, and vice versa.

A craggly tree in the foreground, sheep in the middleground, and sun-dappled mountains in the background. A very tiny figure, a shepherd, leans against the giant tree.

Caspar David Friedrich: The Solitary Tree, 1822.

Naturphilosophie privileged a holistic understanding of subject and world that we can recognize in Friedrich’s compositions. If self and nature are one, then an oak tree could be as resonant as a monk or a wanderer. This is the argument implied by Friedrich’s 1822 canvas The Solitary Tree. The titular tree sits at the center of the composition, rising above distant peaks to bisect the image vertically. The tilt of the oak’s trunk and the animacy of its branches lend it more expressive personality than the shepherd who leans against its base. That small figure, tending his nearby flock, serves primarily to emphasize the oak’s towering presence. The tree’s age, suggested by its size and the dying branches near its top, signals that it’s nearing the end of its long life span. A portrait of this singular specimen as much as it is a landscape, the painting gives the tree a measure of individuated attention typically reserved for human subjects. The Solitary Tree associates looking with a form of care—both Friedrich’s attentive reproduction of the tree and our own admiring of it.

A Rückenfigur like the shepherd, the monk, or the wanderer is often regarded as a stand-in for the viewer—a surrogate self in the big scene—but it may also offer a kind of companion with whom to approach the uneasy vastness of the world. Friedrich himself provided a model for companionable looking in Two Men Contemplating the Moon (1819), which is thought to represent Friedrich and one of his students, August Heinrich. Ensconced beneath an old oak, the two men gaze at a sliver of moon. The painting is characteristically Friedrich, from the knotty oak to the thin wash of lavender-tinged sky. But we know that Heinrich likely saw the world differently; his own work was more intensely botanical than Friedrich’s, transforming the generic green grasses Friedrich often employed into an array of detailed and identifiable specimens. Together, the pair suggest that we each make the world our own, and that locating ourselves within it can be a gesture of shared humanity.

A man and a woman stand on a hill as the moon rises just above the craggly roots of an old tree.

Caspar David Friedrich: Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon, 1824.

Photo Jörg P. Anders/Courtesy State Museum in Berlin

Making the world his own was key to Friedrich’s practice. One of his most oft-cited aphorisms is that “the painter should not only paint what he sees in front of him but also what he sees in himself.” Perception is inevitably inflected by lived experience. Here, it is tempting to read Friedrich’s life story into his works. For instance, when he was 13, his brother fell through the ice on a frozen lake, and died; knowing that makes the cold power of Sea of Ice (1823/24) all the more chilling. The painting was a commission, which explains its arctic subject matter, a sight Friedrich had never seen himself. But the drama of the ice floes was Friedrich’s own design, based on studies of a frozen river Elbe. Their sheer magnitude is so compelling that it takes a minute to notice the ship capsized in the midground, and to consider the human cost of venturing into such an extreme environment. With sheets of ice pressing up against the picture plane, and absent a Rückenfigur to provide a stable point of reference, we viewers are trapped in the unrelenting crush of the elemental, a prospect whose terror is relieved only partially by its beauty.

Planes of white ice are dramatically stacked to form a pile. This appears to be the aftermath of some sort of dramatic wreck or avalanche.

Caspar David Friedrich: Sea of Ice, 1823/24.

Photo Elke Walford/Courtesy bpk and Hamburger Kunsthalle

At times, Friedrich found himself in the landscape more literally.In a 2020 ecocritical analysis of the artist, art historian Nina Amstutz suggests that Friedrich anthropomorphized the landscape itself. She points to a human face hidden among the rocks in his drawing of Harz cave as one example of the artist’s ongoing attempt to locate the human form within the more-than-human world. The suggestion raises a crucial question and a contested aspect of the legacy of Romantic thought for environmentalists today: are we able to care only for things that look like us?

IN PLACING THE HUMAN FIGURE in the world so literally, Friedrich may have been correcting for an increasing feeling of alienation from his environment. He was not alone in this. In Friedrich’s day, a German author coined a useful term to describe ambient feelings of terror and moody despair: Weltschmerz, or world grief. That sentiment—found in works by writers of the era from Goethe to Lord Byron—was used to grapple with the quintessential Romantic struggle to make sense of the ongoing failures and hypocrisies of a supposedly Enlightened world.

In a realistically rendered painting, two black men in streeth clothes stand in front of a grand vista—a sunset sandwiched between white moutnains.

Kehinde Wiley: Prelude (Ibrahima Ndiaye und El Hadji Malick Gueye), 2021.

©Kehinde Wiley/Courtesy Stephen Friedman Gallery, London

“World grief” resonates differently in our era of catastrophic climate change. The German exhibitions celebrating Friedrich’s visions of nature are also asking how much that nature—and our understanding of humanity’s place within it—has changed. At the Hamburger Kunsthalle, a selection of works by international contemporary artists engages directly with Friedrich’s legacy. Many Rückenfiguren appear among these new works, recoded for the 21st century. Swaantje Güntzel injects humor into the motif with a series of photographs of a woman throwing a plastic yogurt container into a stunningly pristine fjord. American artist Kehinde Wiley, known for paintings that insert Black figures into canonical compositions from art history long occupied by white subjects, offers his own version of The Wanderer. Here, we see not a generic subject, but a Senegalese dancer named Babacar Mané. Wiley also produced a six-channel video installation exploring Romantic tropes more broadly. In the film, he makes a case for landscape as a way of connecting with other humans rather than an abstract idea of nature.

A sunset is visible between two white cliffs, and three white people have their backs to the viewers.

Caspar David Friedrich: Chalk Cliffs on Rügen, 1818.

Photo Philipp Hitz/©SIK-ISEA, Zürich; Bottom: ©Elina Brotherus/Courtesy VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Posthumanist environmentalists might take issue with Friedrich’s anthropocentrism, his relentless insistence on a world made for human perception. But these and other contemporary artists featured in the exhibition suggest that we have far from exhausted the humanist landscape, and that it is still worth exploring how each of us sees and responds to some of the terrifying truths of our world. That today those terrors are more likely to have been caused by other humans than by natural forces is all the more reason to stand up and face them. This is the suggestion Belgian artist David Claerbout makes in his video piece Wildfire (meditation on fire), 2019–20. Claerbout’s large-format projection shifts from an idyllic forest to raging red flames and back to a verdant idyll in a 24-minute loop. Like the mountainous panorama unfolding before Friedrich’s wanderer, the view conveys equal parts fear and beauty. Within the space of the exhibition, every viewer is someone else’s Rückenfigur, modeling ways of responding to an increasingly familiar crisis; though Claerbout’s work is computer generated, it bears an uncanny resemblance to the wildfires that have become a hallmark of each summer’s news cycle. Framed as a “meditation,” Wildfire prompts us to reckon with the disaster, offering once again an art for a new, if unwelcome, age. 



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