Magazine article The Spectator

Deeply Mysterious

Magazine article The Spectator

Deeply Mysterious

Article excerpt

Caspar David Friedrich by Johannes Grave Prestel, £80, pp. 288, ISBN 9783791346281 In October 1810, the poet and dramatist Heinrich von Kleist substantially rewrote a review submitted to a publication he edited, the Berliner Abendbl£tter. Indeed, as few editors would dare - even in those days - he transformed its tone from critical to positive. The subject was a landscape by Caspar David Friedrich, 'The Monk by the Sea' (reproduced on p. 29) painted c. 1808-10, which was exhibited in Berlin.

In the course of his remarks Kleist came up with a startling metaphor:

This painting, with its two or three mysterious elements, lies there like the apocalypse . . . and since, in its monotony and boundlessness, it has nothing, other than the frame, that might serve as a foreground, the feeling one has gazing at it is as though one's eyelids had been cut away.

The subject of Friedrich's landscape - which consists essentially of just the dark sea and sky, with a solitary figure looking out from the shore - may have struck a personal chord. A year later, in a suicide pact, Kleist shot himself and his lover Henriette Vogel beside a lake near Potsdam, the Kleiner Wannsee. But he was by no means the only observer on whom Friedrich's art, and this image in particular, made a powerful impression.

In conversation, contemporary artists as diverse and prominent as Anish Kapoor, Anselm Kiefer and James Turrell have all singled Friedrich out as an important predecessor and inspiration. The American art historian and critic Robert Rosenblum entitled a celebrated book, Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition:

Friedrich to Rothko.

It's true that on looking at 'The Monk by the Sea' you get the impression of confronting the void, mysterious infinity - much in fact as you might feel when looking at an abstract painting of a century and a half later by Mark Rothko. There are several great artists in the period around 1800 - Goya, Turner, Constable, Ingres - of whom you might say modern art starts with them.

Friedrich is certainly one of these. The reason, Johannes Grave argues in this handsome new book, is that Friedrich's paintings set up a visual conundrum: a sense that there is more to the scene you are looking at than you can quite grasp. That - the uncertainty principle you could call it, to borrow a phrase - is quintessentially modern.

Friedrich's paintings set up a visual conundrum: a sense that there is more to the scene you are looking at than you can quite grasp Friedrich (1774-1840) was born in Greifswald, a town on the Baltic coast, and at that time part of the kingdom of Sweden. …

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