Monday, March 19, 2018

On the bicentennial of Caspar David Friedrich’s 'Wanderer above a Sea of Mist' (part I)

Wanderer above a Sea of Mist (1818)
In 1818 Caspar David Friedrich painted his iconic Wanderer above a Sea of Mists. It expresses perfectly the philosophical vision of German Romanticism: Nature as the Art of the Absolute, the mirror in which The Subject sees its unfathomable depths reflected – just as Friedrich’s wanderer looks out over the cloud filled canyon, contemplating his own destiny in the vastness of the landscape.

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 clich
é 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)
But is this something to boast about? We may hurl accusations at Friedrich’s painting – cliché, sentimental, outdated – but it hurls its own accusation right back at us: “Why are you so cynical? Is that a good thing? Does cynicism make you happy? Is cynicism truly necessary?” In that sense, the intended effect of Friedrich’s paintings – to arouse spiritual self-contemplation by reflection on (or in) a landscape – still works, but now it works more indirectly.

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 R
ügen). 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)
But we, as cynics, no longer share the Romantic imagination. Therefore, as I said earlier, the intended effect of Friedrich’s paintings works even more indirectly now, at double remove we might say. For as Friedrich’s paintings hurl their own accusation at us, questioning our complacent cynicism, we are still moved to self-contemplation by his landscapes. But now it is no longer our own soul, let alone some Absolute Ego deep within us, which is reflected back to us by Friedrich’s landscapes. What is reflected back to us is rather the abyss of our own emptiness, our own lack of soul, our loss of the Absolute, the ‘Death of God’ that we have endured “after Auschwitz”, after the derailment of Social Progress in Max Weber’s “golden cage” of capitalism (a cage, moreover, that for most people is not golden at all, but rather made of cold hard iron), after the scientific “disenchantment of the world” (Weber again), after the industrial and consumerist destabilization of nature, after the failure of liberal democracy to effectuate real change for the better, after the public loss of confidence in politics, after the loss of confidence in Truth...

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… 

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