|Wanderer above a Sea of Mist (1818)|
We are celebrating, then, a birthday. But, so we might ask, what is there to celebrate? The painting is surely not without its merit (we, as public, can still imagine the wanderer’s state of mind, even if we no longer buy into its underlying idealist metaphysics). But, admittedly, Friedrich was not the best of painters. He was prone to cliché and overstatement, as shown by such truly unpalatable paintings as The Cathedral and The Cross in the Mountains. Although perfectly executed, Friedrich’s Wanderer above a Sea of Mists evokes a similar feeling of uneasiness, perhaps precisely because of its technical perfection. We find it too clean, too smooth a representation of a sentiment that we have come to distrust anyway: the idea – or rather, the inchoate feeling – of a fundamental kinship between the human soul and the creative power that has wrought this magnificent landscape. We no longer believe in perfection, just as we no longer believe in a kinship between soul and nature. Indeed, the word “soul” has lost its meaning for us entirely. We, late- or perhaps even post-modern Westerners, have become cynical. And to a cynic, Friedrich’s paintings must certainly appear as childish and naïve.
|Detail from The Stages of Life (1835)|
For already in Friedrich’s own time, his paintings worked indirectly, at one remove, since they typically involve a human figure – such as the wanderer staring over the sea of mists – who undergoes spiritual feelings and who, through sympathy, communicates them to us. We are supposed to have these feelings mediated by identification with the human figure as he or she is enclosed by the magnificence of the landscape. Sometimes Friedrich’s paintings show several people – often two, sometimes more, but five seems to be the maximum – whose feelings and thoughts occasioned by some landscape are communicated to us in a similar way (see e.g. Evening Landscape with Two Men, The Stages of Life and The Chalk Cliffs on Rügen). But the effect arguably works best when there is just a single figure in the painting, one fragile human being whose solitude and powerless isolation heightens by contrast the overarching cosmic community and creative power inherent in nature – at least according to the Romantic imagination (and here, besides the Wanderer above a Sea of Mists, we should also mention The Monk by the Sea as a powerful example of this effect).
|Detail from The Monk by the Sea (1810)|
Our global situation, then, is on all accounts dire. Let us therefore seize the opportunity presented to us by the bicentennial of Friedrich’s Wanderer above a Sea of Mists – the opportunity to look deep within ourselves, in order to re-examine our late- / post-modern condition…