Peaceful images of the outward from within
Caspar David Friedrich's landscapes have all the resonances of truth-to-observation while at the same time seeming to rise up in front of the vision like images in a dream. Twilight was the time of day that evidently interested him most -- an excited time, with long shadows, dark shapes against strange luminosities, colours of vivid intensity, the sun setting or rising. The world in his pictures seems on the edge of space, a romantic silhouette against a back-drop of the wonder and awe-inspiring immensity of light-filled skies. He scarcely produced a work that did not effectively contrast the close and the far, and yet even what is near seems held in remote seclusion. The familiar seems strange, distant, and isolated, and what is beyond is very often suggestive of "The Beyond."
It is revealing to compare Friedrich's art with that of his contemporary (born a year after him, in 1775), the English painter Turner. Friedrich, though his style and composition-making changed over the years, always used what William Vaughan has called a "sparse and precise treatment." This exactitude tunes with the extraordinary quietness of his vision. Turner on the other hand is often stirred by cataclysmic disturbance and turmoil. His style developed enormous freedoms and movements. If his art can be described as the thundering of a primal kind of chaos, Friedrich's is all primitive peace and stillness.
Much is made of Friedrich's presumed morbidity. The otherworldly and even sometimes the spectral seem to haunt his snow-smothered pinewoods: his gothic churches and crucifixes looming out of unmoving mists; his mountain ranges, open seas, and skies; his tree trunks and branches, linear and weird against the light of a sickle moon. But while the profound sense of longing -- of gazing deep into the future and the unknown -- instilled in these pictures does involve a religious kind of contemplation, it is by no means always a romantic longing for death.
"The Solitary Tree" (sometimes called "Village Landscape in the Morning Light") is a painting in the gentle spirit of the pastoral, and as such it suggests man's deep harmony with the calm and benign in nature, with tree and field, earth and creature. The North German artist's version of this traditional theme is as different from the 17th-century bucolic classicism of Claude as it is from the 19th-century English painter Samuel Palmer's cosy sheepfolds, utterly safe beneath the Kentish harvest moon. Friedrich convinces the viewer with a scene apparently experienced directly, there and then, instead of a contrived Italianate composition, golden and generalized. His vision was of the coldm north, and it can't e said to be a celebration of an abundantly fruitful world. And yet this picture is nevertheless a hymn of praise to the clarity and lucidity of morning and of man, simply occupied, as its watcher and witness. It has the air of a revelation, and a settled unity of mood inspires the entire scene. Man may seem dwarfed by nature. The oak trees may dominate like giants and display the rugged signs of having withstood damage by storms. The range of mountains may be frozen in its chill blue distance. But a great spread of green shadow and of fertile green light stretches peaceably through the valley. The village is surrounded by dense summer trees, as amiable as Constable's Suffolk, and the sheep and shepherd seem absolutely native to the present tranquillity.
Writers tend to turn Friedhrich's painings into collections of banal verbal symbols, so that they sound like the words of Schubert's songs translated from the German: completely robbed of poetry or mystery. This is partly because, in fact, Friedrich's paintings (like the words of some of Schubert's lieder) are stunningly simple in form and intent. He was consciously concerned to produce a sympathetic effect on ordinary individuals and not merely on the "connoisseurs." He wrote: "Close your bodily eye so that you may see your picture first with your spiritual eye. Then bring to the light of day that which you have seen in the darkness so that it may react upon others from the outside inwards."
There is a considerable amount of faith in this. Although Friedrich's art has gone in and out of favour, has been "popular" in a good and bad sense, yet the power of its conviction (helped, if anything, by the restraint and tidiness of his style) has remained considerable. The artistry of his pictures is surprising; they seem, at first, suddenly observed. But they bring together an exalted imagination, a careful record-taking, and a vivid memory. Friedrich never actually "saw" this landscape. It is composed of elements drawn at different times and places earlier in his career. Some had already been used in paintings. And yet its immediate realism is persuasive and striking.