Sunday, December 31, 2023

Caspar David Friedrich

Happy New Year to all. It took me a moment to realize I had to start a 2024 folder for this Missive and that this is my 15th year of writing them! I am therefore treating myself to writing about one of my favorite artists, at least a favorite from the early 19th Century.

Germany is celebrating the 250th anniversary of the birth of their beloved painter Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840). The Hamburger Kunsthalle is kicking it off with “Caspar David Friedrich: Art for a New Age”. The exhibition opened on December 15 and will run until April 1 with 60 paintings by Friedrich and 100 of his drawings as well as selected works by the artist’s friends including Carl Blechen, Carl Gustav Carus, and Johan Christian Dahl. The Kunsthalle will not be the only museum celebrating this occasion, there will be additional shows in Berlin and Dresden.

Friedrich was a major figure in the movement that became known as Romanticism. The Tate Museum website defines it as “the movement in art and literature distinguished by a new interest in human psychology, expression of personal feeling and interest in the natural world.” Our current concern over climate change and the efforts of much of the world to slow it down seems another reason to celebrate this artist who captured our relationship with the natural world so beautifully. In 1823-1825 Friedrich painted “The Sea of Ice” which is now in the Hamburger Kunsthalle but could not be sold in his day. His imagined view of the Arctic resembles recent imagery of global warming though not on anyone’s radar in the artist’s day.


Friedrich’s figures never face the viewer but are gazing out and away. We do not know if they are actually looking at an event or gazing reflectively into the distance. This image of “Two Men Contemplating the Moon” (1825-1830) is from the Metropolitan Museum.


Friedrich suffered from lifelong depression. His childhood had been marked by the death of his mother two sisters and his younger brother, who he witnessed drown after falling through the ice. One can feel his loneliness in his work. This painting “The Tree of Crows” (1822) in the Louvre reminds me of what Georgia O’Keeffe said in 1921, "I wish people were all trees and I think I could enjoy them then."


Having always been taken by Friedrich’s paintings, which I find all-encompassing, I never paid that much attention to his draftsmanship. I have discovered that his drawings are, quite marvelous. In this self-portrait (1802) in the Hamburger Kunsthalle, he seems to capture his melancholy. Again, we wonder what he is thinking about. Is it something he wishes to do or is he daydreaming or brooding? His work always conveys this introspection which infuses the viewer with that same feeling of soul searching.


I will finish with a quote by Friedrich. “Close your bodily eye, that you may see your picture first with the eye of the spirit. Then bring to light what you have seen in the darkness, that its effect may work back, from without to within.” For me, the painting that says it all is “The Wanderer over the Sea of Fog” (1817-1818) in the Hamburger Kunsthalle. I have always loved the mountains more than the sea, and this image reminds me of the experience of being high above the clouds and looking down on them. I also interpret this painting as a symbol of hope and inspiration.