Caspar David Friedrich at the edge of the imaginable

Morning, 1821

The six syllables “Caspar David Friedrich” reliably bring to mind a certain strong flavour, a flavour commonly labelled “the Romantic sublime”. You get the full force of that flavour standing before “The Watzmann” in Berlin’s Alte Nationalgalerie – at five-foot-six wide, one of the artist’s largest canvases. In fact a keen taste of it comes through from the reproduction in Johannes Grave’s magnificently produced new monograph: for even in small scale, the image giddies and chills. Your imagination is, as it were, knocked off its feet by a foreground that falls tumblingly away, while at the same time a rush of angular forms drives it upwards – from cold to glacial, from uninhabited moor to unattainable altitude, from not much of anywhere to a visionary nowhere. The peak provocatively pokes at the canvas edge, as if at the very edge of the imaginable.

If the picture grips you, it may be because on some level you have a yearning for this chill. Although a substitute hike is not quite what the composition provides – for it offers no point at which to enter the path that rises up leftwards – you might walk the mountains with much of this agenda at heart: to be sent endlessly out of yourself, endlessly upwards, to jettison the homely and the social and submit to the cold vastness of space, as if with nothing human to fall back on. The picture’s remit, therefore, is not so much topographical as poetic. You register that it has been conceived in strong emotion – in a longing, in fact, to transcend emotion – and in that light, the most quoted of all Friedrich’s remarks on his art may start to make sense. “Close your physical eye, so that you may see your picture first with the spiritual eye. Then bring what you saw in the dark to the light, so that it may have an effect on others, shining inwards from outside.” To which the artist added: “A picture must not be invented, it must be felt”.

Quite how to track that process of image creation, however, remains a conundrum. Grave’s thoughts on the issue follow those of Helmut Börsch-Supan, long the leading scholar in the field, and the dazzling literary performance of Joseph Leo Koerner in his Caspar David Friedrich and the Subject of Landscape (1990). The evidence Grave supplies shows that in the case of “The Watzmann”, the line dividing “invention” from “feeling” ran very fine indeed. Friedrich, who was fifty-one when he first exhibited this canvas in 1825, had never cast his physical eye on the mountain in question, because he had never travelled as far south as the Bavarian Alps. Instead, his spiritual eye was supplied with two items immediately to hand in his Dresden studio. One was a watercolour vignette of the peaks painted five years earlier by a favoured pupil of his named August Heinrich. The sheet had come back to Dresden after Heinrich’s untimely death while touring Italy, a loss discreetly commemorated, I suspect, by the most homely component of this unhomely painting – its central, monumental pyramid of boulders. This particular rock formation, however, is one that Friedrich had indeed studied at first hand. He had sketched it fourteen years before composing the canvas, on a walking tour of Saxony’s Harz Mountains. What “shines inward” from the dark of his spirit is a crafty splicing of two separate vistas and geologies, over 200 miles apart.

Was it purely an impulse of memorial piety that inspired the pictorial matchmaking? There was in fact a third party involved. The year before Friedrich displayed his picture at the Dresden Academy, the city’s public had been captivated by another “Watzmann” – the painter in this case being the twenty-one-year-old Adrian Ludwig Richter. Richter’s résumé of the Bavarian Alps, which shuttles down from the sublime peak, via forests and cascades, to a charming woodman’s cottage, made an imposing debut for an artist who would become one of Biedermeier Germany’s most popular landscapists. Nature – so the young man asserted – opens up to us “a broad, beautiful, enlivening space” in which “everything expresses itself”, and therefore it is wrong to use nature’s forms “as signs and hieroglyphs”, projecting on them a “morbid melancholy”. This salvo was explicitly aimed at Friedrich, whose “gloomy, feverish images” betrayed, Richter claimed, the “tension, weakness and sickliness . . . of our times”.

For his part, Friedrich despised the type of balanced and rationalized panorama that Richter was now promoting, dubbing it a bid “to unite all sensations, as though mixed together with a twirling stick”. Instead of attempting to combine the sublime with the beautiful, “every truthful work of art must express a definite feeling” – a singularity, extreme and provocative if necessary. His own pictorial return of fire seems indeed to have provoked when exhibited, leaving viewers uneasy and discontented. For as the writer Karl Töpfer explained, in the Friedrich Watzmann you are shown no way either of judging scale by looking down into the valleys, nor yet of attaining the summit: you are pitched into “a bleak void without comfort, standing high up yet not uplifted”.

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