Humility and Loneliness: The Art of Caspar David Friedrich

Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) was a German painter of the Romantic period, an era in which a growing disillusionment for industrialization and materialism turned people toward the search for a deeper sense of spirituality and greater connections with nature. Like his contemporary JMW Turner, Friedrich sought sublimity, but took a different path to reach it; while Turner aimed at astonishing through horror, Friedrich sought to engender spiritual contemplation, to draw man into the great mystery of existence, through misty, bleak, vast-seeming allegorical landscapes. In his paintings, man is often little more than a modest shadow within the swaths of forest or sea and sky.

As art scholar Elizabeth Prettejohn has noted, Friedrich’s paintings often make use of the Rückenfigur — a human figure, often in the foreground, seen from behind, contemplating the view. Because the Rückenfigur is faceless, anonymous, the viewer is encouraged to project him- or herself into that role. This not only strengthens the contemplative experience; it is also intended to suggest that the scene is not a representation of objective reality, but a version of it portrayed through a subjective lens. Thus there is an existential element in Friedrich’s paintings, which suggest that nature is not inherently emotive or meaningful; it becomes so through man’s efforts to discover meaning.

Friedrich believed that “the artist should paint not only what he sees before him, but also what he sees within him.” A deep sense of loneliness and a preoccupation with death are prolific in Friedrich’s art and, by implication, were within Friedrich as well. Yet Friedrich seems to have found beauty and spiritual substance in these thoughts, and his paintings serve as gentle reminders that the loneliness of human existence and the ever-looming presence of Death don’t have to be received with misery or terror, but can in fact lead to peace and enlightenment.

Monk by the Sea - 1810

Seashore by Moonlight - 1836

The Abbey in the Oakwood - 1809

Two Men by the Sea - 1817

For more information about Caspar David Friedrich and his work, visit Caspar David Friedrich: The Complete Works.

Dreamy and Torrential: The Art of JMW Turner

For the past few days, I’ve been thinking of doing a series of posts about my favorite visual artists, those who alter my perceptions of light and shape and color and so influence my writing. After some deliberation, I’ve decided to go ahead and begin with English Romantic painter Joseph Mallord William Turner, who crafted dreamy, torrential images in watercolor and oils. Born in 1775 and finding success as early as 1790 — when his work was exhibited at the Royal Academy in London — Turner found inspiration in the sea and the sky, both of which served as channels for depicting his own emotional turbulence. Dubbed “the painter of light,” Turner embraced Edmund Burke’s theory of the sublime, which claimed that:

“Mere light is too common a thing to make a strong impression on the mind, and without a strong impression nothing can be sublime. But such a light as that of the sun, immediately exerted on the eye, as it overpowers the sense, is a very great idea… But darkness is more productive of the sublime ideas than light… [However,] Extreme light, by overcoming organs of sight, obliterates all objects, so as in its effect exactly to resemble darkness… Thus two ideas as opposite as can be imagined [are] reconciled in the extremes of both; and both in spite of their opposite nature [are] brought to concur in producing the sublime… The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all motions are suspended, with some degree of horror…” (Burke, qtd. in “JMW Turner and the Sublime,” Turner Museum website).

Thus, Turner sought to convey these most extreme passions — astonishment and horror — through the swirls of light and darkness cast about in storms on land and sea, nearly obliterating the shapes of common objects in the process. While he’s painted fairly concrete pieces, I prefer his more abstract, impressionistic work; the chaotic power of his style is (to me) more profound without the anchor of easily distinguishable figures. The following are some of my favorites.

"Rain, Steam, and Speed: The Great Western Railway" - 1844

"Snow Storm: Steamboat Off A Harbor's Mouth" - 1842

"Shade and Darkness - the Evening of the Deluge" - 1843

"The Slave Ship" - 1840

For more information on JMW Turner and his work, check out The Turner Museum website.

Appearances Are Deceiving

Last night, I took my puppy, Darcy, outside to go to the bathroom before bed as usual. It was dark but the porch light was on and, as we walked out the door, I saw a grasshopper in the corner of the doorway, swaying side to side as Darcy passed close by. I thought it was trying to ward us off, like I’d seen other insects do when they felt threatened, so I led Darcy away, onto the grass. When we came back to the door, it was still swaying side to side between the light and shadows. I thought it was strange that it hadn’t left, but I left it alone and pretty much forgot about it.

I took Darcy out again this morning, and when we came to the door to go back inside, my eyes passed idly over the corner where I’d seen the grasshopper. It was still there, but it wasn’t moving. It was attached to a spider’s web and the spider stood on the grasshopper’s wing, eating it. It struck me then that what I’d thought was defensive posturing on the grasshopper’s part was most likely the grasshopper’s efforts to free itself from the web. Or it could have been that the grasshopper was already dead and the spider was the one making the grasshopper sway as it moved along the web, unseen in the shadows. The grasshopper may not even have seen us as we passed through the doorway.

I can’t help acknowledging that, once again, nature has proven that what I think I see, and what I think I know, may not be the whole truth in any given situation. I only saw the half that was in the light; the rest was in shadow. And I made an assumption based on that. It’s really not any different in human interactions. Or in our perception of reality, for that matter. It’s easy to assume that the surface — a person’s appearance, the way they speak, the opinions they share — are all that there is because it’s all we can see in the light. We forget that there’s an entire world within them that we may never see, maybe because it’s comforting to imagine that one’s individual perception is objective and total reality. But it doesn’t mean that this other, shadowed world doesn’t exist.

I think that’s perhaps the greatest function of storytelling, if I were to ascribe a use to literature (something I always hesitate to do): to reveal the shadows in a character, real or fictional. I don’t mean “shadows” in a sinister context, as the word often implies; I mean the fears, the inner struggles, the vulnerabilities of people who would otherwise be passed over. To fully humanize them. Because what defines us are not just those traits that are revealed in the light, in our day-to-day interactions, but also that secret, interior world that isn’t often (or ever) revealed to anyone else. Stories are there to entertain, yes, but they also offer an education. They teach us to realize the humanity in others, no matter how well we think we know them. And that’s what makes stories so important, so difficult to write, and so wonderfully rewarding to read.

This isn’t a new idea, of course, but it’s easy to forget. It’s something I struggle to realize every day with each new person I meet, as well as with people I’ve known for years. The reminders come in many forms and I hope that, some day, I’ll be able to integrate those reminders into my being so completely that when I meet someone knew, I’ll no longer see just their surface, but the hint of shadows within as well.