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German Romantic Painting from Berlin

By Bruce, Donald | Contemporary Review, May 2001 | Go to article overview

German Romantic Painting from Berlin

Bruce, Donald, Contemporary Review

TWO years have passed since the imaginative and scholarly exhibitions of the portraits of Ingres and the self-portraits of Rembrandt were mounted in the Sainshury Wing of the National Gallery. One has waited in vain for a comparable exhibition there, only to be disappointed by a scattering of shallow displays, rich in contrivance and sparse in substance. Their vagueness of thought and purpose has been excused by casual titles, with frequent craven use of present participles: Seeing Salvation, Painting Quickly in France and, all over the gallery, Telling Time; not to speak of the butterfly-minded Shadows. The latest, patchiest and least enterprising of these is a job-lot from the Nationalgalerie in Berlin, which is being rebuilt.

There is some precious metal here, and much dross. Most of what has arrived in London, which includes five airless interiors and a picture of a curtain, all by Adolph Menzel, is ponderous Hohenzollern dross. Let us make the most of the exhibition, and look at the gold: Friedrich, Richter and the under-represented Nazarene School.

Caspar David Friedrich rightly asserted that to an artist the imagination, or inner vision, is all-important: 'An artist should portray not only what is before his eyes but what he sees in himself'. In that sense, one would add, all portraits are in part portraits of the artist, and all landscapes revelations of his inner world. Friedrich painted with the shutters closed over his studio windows, so that he could work by plumbing his own creative memory. Before starting a painting he stood gazing at the canvas in the half-light until he envisaged what should be on it. What emerged from his mind into the open was intended to create the opposite effect: in his own words, to 'react on others from the outside inwards'.

He added that if the artist could see nothing inside, he should refrain from painting what he saw outside. What Friedrich himself saw outside was shaped both by his melancholy disposition, and by his familiarity in his youth with the harbour-town of Greifswald on the Baltic Sea: across the sound, sombre in winter, of Rugen Island. His inner vision was of lank sailing ships befogged in snow-swept seas; creeping sea-mists surmounted by sails and rocks, represented in this exhibition by his Greifswald Harbour and Moonrise over the Sea; ruined abbeys and shores patrolled by spectral monks; solitary trees listing in a harsh terrain, as in The Single Tree; a countryside heroically gaunt, as epic and cheerless as a polar sunset. Brooding and refining on his sketches, Friedrich often conflated views of disparate regions in one landscape. He travelled from Germany only to Denmark and Bohemia. His picture of the Arctic and the Alps are imaginative extensions of what he had seen on the frozen Baltic and the mountains o f Upper Saxony.

Tier after grim tier of peaks aspires to a dreamlike immensity in his Riesengebirge Mountains, with a sole fell-walker resting on a rock. In The Solitary Tree a shepherd shelters from the rain under an isolated oak, itself weather-beaten, on a swamp in the Harz Mountains, desolate except for drenched sheep. Beyond a hedge and another soaked pasture a steeple-top ascends from an obviously deep valley; and beyond that the crest of the Brocken plunges into the tears of a mournful dawn. Moonrise over the Sea, painted as a nocturnal companion-piece, records a man and two women as they watch the moon emerge from low clouds alongside three broad-sailed boats. The tarnished-silver glow tips the women's cheeks and necks with a faint lustre. Friedrich preferred moonshine to the less cryptic light of day, and the ever-changing skies of the North to the monotonous blaze of the South. Especially, wrote his pupil Carus, he loved twilight. He shunned the very thought of visiting Italy.

No doubt the figure in bonnet and cloak is Friedrich himself. Such old German dress was disliked by the Prussian authorities, since it suggested resistance to the Prussianisation of a previously diverse and regional Germany.

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