Friedrich's Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon(1830-35). The emotional communion between people and nature is a long standing theme in art, extending deep into antiquity. This work is on display at the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin.
German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) is an artist whose work has the ability to inspire creativity, as well as divide opinion. Many descriptions of his work seem to focus on their contemplative nature as a precursor to the anxieties that would plague later artistic movements. One of the most well known recollections was French Sculptor David D'Angers' description of his work as a "tragedy of the landscape" - highlighting the ability of Friedrich's atmospheric pieces to produce a strong emotional resonance.
What was interesting to me was the notion of artists like Friedrich being anti-classical. Some like to extrapolate a social commentary from Friedrich's work. Indeed in the 1930s the Nazis used to reference Friedrich's work as iconocially German.
Like with any creative endeavour however, an artist's visual language is not merely influenced by their own personal experiences, but build upon visual traditions of the past. Looking at Friedrich's amazing ambience, despite the absence of clear iconographical markers of classical themes, one can not escape from the parallel to past artists equally entranced by the mystical landscape.
The controversial Il Tramonto(1505), an evocative landscape that drips with Giorgione's reverence of nature, though the attribution is still contested. This painting is housed at the National Gallery London.
Much has been said about the influence of Venetian master Giorgione on landscape painting. Whilst he was not the first Italian artist to depict the landscape, he did imbue it with a sense of magic and mystery that was to permeate the ages, influencing not only a band of contemporary followers, but onward in time to artists such as J.M.W Turner, Friedrich and even the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
A glimpse into the future - the background landscape in Leonardo's Annunciation(1472-5) hints at the mystical landscapes that was to become prominent in Giorgione and later artists. An amazing hi-res image can be seen at haltadefinizione.com
The Magic Circle(1886) by Pre-Raphaelite painter J.W Waterhouse - This often overlooked marvel conjurs a deeply mystical ambience, accentuated by the depiction of the primordial landscape in the background.
This 'mystical landscape' is not anti-classical at all, and in fact has its roots in the writings of antiquity. What greater symbol of this mysticism is there than the Oracle of Delphi? A prominent site in antiquity for over 1000 years, it was an earthly realm of the divine, a place where mortals could commune with the Gods in seeking answers to questions plaguing their lives.
The Oracle at Delphi epitomised the union of nature and divinity
As Giorgione extrapolated on the Renaissance adaptations of classically inspired pastoral works, such as poet Jacopo Sannazzaro's(1458-1530) Arcadia, Friedrich repurposed the imagery of his native Baltic into a landscape of reverence and contemplation. His images are as much a Germanic version of Arcadia as Giorgione's works are of Italy. Despite the absence of classical motifs, the reverence of nature as a divine power dwarfing the human soul is something that will always echo through time.
Turner's Snowstorm: Hannibal and his Army crossing The Alps(1812) is an awe-inspiring landscape painting. Due to his depiction of themes and scenes from antiquity, Turner's classical influences are much easier to cite.
I believe this dimension of Friedrich's work is not sufficiently explored. Other seem more intent on associating his work with the emotional gravitas of later artists such as Edvard Munch(1863-1944) and Mark Rothko(1903-1970). This influence is of course present, but there is also something deeper and primordial churning underneath, which parallels beautifully with themes from antiquity and the Renaissance.