"Everything must and can be carefully executed" - On the Birth of Caspar David Friedrich

5 September 1774, the German Romantic landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich was born in Swedish Greifswald on the Baltic coast of Pomerania.
“People are always talking about “incidentals’’; but nothing is incidental in a picture, everything is indispensable to the whole effect, so nothing must be neglected. If a man can give value to the main part of his composition only by negligent treatment of the subordinate portions, his work is in a bad way. Everything must and can be carefully executed, without the different parts obtruding themselves on the eye. The proper subordination of the parts to the whole is not achieved by neglecting incidental features, but by correct grouping and by the distribution of light and shadow.” (Caspar David Friedrich)


Caspar David Friedrich’s “Das Eismeer" (“The Sea of Ice”, 1823 - 24), an imagination of the wreck of HMS “Griper” of Parry’s failed expedition to reach the North Pole in 1820 – often interpreted as a symbol of the failed hopes of students and liberals for German unity and democratic reforms after the Restoration. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sea_of_Ice)


Charging the perception of nature with symbols and transposing the amalgam into a work of art is a concept as old as the cave paintings of Lascaux and Altamira. While the Neoclassicism of the 18th and early 19th century usually expressed an almost mathematical rigour in the depiction of serenity, the Romantic Movement began to explore the depths of the human soul, being and not being, found a counterpoint in nature and screamed it out loud, in words and in paintings. Friedrich thought that art would mediate the relationship between humanity and nature. In his own awareness of becoming and passing away. Sombre, melancholic, deterministic and often mirthfully serene.



Caspar David Friedrich: “Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon” (1830–35). A couple gaze longingly at nature. Dressed in "Old German" clothes, according to Robert Hughes they are "scarcely different in tone or modelling from the deep dramas of nature around them" (Wikipedia)



Nonetheless, Friedrich never depicted an emotional chaos, his symbols usually followed an orderly semiotic system, with rocks representing individual underpinnings, moonrises and ships at sea, off the coast or in the harbour, stages of life, the colour violet melancholy, snow and ice death and the evergreen spruce eternity. Strong political allusions in the days of Restoration of antemundane absolutistic conditions and censorship in Europe made up a major part of his imagery as well – and what looks at first glance, given all the depicted emotional vehemence, like a well-ordered scene, is bubbling under the sublime surface with temporal as well as time-transcending symbols. Like in many other Romantic paintings, humanity, though, is rarely commended with the same detailed workout as nature, architecture or ships. Persons are sketched, the reference frame is the beholder.




Caspar David Friedrich: "The Abbey in the Oakwood" (1808–10). Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin. Albert Boime writes, "Like a scene from a horror movie, it brings to bear on the subject all the Gothic clichés of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries" (Wikipedia)


The second half of the 19th century and the ebbing away of the original Romantic movement saw the popularity of Friedrich’s strict code of imagines fade as well. It was the early 20th century and the rise of symbolism itself that created new connoisseurs of Friedrich’s art – them as well as the self-proclaimed art specialists of the 3rd Reich who put Friedrich on their Procrustean bed as a representative of their rather simple Blood and Soil ideology – and almost damaged his reputation in receptional history beyond repair. A new generation of post-war critics saw his merits during the 1970s and today Caspar David Friedrich is again appreciated as one of the great masters of Romantic landscape painting with a unique approach on metaphysics and transcendence.





Caspar David Friedrich’s iconic “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog” (1818)