Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Caspar David Friedrich, Das Eismeer, 1824

In among the odd and diverse collection of the Kunsthalle, Hamburg there is the most spectacular room full of paintings by Caspar David Friedrich. In a collection that has been described as second rate paintings by first rate artists, the room of Friedrich’s must be an exception.

I have seen Friedrich’s paintings over the years and always loved them. Years ago, in Dresden at the Gemäldegalerie, I remember seeing Zwei Männer in Betrachtung des Mondes/ Two Men Contemplating the Moon (1819) and being so mesmerized, as if I was an 19th century viewer, obeying the call to fall, or be elevated into, the highest realms of spiritual experience through art. I felt for a moment that I had glimpsed the power of enlightened vision away from the routines of life, as if in imitation of the two men at the edge of the world. And together with the monk by the sea (Mönch am Meer [1808-09]) at Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin, I was drawn into a meditative trance before this tiny painting. What drew me to the works in Dresden and Berlin was the size of the paintings, their dimensions seemed physically diminuitive, particularly in relation to the enormity of their vision.

The painting that captured my attention in Hamburg was not, in this sense, typical of what I have come to know of Friedrich’s work. Das Eismeer (The Sea of Ice) depicts neither lonely wanderers, and nor is there a world before them that, through its opening up to the figures, invites us to identify and step into the possibility of infinite knowledge and understanding. And Das Eismeer is huge, by comparison, albeit with the same allover density of nature illumined. What stopped me in my step was the power and energy, the violence and sheer magnitude of the enormous ice pieces, rising up as if to meet the heavens, the ice was enraged, with a will of its own, there was nothing the fragile, man made world could do in the face of this retaliation. I don’t remember ever having seen nature so angry, at least not so vicious. It’s true that Turner’s storms have become the reference point for the turmoil and relentlessly unforgiving natural world. But it is a different kind of anger at sea on a Turner canvas than it is caught in the ice storm on one of Friedrich’s. The conviction and threat of the ice in this image seems permanent. The ice is sharp, it is imposing and there is no promise of its anger subsiding; even though there is a glimpse of light as the clouds open above, there is no promise that the sun will melt the wrath of the ice. We know that for Turner, the storm will pass, the daybreak will come, the stillness of the port will be the relief offered in the next painting. For Friedrich, the condition of being overwhelmed and overpowered by elements out of human control, indeed, beyond human imagination, is permanent. Unlike his other paintings, especially those of the solitary wanderer in a Romantic landscape, there is no apparent hope or way out of this cold, arctic prison. And with no end in sight, not even the hint of melting ice, the heart becomes heavy and laden with doom in the face of a nevertheless luminescent and glorious natural world. The ship looks as though it may have been there for months now, and certainly, it has no chance of leaving, weighed down, turned over, left to rot, trapped by the ice that now clings to it. Human failure is the only lasting consequence of our naïve attempts to navigate, colonize and arrest the power of the natural world.

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