ART/ARCHITECTURE – Caspar David Friedrich – Free Ebook

One of the unexpectedly important things that art can do for us is teach us how to suffer. It can do so by evoking scenes that are dark melancholy or painful and that normalize and lend dignity to the feelings of suffering that we might otherwise be experiencing in isolation or confusion. They reveal with grandeur and technical skill that grief belongs to the human condition. Caspar David Friedrich a painter of sublime sadness was born in 1774 in Greifswald, an ancient trading town in the far north of Germany on the Baltic coast. It was a beautiful place in a severe northern sort of way. As a child he loved the way the pinnacles spires and towers at the town loomed above the trees in the haze of the very early summer mornings. His father was a modest artisan of few words and little warmth and his beloved mother died when he was only young. When he was 13 he saw his younger brother Johann Christopher fall through the ice of a frozen lake and drown. He grew up shy taciturn and intense. He was trained as a painter from an early age, but there were many years of poverty and hardship before his distinctive style began to emerge. The taste of the era favored sunny classical landscapes. Summer in Italy was the ideal. But Friedrich was drawn to aspects of nature that up to that point people thought of as uninteresting and disagreeable cold, damp mornings, glacial nights by the sea the pale hour before the sun rises, the flooded fields of late spring. Frederich’s first mature work, his first big picture where he started to present his own view of life was a shock to his contemporaries. Instead of the conventional angels, weeping saints and soldiers he depicted the crucifixion of Jesus is happening on top of a mountainous crag amidst Teutonic fir trees with the sun’s rays striking the clouds behind. Friedrich realized then that nature could express many of the solemn moods that had previously been associated with the literal rendition of the Christian story. With time he dispensed with direct references to Jesus all together. But he retained the atmosphere of tragedy and grief associated with his life and death. He found that tall trees mountains, mists, the rising of the moon, the stillness of water at night, open heathland, and fog could carry many the same messages about pain, love, suffering and redemption as the Christian theologians once found in the Gospels. He remains a painter uniquely suited to those who no longer believe but who remain attracted to the serious emotions that accompany belief. In 1818 when he was 43 Caspar David married 25 year old Christian Caroline Bommer they had two daughters, Emma and Agnes Adelheid and a son Gustav Adolf. And it seems on the whole to have been a pretty good relationship. Caroline appears in many of his pictures although usually alone. Friedrich was drawn to painting people on their own as if what is most important about us only comes to the surface when we are away from the chatter of civilization. He himself only had a handful of friends and rarely left his simply furnished studio. Instead of solitude being something that we need to evade with business, drink, or sexual fantasies Friedrich suggests it is something that brings us into contact with our deepest possibilities. He also believes that harshness of nature could put the sorrow of the human condition into a consoling and redeeming perspective. Humans can be cruel, fate can be remorseless, but contemplating the ineluctable collision of icepacks takes us out of ourselve, beyond the particular envy, wound, or disappointment that is tormenting us reducing our sense of personal persecution. Works like moonrise over the sea make us aware of our insignificance in the vast natural world exciting a sense of the pettiness of man’s disasters in comparison with the waves of eternity, leaving us a little readier to bow to the incomprehensible tragedies that every life entails. From here ordinary irritations and worries are neutralized. Rather than try to redress our humiliations by insisting on our wronged importance we can, by the help of a great art work, endeavor to apprehend and appreciate our essential nothingness. Friedrich uses this striking jagged rock formation, a spare stretch of coast, the bright horizon far away clouds and pale sky to induce us into a mood of redemptive sadness. The smaller islands of rock were once just as dramatic and thrusting as the major rock formations just beyond, the long slow passage of time will one day wear them down as well, above the more clouds which catch light on their undersides and pass on in their transient pointless way totally indifferent to all of our concerns. The pitcher does not refer directly to our relationships or to the stresses and tribulations of our day-to-day lives. Its function is to give us access to a state of mind where we are acutely conscious of the largeness of space and time and the insignificance of our situation within the greater scheme. The work is sombre rather than sad, calm but not despairing. In that condition of mind or to put it more romantically state of soul we are left as so often with Friedrich’s work better equipped to deal with the intractable intense and particular griefs that lie ahead of us. Like many artists Friedrich was not terribly successful during his own lifetime. He was admired and his work purchased by a small group of serious people and two of the most delightful painters of the era Kersting and Dahl were his friends he died in his mid-60s in 1840 almost forgotten. He did not know that, in the distant future his work would be deeply admired. Not because it cheers us but precisely because it knows how to reframe and express the sadness that is part of all of us.

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