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The Aura of German Romanticism

ASK native speakers of English to name the outstanding writers of German Romanticism and the answer will likely be a shrug. Someone might respond: ``Goethe and Friedrich von Schiller,'' and this sounds credible. After all, both flirted with romantic motifs, and Goethe, at least, had been admired by the younger generations of authors. But to call the illustrious pair the leading German Romantics betrays a misconception of a significant phase of German literature and explains why names like Novalis, Ludwig Tieck, Friedrich Schlegal, or even Ernst Hoffman, Heinrich Kleist, and Joseph Eichendorff are hardly household words in the English-speaking world. It may also account for the relative anonymity of Casper David Friedrich (1774-1840), the quintessential Romantic painter whose metaphoric art provides a graphic excursion into the themes of Romantic literature.

Rebelling against the Enlightenment, the German Romantics stressed fantasy, escape from the ordinary, the quest for absolute harmony. Their motto was Sehnsucht or yearning: yearning for perfect accord, for the remote and unattainable, for distant places and ages, for truth and love. The symbol of all their desire was the blue flower from Novalis' Heinrich von Ofterdingen.

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These young upstarts wove their philosophic tapestry from the ideas of Immanuel Kant, Johann Fichte, Friedrich Schelling, Friedrich Schleiermacher, G.H. Schubert, and Adam M"uller; and, although they did not reject reason completely, they strove to surpass sterile monadism and affirm the organic nature and integration of all things.

Chafing under Napoleonic aggrandizement, they created an idealized image of the Teutonic past, but the scenery was more fantastic than historic as knights, damsels, and Minnesinger vied with kobolds and fairies for the reader's attention. Yet it is not just a colorful medieval world that lives in Romantic fiction, for here all intervals of history and personal existence merge into a timeless and universal continuum.

While Friedrich's oeuvre depicts many of these themes, one key motif, the role of man, deserves attention. The technical merit of the painter's human figures is clear, but an understanding of their symbolic character requires mention of Schelling's Identit"atslehre or doctrine of identity, in which nature (the visible) and spirit (the invisible) represent seemingly incongruous but essential parts of the whole.

As espoused especially by Novalis, absolute harmony would be reached in a fusion of nature and spirit when nature gained the consciousness of spirit and spirit the tangibility of nature. This, however, required a catalyst, and man - combining both spirit and nature in his human form - was eminently qualified. Thus creative men and women were revered as the high priests and priestesses of nature because their art, literature, and music synthesized inert form and living content.

Not surprisingly, then, Friedrich employs human figures and man-made objects in an intermediary role. Thus, while people and the things they have built are an integral part of the landscape, they are not necessarily overwhelming and, in fact, frequently defy detection. Yet they invariably form a link between ground (the tangible) and the firmament (the intangible) and underscore the immensity of the cosmos without sacrificing the importance of humans in it. There is also a frequent tunnel effect in which the circular frame of the dark foreground opens onto airy vistas. The people, intrinsic to the frame, are typical Friedrichian R"uckenmenschen or ``back people'' - so called because we see them only from the rear as our gaze, along with theirs, is drawn into the vastness of infinity.

Although Friedrich's scenes are often benign, even those that deal with death and destruction point to a lofty purpose summarized succinctly by Carl Gustav Carus upon viewing the Tetschener Altar (Kreuz im Gebirge): ``God is all.''

Despite this optimistic appraisal, the artist has been criticized for his Todeslandschaften, landscapes of death. To be sure, there are ruined abbeys and funeral processions in bleak winter or desolate cemeteries and dolmens in cheerless settings. There is even the horrifying sight of a ship crushed by gigantic plates of ice. But these crumbling man-made structures illustrate the evanescence of all things human and the permanence of the divine.

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Friedrich, in fact, carefully conveys this message through strategic patches of light in a threatening sky, through lines that converge heavenward, and through birds and other harbingers of spring and rebirth. Timelessness is also achieved through the blending of various strata of time. The dolmens, for example, once thought to have been constructed by a giant race, reach beyond the prehistoric to the legendary past. These megalithic tombs are seen in the present - often winter, but heralds of spring and renewal proclaim future bliss and eternal salvation.

The diversity and complexity of German Romanticism make it perhaps the most German of all movements. It is also the most exalted, most maligned, and probably least understood movement and has been held responsible for such disparate elements as Aryanism and Cinderella. To equate it simply with Goethe and Schiller does Romanticism an injustice, and to limit a description of Friedrich's role in the movement to the few paragraphs here is also insufficient. This discussion is merely a springboard to greater acquaintance with this most graphic German Romantic and his contemporaries.

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