Wind-blown Sails, Luminous Skies

The paintings of Romantic landscape artist Caspar David Friedrich lure the viewer with their evocative scenes and haunting shades

THE Romantic Movement, which began in France early in the 18th century, and then spread over Europe, has been variously defined; its manifestations, though unmistakable, allow a wide diversity of interpretation. Most of us are romantics - we partially understand and certainly recognize our fellows when we encounter them. Romantics are seldom members of the establishment, being neither traditionally inclined, nor formal, nor Neo-Classical. The movement that showed itself in philosophy, music, literature, painting, and attitude was in fact a state of mind, a revolt against the accepted code that claimed to be the rule of reason and the intellect against the ancient ideals of classicism.

Loving nature, the Romantics admired the primitive and the common man, the individual following his own star. Subjective, imaginative, often deplorably emotional, Romanticism was governed by the heart rather than the head. At first, with its intense worship of nature and beauty, it found everything ``a type of heavenly pomp,'' according to Jakob Boehme. This period of freshness and innocence was succeeded by sadness - ``My slumber broken and my doublet torn,/I find the laurel also bears a thorn,'' as W. S. Landor put it.

Introspective, full of sensibility, many of these ardent persons, reveling in wild gestures of approval or condemnation, were actually only sentimental, but enough of them were moved by sincere feeling to be able to create great artistic beauty. It is to them that we owe many famous scenes of storms, brilliant sunsets, and moonlight. They were often morbid, fascinated with death, cemeteries, tombs, coffins, and engendered a cult of melancholy, which went with their penchant for the medieval, their love of old ballads.

Each nation showed these traits in its particular fashion. With the Germans, the yearning and longing of the soul, Sehnsucht, was especially characteristic. The list of Romantic geniuses is extremely long - Delacroix, Gericault, Blake, Byron, Goethe, Schiller, Shelley, Keats, H"olderlin, Melville to name only a few, and also the subject of this essay, Friedrich.

The landscapist Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) was born in Greifswald, a small Baltic town. The Baltic coast is not spectacular, but is blessed with wonderful luminous skies, arching over a flat terrain. The island of R"ugen, a short distance over the water from the shore, was a place where there were other elements, however, such as dramatic chalky cliffs. Here Friedrich would sail. He saw all this so beautifully that he immortalized it in a number of remarkable paintings.

His other important subject was the mountains of Silesia and Bohemia, the Riesengebirge and the Elbstandsteingebirge, where he made a walking tour as a young man, and of which he painted splendid canvases. Half of the space in his pictures is usually given up to the sky - either at dawn or in the evening, or by moonlight.

All of these are suffused with a sense of infinity, of the mysterious boundless space we look out upon with wonder and awe.

FRIEDRICH'S paintings include few figures, but he did like to show couples, either two men or two women, occasionally a man and a woman, with their backs to us, silhouetted against the sky, looking out on the same scene as the viewer. These pictures are wind-swept, bare, and clear, resonant with soft light and subtle, muted colors, which tend to be gray, sepia (his favorite tone), yellow, rose, and brown. All these shades are evocative and haunting.

Friedrich liked to dress his personages in the medieval Teu- tonic costume which, after Napoleon, was forbidden by royal de-cree. In this he betrays a strong sense of nationalism, but it is undeniable that he used this dress to great effect in his sparse, lonely scenes.

The beautiful, highly romantic picture of the sailboat, going forward, its long gray sail catching the wind, is supposed to depict Friedrich and his bride going to R"ugen. The couple are on the prow, looking out on a visionary city on the horizon - perhaps some hint of the life they feel lies before them. The man's back is to us, the girl sits in profile. The details are shown with great clarity and fidelity - the rigging, the deck - but the remarkable element is the light and gr ace that seems to uplift the scene, the embracing imagination that includes us all.

In the evening landscape with two men, horizontal streaks of gray clouds are in consonance with the horizontal lines of the two men's hats, seen above their long greatcoats. With their backs to us, they look out on the splendor of the rising moon, caught up in their love and feeling for nature. It is a magical moment, and we sense it with them. (The hats are, in fact, something of a trompe l'oeuil - on close inspection they are rather high and puffy, but they seem flat and wide, contrasting with those long narrow coats.) The whole arrangement of the heavens, the clouds, the rocky beach, and the sea suggests the unknown, infinity, mystery - romance.

These wonderful canvases were shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York earlier this year. They were sent from the Soviet Union, along with a few etchings. The United States has almost nothing by this artist, whose works are mostly in Hamburg and Dresden, Germany. He had the misfortune, during the Nazi era, of being one of its most lauded artists, obviously through no fault of his own, and it has taken some time to disentangle him from this legacy. The woodcuts are of ruins, owls, coffins, swans, and other subjects pleasing to the melancholy Romantic fancy, and in Friedrich's case show his fondness for, and dexterity with, sepia.

To those who remember World War II, his birthplace at Greifswald will awaken a rather curious echo, which the romantics will understand. Greifswald, ``the wood of the griffins,'' was in medieval times supposedly the haunt of these great malignant winged creatures, and it was from neighboring Peenemunde that the terrible V-1s and V-2s, the unmanned rockets that wrought such terrible havoc over England at the end of World War II, were launched. It seems as though, disregarding the element of time, there is some connection here. But, in spite of it all, the evocative, searching paintings of this gifted artist hold pride of place - they will outspan such times.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Wind-blown Sails, Luminous Skies
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today