24 ottobre 2004
The Sunday Times
Cristin Leach
Old romantics tug at the heart
The German Romanticism show at the National Gallery seems dated but is strangely uplifting
The recent landscape show by Gottfried Helnwein at the Crawford Gallery in Cork contained a homage to Friedrich’s The Wreck of the Hope, while the current Walker & Walker exhibition at the Royal Hibernian Academy features a three-dimensional recreation of his work Wanderer in the Mist. Because it is a show culled from the extensive collection of Berlin’s Nationalgalerie, A German Dream does not include these two key works, both of which are in Hamburg’s Kunsthalle, but the six works that are included still offer a tantalising taster. They point the way to understanding Friedrich’s iconic idealism and energy, but what they highlight even more pointedly is the need for a comprehensive retrospective of the artist’s work.
Untitled (After Caspar David Friedrich)
mixed media (oil and acrylic on canvas), 1998, 200 x 260 cm / 78 x 102''
In 1975 Samuel Beckett stood before a canvas in Berlin and said: “This was the source of Waiting for Godot, you know.” He was speaking to the theatre scholar Ruby Cohn and referring to Caspar David Friedrich’s romantic masterpiece Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon (1818/24), a painting currently on show at the National Gallery of Ireland.
With such a resonance for contemporary viewers, it’s no surprise that Friedrich’s painting has been extracted from an otherwise chronological layout to make it the first canvas encountered by visitors to A German Dream, Masterpieces of Romanticism from the Nationalgalerie Berlin. It’s an important early hook for an exhibition that features names and a movement in European painting with which many people are unlikely to be familiar.
In fact, it is generally accepted that the visual inspiration for Beckett’s famous play was an earlier version of the scene in which two men, rather than a man and woman, stare at the Moon. Beckett would have seen it in Dresden, but he is also likely to have seen the Berlin painting during his travels around Germany in the 1930s. Even so, Beckett’s muse Friedrich remains the star player in a team of relative unknowns.
If Friedrich was the golden boy of a movement almost written out of art history until its rediscovery at the Nationalgalerie’s centenary exhibition in 1906, he was also in tune with his peers’ concerns and themes. The German romantics subscribed to a world view more generally associated with the literature of the time, a shift towards the expression of emotions as reflected in the landscape, a search for inner truth. The stereotype of the artist as a tortured, solitary genius destined to die young has its origins in romanticism.
Most of the works in A German Dream share a certain moody urge, a yearning for answers to the mysteries of the universe and man’s place in it. Carl Gustav Carus’s image of a lone pilgrim at the foot of a steep mountain gorge or another couple by Friedrich, struggling to keep a fire going in a starkly moonlit forest, are visual representations of the argument that truth could only be reached through commune with what Goethe called “the living garment of God”: in other words, nature.
As a movement, German Romanticism has all the recognisable tenets of a religion: inner reflection and solitary meditation as a route to understanding and truth. Its proponents were often like visionaries, preachers of this new religion of nature. Philipp Otto Runge, Germany’s answer to William Blake, even planned a series of paintings to decorate a church for this new cult.
Runge is underrepresented in this show, but there is an unfinished portrait of his wife and son. It encompasses the birth-life-death regeneration theme that preoccupied him, but also displays clear visual ties to Madonna and child iconography.
In common with religion, German Romanticism used allegory to preach its message. The lone wanderer is man on his life’s voyage, the distant moon — or, as in Carl Blechen’s dank Mountain Gorge in Winter (1825), the glow of a domestic window — suggestive of possible salvation.
Friedrich saw painting as a higher pursuit with spiritual ends. He believed artists should transfer to canvas not just what they saw around them but what they envisaged in their mind’s eye. Contributing to this idea of the artist working in monk-like seclusion, driven only by the beauty of his inner vision, A German Dream includes an 1812 portrait of Friedrich by Georg Friedrich Kersting. It shows the artist hard at work in his studio, a room entirely devoid of visual stimulation.
But the concerns of some of Friedrich’s peers were occasionally more worldly. A group who became known as the Nazarenes settled in Rome for a time seeking inspiration from medieval and Renaissance religious art, but the Germans brought their own symbolism with them: in Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld’s The Annunciation (1820) the angel’s wing is striped black, red and gold, representing the colours of the German army during the Napoleonic wars.
National identity and political reunification were key drivers for the romantics. Architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel argued for a united German identity in his idealised landscapes dominated by gothic cathedrals. This was an element of German romanticism hijacked by Hitler in the 1930s.
Other artists like Moritz von Schwind were influenced by the Nazarenes but drew more inspiration from fairytales as seen in The Rose/The Artist’s Journey (1846/47). Ernst Ferdinand Oehme painted castles with glowing windows and knights in shining armour, while Johann Erdmann Hummel prioritised scientific observation in paintings of the technical innovation involved in making an enormous granite bowl.
Although seemingly disparate, all are united by a notion derived from that search for something beyond the sublime, a vision of eternity, beauty, truth. Even so, while the Nazarene brotherhood and the work of Runge in particular were to have an influence on England’s Pre-Raphaelites, Friedrich is the one whose work has truly stood the test of time. Much of the value in A German Dream lies in the rare opportunity to place him in context.
Today, his reputation rests more on his ongoing influence than his perceived superiority to his contemporaries. From Edvard Munch to Mark Rothko, Joseph Beuys to Anselm Kiefer, artists have continued to make reference to Friedrich’s particular brand of romanticism. Like a never-before heard word that becomes indispensable once encountered, the name Caspar David Friedrich is one which, once mentioned, keeps popping up.
The recent landscape show by Gottfried Helnwein at the Crawford Gallery in Cork contained a homage to Friedrich’s The Wreck of the Hope, while the current Walker & Walker exhibition at the Royal Hibernian Academy features a three-dimensional recreation of his work Wanderer in the Mist. Because it is a show culled from the extensive collection of Berlin’s Nationalgalerie, A German Dream does not include these two key works, both of which are in Hamburg’s Kunsthalle, but the six works that are included still offer a tantalising taster. They point the way to understanding Friedrich’s iconic idealism and energy, but what they highlight even more pointedly is the need for a comprehensive retrospective of the artist’s work.
Friedrich’s is a limited vision, however. To the modern mind it whiffs of quaint idealism. But if the moral assumptions that underpin much of the Romantics’ work have dated, the basic human aspiration behind their strangely uplifting works has not.
The Silent Glow of the Avant-Garde I
photograph, oil and acrylic on canvas, 1986, 120 x 340 cm / 47 x 133''
A German Dream is at the Millennium Wing of the National Gallery of Ireland until January 30
THE DIVIDED SELF
Peter Gorsen
"Der Untermensch"
Edition Braus, Heidelberg
1. June 1988
Gottfried Helnwein in his self-portraits

Je est un autre, RIMBAUD.




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