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  • Sublime views and national obsessions: Caspar David Friedrich at Alte Nationalgalerie

Editor's column

Sublime views and national obsessions: Caspar David Friedrich at Alte Nationalgalerie

250 years since the birth of Caspar David Friedrich, Berlin's Alte Nationalgalerie is commemorating the artist with a showstopping exhibition.

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1817) Photo: IMAGO / Heritage Images

The solitary figures in the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich nearly always have their backs turned on the viewer. Although we cannot see their faces, we know their eyes are fixed on the swirling abyss before them. Their reaction to their spine-tingling confrontation with nature’s immensity has been kept wholly to themselves. Just like us, they have been allowed to indulge in a moment of delicious introspection that is entirely and uniquely their own.

This year marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of Germany’s favourite painter and to commemorate the occasion, a raft of exhibitions, including one at Berlin’s Alte Nationalgalerie, are taking place all across the country. 

In truth, Germany never had an easy relationship with the painter. After his death in 1840, he was all but forgotten until the Nazis rediscovered him, fabricating a link between his desolate, death-glorifying landscapes and their racist Blut und Boden (“blood and soil”) ideology. Even worse, Hitler (never known for his good taste) called him his favourite painter – enough to ruin the painter’s reputation for a generation.

For all their sublime and heroic exaltation, there’s a sense of fragility in his paintings, too.

Only in the 1970s, with the country split between Stalinist conformity and Western excess, did Germany once again turn to its macabre hero, finding in Friedrich’s dark Gothic aesthetic a way to bypass the country’s hideous modern history. The damaged grandeur so fervently evoked in his canvases was a chance to return to an older, truer version of the country, before totalitarian ideology ripped it apart.

One of the focuses of the upcoming exhibition ‘Caspar David Friedrich: Infinite Landscapes’ at Alte Nationalgalerie will be on the artist’s technique of pairing paintings together as a way to express the ceaselessness of passing time. The most recognised of these, The Monk by the Sea (1808-1810) and The Abbey in the Oakwood (1809-1810), are saturated in horror-film melancholy.

In the latter, the oaks’ leafless branches reach out above the abbey like malevolent tendrils. A symbolic commentary on Germany’s scarred history after the destruction of the Thirty Years’ War, it is a painting so dismal and murky, you almost miss the funeral procession at the bottom of the canvas, solemnly meandering through the ruins.

At times, people appear as imperceptible specks on the canvases. At other times, they control and dominate the composition. In the Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818) – undoubtedly the most iconic image of Romanticism – the black-dressed figure (again, back turned) towers above a majestic vista of rocks peeping above a foggy terrain.

Caspar David Friedrich, Monk by the Sea, 1808-1810, Oil on canvas, 110 x 171.5 cm, Alte Nationalgalerie. Photo: Andres Kilger

As a child, Friedrich saw his younger brother fall through the ice of a frozen lake and drown. It was an experience that haunted him, shaping his view of the natural world, its merciless indifference an indelible part of its beauty and power.

For all their sublime and heroic exaltation, there’s a sense of fragility in his paintings, too. The isolated monk in The Monk by the Sea is almost entirely lost in the scene. Without landmarks or details, there is no scale to measure him by – only a featureless horizon of sea, sky and land stretches across the canvas, a piteously vast, incomprehensible space. The figures are only there to emphasise our insignificance.

Like surrogates for us, the viewer, they are a visceral reminder of our momentary place on the earth, adding to the indefinable mystery of his paintings that – regardless of what regimes tried to project onto them – give us private moments to contemplate the infinite timescales of the natural realm.

  • Caspar David Friedrich: Infinite Landscapes starts April 19, Alte Nationalgalerie, details.