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May 25, 2014

#87:  CASPAR DAVID FRIEDRICH.  In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in Europe, after decades of the regulated courtesies of polite literature and salon paintings, fringe artists, often impoverished and mocked, began striking out for the passionate and the unknown.  Suicide, deformity, lurid tales of the supernatural, characters in dreadful isolation entered the literatures; a new vehemence of emotion was coming into music; paintings reached for wild vistas, stormy seascapes, carnivorous animals.  The metaphysical, after the stranglehold of eighteenth-century rationalism, was being sought in the arts.  Robert Rosenblum in his book Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition: Friedrich to Rothko (Harper, 1997) took the liberty of reminding us that much of the movement was very separate from the usual French-and-Mediterranean reading of art history; and we are reminded, looking at Friedrich’s crepuscular images, that not all Romanticism is in the clutched-breast and the rolling-eyeball manner.  The winds are colder here that in, say, Samuel Palmer, and the isolation is more severe; not even Utrillo’s Montmartre walkers have turned their backs to us so resolutely.  There are kitsch elements in Friedrich:  those whispered exaggerations of color, those church steeples breaking the fog like heavenly chorales in bad movie soundtracks.  But there are those gorgeous, uncanny and suggestive skies, those characters staring out to distant points of the horizon, that do genuinely evoke a kind of mystery and that draw our eyes and our imagination with them.  Friedrich can strike heavy—“The Sea of Ice” is one of the most desolating images in all of art—but there can be calm in his gaze as well, and even occasions—“On the Sailing Boat” and the two canvases “Contemplating the Moon”—of companionship and joy.  Friedrich’s a hard painter to catch up with if you haven’t travelled in northern Europe; a few drawings and canvases have reached the States, a few to the Louvre, and the “Winter Landscape” is in the London National Gallery; but most of them have stayed well up north.  For those of us stuck home, Caspar David Friedrich 1774-1880:  The Painter of Stillness, with an intelligent text by Norbert Wolf (Taschen, 2003) and The Romantic Vision of Caspar David Friedrich, by Robert Rosenblum and Boris I. Asvarishch (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1990) are inexpensive albums with terrific reproductions, and a chance to share a painter’s vision both individual and haunting.


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