Sunday, 22 June 2014


“The strongest man on earth is he who stands most alone.” - Henrik Ibsen

For Art Sunday today, a bit of an odd fish: Caspar David Friedrich, born September 5, 1774, in Greifswald, Germany and died May 7, 1840, Dresden, Saxony. Friedrich was a pioneer early 19th-century German Romantic painter. His vast, mysterious landscapes and seascapes symbolised man’s helplessness against the forces of nature and did much to establish the idea of the sublime as a central issue in the Romantic movement.

Friedrich studied from 1794 to 1798 in Copenhagen, but was largely self-taught. Settling at Dresden, he became a member of an artistic and literary circle that included the painter Philipp Otto Runge and the writers Ludwig Tieck and Novalis. His drawings in sepia, executed in his neat early style, won Goethe’s approval and a prize from the Weimar Art Society in 1805.

His first important oil painting, “The Cross in the Mountains” (c. 1807), established his mature style, characterised by an intense sense of isolation, and was an attempt to replace the traditional symbology of religious painting with one drawn from nature. Other symbolic landscapes, such as “Shipwreck in the Ice” (1822), reveal his fatalism and obsession with death. In 1824 he was made professor of the Dresden academy. For a long time his work was forgotten; but it was revived when the 20th century recognised its own existential isolation in his work.

“Autumn Moon”, above, is perhaps Friedrich’s most famous painting and epitomises his thematic choices, his technique and “look”. I have always found this painting tranquil, yet at the same time disquieting. There is an air of mystery as well as repose, but also a sense impending action as the mysterious figures contemplating the moon may at any time begin to move towards the depths of the landscape. The viewer participates in the communion of the figures with nature. Fascination with the moon ran high among the German Romantics, who regarded the motif as an object of pious contemplation.

Romanticism was an attitude or intellectual orientation that characterised many works of literature, painting, music, architecture, criticism, and historiography in Western civilisation over a period from the late 18th to the mid-19th century. Romanticism can be seen as a rejection of the precepts of order, calm, harmony, balance, idealisation, and rationality that typified Classicism in general and late 18th-century Neoclassicism in particular. It was also to some extent a reaction against the Enlightenment and against 18th-century rationalism and physical materialism in general.

Romanticism emphasised the individual, the subjective, the irrational, the imaginative, the personal, the spontaneous, the emotional, the visionary, and the transcendental. Among the characteristic attitudes of Romanticism were the following: A deepened appreciation of the beauties of nature; a general exaltation of emotion over reason and of the senses over intellect; a turning in upon the self and a heightened examination of human personality and its moods and mental potentialities; a preoccupation with the genius, the hero, and the exceptional figure in general, and a focus on his passions and inner struggles; a new view of the artist as a supremely individual creator, whose creative spirit is more important than strict adherence to formal rules and traditional procedures.

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