Magazine article Artforum International

Heaven on Earth: Cordula Grewe on Caspar David Friedrich

Magazine article Artforum International

Heaven on Earth: Cordula Grewe on Caspar David Friedrich

Article excerpt

"THE WORLD MUST BE ROMANTIcized," the young German poet Novalis exclaimed in 1798. It was a call to give "the ordinary an elevated meaning, the commonplace a mysterious aspect, the familiar the dignity of the unfamiliar, the finite an appearance of infinity." For Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840), this ambition--to bring forth the invisible from the visible--defined the highest mission of art. His unswerving pursuit of this goal established him as the quintessential German Romantic painter. A retrospective opening this month at the Folkwang Museum in Essen, Germany, investigates not only Friedrich's pivotal contribution to the nineteenth-century movement but also his modernist impulses. "Caspar David Friedrich: Inventing Romanticism" will be the most important major exhibition of the artist's work since 1974, when pathbreaking exhibitions in Hamburg and Dresden marked the bicentenary of Friedrich's birth. The Essen show gathers together more than one hundred works on paper and eighty oil paintings, including The Chalk Cliffs on Rugen, ca. 1818, which has never been shown outside its home at the Museum Oskar Reinhart in Winterthur, Switzerland, and the seminal Cross in the Mountains (Tetschen Altar), 1807-1808, which will leave the Galerie Neue Meister in Dresden for the first time in thirty years.

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The world that Friedrich set out to romanticize was indeed the one most familiar to him. He depicted his friends, family, immediate surroundings, and, above all, the landscape of his heimat--the moonlit coastlines of the Baltic Sea, the gentle shapes of Saxony's mountain ranges, and the dramatic white chalk cliffs of Rugen, a northern island and favorite destination for the emerging bourgeois leisure industry. Only rarely did Friedrich venture beyond his own experience and imagine unknown places, as in his Sea of Ice, ca. 1823-24, where a great pyramid of shattered ice consumes the crushed remains of a majestic sailing ship, a cold grave for man's hope and prowess. Mostly, he was concerned with immediate observation, focusing on such subjects as boats in the harbor and dreamy cloister ruins; gnarled oaks and evergreen firs; the shapes of rocks, mountains, and clouds; and the nuances of the weather. Nothing was too small or too insignificant to escape his probing eye and the commanding dash of his pencil. Once in his studio, however, he turned his back on the world outside. "Close your eyes," Friedrich instructed the student painter, "so that your picture will first appear before your mind's eye. Then bring to the light of day what you first saw in the inner darkness, and let it be reflected back into the minds of others."

Before his inner eye, the ordinary, the commonplace, and the familiar collapsed into mysterious particles, from which Friedrich built his vision of human existence. He imbued this vision with a symbolic aura, produced through a subtle choreography of light and darkness, the isolation of single figures or trees against vast stretches of sky, and the mysterious effects of fog, mist, and haze. The results are highly personal, meditative images whose intensity does not derive from exotic settings, languid sensuality, passionate expressions of feeling, or an enforced sense stimulation, as do the works of French Romantics such as Delacroix. Rather, they seize the viewer through psychological depth and penetrating mood. Even in the face of disaster, Friedrich's paintings are serene and tranquil. Instead of the pyrotechnics of Delacroix's boldly applied colors, Friedrich favored the cool precision of line and thinly applied paint, as if to suggest that the totality of creation can only be known through the infinite diversity of exactly rendered things. …

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