My mother's favorite painter was the 19th-century German Romantic, Caspar David Friedrich, a fact which made my early art education a mite unusual, to say the least.
Unlike my friends, who spent their formative years at home in the presence of the ubiquitous masterpieces of Gainsborough, Sully, Whistler, Raphael, and so on -- all in reproduction, of course, -- I lived among Friedrich's solemn and highly romantic images of dark, bare trees silhouetted against the setting or rising sun, ruins of old monasteries seen in the snow against towering rocks and pines, crosses on desolate mountain peaks, men contemplating the moon beside dramatically gnarled old trees, and men and women seated on rocks gazing out toward the sea.
Small wonder, then, that Friedrich's name was well known to me long before his recent "discovery" by English and American art historians who now see him as Germany's most important 19th-century painter. Small wonder that my reactions to his art differ somewhat from those whose interest in him goes back at most a dozen years.
Even so, I cannot disagree with the fact that he was a brooding and deeply introspective man; that his precisely rendered and realistically depicted landscapes gave external and allegorical form to highly subjective and ideal inner realities; that his art was deeply religious and devotional in nature; that he was one of the first to use nature's more melancholy moods in counterpoint to man's wistful search for indentity and purpose; and that he exerted a considerable, if indirect, influence upon American landscape painting of the early to mid 19th century.
All that is obvious enough. But something else is not -- at leat I haven't seen it mentioned anywhere. This is the odd and fascinating way in which Friedrich used trees, ruins, boulders, mountains, as surrogates for himself in highly dramatic and moving paintings that exist not only as landscapes but also as symbolic self-portraits -- or as vehicles for metaphysical ideas.
The notion that Friedrich had intended such a typical work as "The Solitary Tree" to be more than just a landscape occurred to me at an early age. The mood of the picture, the stark frontality of the tree, the severity of the composition, all argued, at first subtly, and then with increasing persistence, that something very personal lay at the heart of this otherwise ordinary landscape.
Even after reading, several years later, that the tree in the painting was actually a symbol of the Resurrection (because new shoots had begun to grow from its apparently dead trunk), as well as a symbol of faith and virtue, I still was not satisfied that I had grasped the full significance and implications of this work.
I had the same problem with several others of his more dramatic paintings, especially those whose stark, frontal images demanded that I identify closely with them. The learned interpretations of these works came close to "explaining" them, but never quite close enough to remove the feeling that the full meaning of these paintings was still eluding me.
I received my first hint of what that "meaning" might be after a painter-friend explained that he himself loved to paint hulking, powerful, frontally composed trees because they gave him the opportunity to create emotional representations of himself without actually committing himself to a self-portrait; that he could, by this device, create symbolic projections of his feelings about life and about himself.
With this in mind, I reexamined those of Friedrich's works that had puzzled me and found that, in an odd sort of way, they did indeed seem to exist as symbolic self-portraits. Not entirely, however, for their allegorical content, and their existence as landscape, were of equal importance. And yet that interpretation seemed to fit sufficiently for me to feel comfortable with the idea that Friedrich had at times seen landscape painting as an indirect form of self-examination.
I don't mean that everything he saw was utilized in such a fashion -- a gnarled tree, a dramatic ruin against a moonlit sky, a mountain peak -- I mean only that he transferred some of his most crucial feelings about himself and his relationship to God and the universe onto these objects. And in doing so gave us painting like "The Solitary Tree" which can be read on several levels: as landscapes, as metaphysical allegories, and as symbolic projections of how he saw and felt about himself.
Now I know that all this allegory and hidden meaning go very much against the grain of our age, with its feeling that painting is largely a formal affair and that realism, when permitted at all, should remain simple and straightforward. But we are dealing here with a time and a place that saw art very differently -- and with an artist for whom art was not a device for pattern, design, or verisimilitude, but an agent of divine truth.