Magazine article The Spectator

Truthful Observer

Magazine article The Spectator

Truthful Observer

Article excerpt


The Genius of Caspar David Friedrich: German Romantic Art for Russian

Imperial Palaces

(Somerset House, till 18 August)

In Britain, we have had to rely mainly on reproductions of the paintings and drawings of Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) if we wanted to study his enigmatic and intensely beautiful art. Not until 1990 was the first Friedrich painting acquired for our national collections, `Winter Landscape with Church' now hanging in the National Gallery, and it remains his solitary representation. The greater part of his oeuvre is in Germany - Friedrich is particularly well represented in the Dresden State Collection - with the leading exception of the Hermitage, which owns nine paintings, six of which are currently on display in Somerset House, supported by six of his drawings. It's a wonderful chance to look more closely at his achievement.

The Friedrichs are accompanied by a small group of works by his near-contemporaries, such as Overbeck and Lessing, to supply context, but the distilled power of Friedrich is such that many of the other exhibits disappear into the background. Consisting of only 53 works, and organised to mark the 150th opening of the New Hermitage in St Petersburg, this is a refreshingly focused exhibition, and the perfect foil to Tate blockbusters, however notable they may be.

When you enter the Hermitage Rooms, proceed straight to Gallery II. This is the heart of the exhibition, containing half-adozen oils by Friedrich, the first you encounter being `Morning in the Mountains'. The dreaming distance and soft purples, greens and browns enchant the eye. Mountains were a favourite motif, a way of mingling the earthly and the heavenly in a celebration of the divine creation. Next to it is `Night in Harbour (Sisters)', an image typically of the backs of people, but rather a subfusc picture - always a danger with Friedrich - who eschewed the obviously dramatic in style and content. Light (or its absence) was a central theme in his work, brilliantly epitomised here by the next painting `Moonrise over the Sea', which features the backs of two couples, thought to be not only friends but husbands and wives, and thus symbolising the devotions and aspirations of married life. In the far corner is a mountain painting by August Mattias Hagen, not a bad picture, but much influenced by Friedrich, and inevitably empty and forced in comparison. It points up just how exceptional Friedrich is. …

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