Caspar David friedrich art

Caspar David Friedrich and his enigmatic work: the beginning of modern art?

Caspar David Friedrich: 2024 marks the 250th anniversary of the painter’s birth. His work also sheds light on religion.

Islamic Times – A painting hangs in Berlin’s National Gallery that still fascinates today. The Monk by the Sea is by the painter Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840). To mark the 250th anniversary of the artist’s birth, which we will be celebrating in Germany next year, countless new publications are flooding the book market.

What makes Caspar David Friedrich so fascinating?

The contributions emphasise the significance of the painter of the century and explain his often enigmatic works, such as the Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. What makes the painter so fascinating to this day? Presumably it is the peculiar mood of his paintings that engages us and corresponds with the spirit of the times.

According to the philosopher Martin Heidegger, man is originally related to the world through his mood. In accordance with his thrownness, it is not something that he chooses, but “overtakes him” from the socio-cultural background into which he was born.

In his main work Being and Time, the basic mood of fear plays an important role. In this sense, Friedrich’s work appears modern. In a world in which the “disenchanted” view of the environment is becoming ever more dominant thanks to technology, writes art theorist Laszlo Földenyi, the convulsive longing for self-forgetfulness in nature is tantamount to a kind of metaphysical self-rust.

The painter is a representative of Romanticism. Ever since Immanuel Kant, thought in Germany has actually been centred on a reason that stands above sensuality – like a ruler over the people, so to speak. Only, at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, as Florian Illies describes in Zauber der Stille, nature seemed to many to be better suited to the worship of God than a church building.

At the centre of Romanticism

In Romanticism, the perception of nature and emotional religiosity took centre stage. The counterparts of religion and nature do not appear in the form of opposites but, in keeping with Friedrich’s iconography, as two mutually dependent virtues: Faith and hope. The world becomes a projection of the inner self. The sculptor Pierre D’Angers sees in the painter the man “who discovered the tragedy of the landscape.”

The Monk by the Sea was painted between 1808-10. The art historian Werner Busch sees the work as the altarpiece of modern man. Friedrich’s biographer Boris von Brauchitsch recognises in the monk “the future-oriented spirituality that needs only the forces of nature to be able to celebrate its service at any time and in any place in the open air.”

Every month, thousands of visitors try to decipher the picture’s message. Some suspect a Protestant clergyman who endures the earthly darkness with humility and hopes for the afterlife, others recognise the sublimity of man in the face of the forces of nature.

Quite a few experiences alienation and loneliness in their contemplation, the nihilism of a world abandoned by transcendence. “Never before has doubt in God, the nothingness of the individual and his forlornness in the face of the elemental forces of nature been portrayed more uncompromisingly,“ writes Florian Illies about this type of interpretation.

In art, we learn that the “true point of view” is an ideological concept. It presupposes a point of view that would offer a view of everything, i.e. would lie outside of everything. However, only a god would be capable of this – it is unattainable for humans.

Laszlo Földenyi develops this philosophy in his book The Painter and the Wanderer: “Pure, innocent vision presupposes an absolutely unbiased and unrestricted point of view, a divine perspective.”

Atmospheric fascination

All visitors to the National Gallery are likely to agree on the fascination of the atmosphere created by the paintings, which draws every viewer in. The philosopher Peter Sloterdijk points out the uniqueness of this art, because “it is the first picture of the dissolution of the subject in the substance.”

However, we see the monk by the sea today, for the painter himself, his work was explained by his faith. Friedrich wrote about his artwork: “Even if you were to sow from morning to evening until midnight sets in, you would still not conceive, not found the unfathomable beyond.”

Florian Illies emphasises the artist’s fundamental religious conviction: “Friedrich loved the stars, the planets and the moon. Yes, he worshipped these celestial rulers. However, he did not believe in their power, but only in that of God.”

Schleiermacher and Goethe

Two famous men of German intellectual history saw the painting in the painter’s studio in Dresden: Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The philosopher of religion visited Friedrich on 12 September 1810, six days before the poet. Werner Busch reports that the artist painted over, simplified and further abstracted the picture after the first visit. Schleiermacher’s influence on the painter’s religious understanding is obvious.

He saw the world of faith as an expression of the feeling of “absolute dependence” on something greater and transcendent. According to the philosopher, faith overcomes the subject-object divide between the perceiver and the perceived.

“Religion does not aspire to explain the nature of the universe like metaphysics, it does not aspire to educate people and make them better like morality. Its essence is neither thought nor action.” In his theory of knowledge, participation in the divine is not only possible in an afterlife after death.

Goethe initially praised Schleiermacher for his education but, as he confessed to Schiller, he lost interest in this doctrine because it was too Christian for him. Throughout his life, he remained reserved towards Romanticism, in which he recognised the exaggerated, diffuse and sick.

Although the poet by no means belonged to the group of rationalist natural scientists, Laszlo Földenyi reminds us, he abstained from the cult of nature. Goethe loved order, harmony and beauty, which in his opinion could only be found in ancient art.

The Romantics, on the other hand, often favoured the irrational, the emotional and the disorderly. Goethe rejected this rejection of classical principles. While Friedrich always remained a man of the north, the poet, close to burnout, fled “from the indifferent sea of fog of public business” (von Arnim) towards Italy. Although he was only a moderately talented painter, he developed his concept of art in the land of lemons, followed the rules of an ancient aesthetic and searched for antiquity in Rome.

During a visit to Friedrich in Dresden in 1810, the Monk by the Sea preoccupied him and he reacted ambivalently. Presumably, according to Illies, he “wanted to keep his own endangered soul free from these melancholy tones, almost in a panic.” The poet’s relationship with the painter was difficult. “Friedrich’s paintings could just as easily be seen upside down,” he polemicised, criticising the “gloomy religious allegories.”

Goethe mistrusted the subjectivity of human perception and emphasised – quite scientifically – the objectivity of light, for example. In a dispute with Schopenhauer, he exclaimed: “The light should only be there insofar as you see it? No, you would not be there if the light did not see you.”

Goethe met Friedrich again in the autumn of 1816 to ask him to paint the types of clouds described by the meteorologist Howard. The artist, who considered fog to be just as inseparable from the viewer, from his momentary state, as Schopenhauer considered light to be, refused abruptly.

Von Brauchitsch explained his rejection by the fact that he feared that categorising and classifying clouds, as Goethe intended to do, would lead to a demystification of landscape painting.

Existential questions

One thing is certain: In the Friedrich Year 2024, the painter’s work will trigger many topical discussions. In addition to existential questions about the meaning of life and death, paintings such as The Monk by the Sea will inspire debate about our relationship with creation.

The German climate movement and the fear of the apocalypse are often associated with religious feelings – in the sense of a substitute religion. As Werner Busch makes clear in his essay, the human being in Friedrich’s paintings is not pantheistically absorbed in nature and does not experience any sublimity of his own in the face of nature in Kant’s sense.

On the contrary, according to Busch, he realises his nothingness in the light of his environment and hopes for redemption in the astonished contemplation of God’s creation. “According to Friedrich, self-assertion, in the sense of Kant’s definition of the sublime as an intellectual mastery of the superior, would only be Faustian self-aggrandisement.”

Here the painter eludes the suspicion formulated by Laszlo Földenyi that the Romantic “deification of nature, its expansion into the metaphysical, is just as much aimed at a rape of nature as an openly technicist attitude.”

Friedrich’s work also inspires other discussions, for example about the current role of religions. Florian Illies sees the painter’s work as the beginning of modern art. At the same time, the question of the possibility of a world of faith based on feelings, but not on a general practice of life, arises.

Abstraction harbours similar dangers in art as in religion: the loss of contact with the real world. A religious practice that is too abstract and relies on emotions causes problems in providing clear moral and ethical guidelines. Schleiermacher already emphasised the importance of community for the practice of faith.

Solidarity plays an important role in practice, and if the teachings are too distant from life, the shared identity and sense of community is impaired. In the art world, freedom of interpretation is desired and everyday life, but the lack of recognised maxims of faith and different interpretations quickly lead to abuse in religious practice.

Only a comprehensive doctrine guarantees a common reality of life. If religions claim relevance in the debates on the core issues of our time, which revolve around the preservation or destruction of creation, then chains of argument based on personal feelings and abstract concepts of God are unlikely to be convincing.

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