The romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich: the genius with the enormous red sideburns

The romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich: the genius with the enormous red sideburns

The Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) had an obsession with fire. He became nervous when he smelled a wood fire in the distance, his letters were full of descriptions of burned down houses in the area and he was concerned about an alarm system with church bells and night watchmen blowing horns. That was quite neurotic, but anyone who discovers how many of his paintings would later go up in flames will gain some retroactive understanding.

In January 1911, Princess Mathilde of Saxony and her ladies-in-waiting were still sitting around the Christmas tree in Dresden’s Taschenberg Palace singing ‘Silent Night, Holy Night’. When a candle fell, the dining room was ablaze in no time, thanks to the flammable carpet. About twenty paintings were destroyed by the fire, including two landscapes by Friedrich.

In 1931 it happened in the Glass Palace of Munich. A fire broke out at a major exhibition of romantic German art and 110 paintings were reduced to ashes, nine of them by Friedrich. And then the bombings of the Second World War had yet to come, in which dozens of works were again destroyed, including in Leipzig and Berlin.

Fortunately, there is some left, as we can see during the celebration of his 250th anniversary at various exhibitions in Germany. And in the newly translated book Enchanting silence art historian and journalist Florian Illies (1971) pays tribute to the painter by describing his work and life, albeit sometimes in the somewhat sappy manner of a vie romancée. So he starts with a summer sailing trip on the Baltic Sea coast. Friedrich hopes to ‘bring the fabric of the canvas to life with his brush as invisibly as the wind brings to the sail’. Then his young bride interrupts his reverie. ‘Look, Caspar, she says, look how the seals are coming out of the water over there on the sandbank. “Excuse me, Line,” he smiles shyly, “excuse me, I was dreaming.”

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Illies streamlines his book on the basis of the four elements and this generally works well with fire, although he uses excessively appropriate metaphors when the flames explode or someone dies ‘as if struck by lightning’, while the painter smoke a pipe or light a fire. With the elements of water, air and fire it regularly becomes grotesque, although I suspect that the lifeguard whom Friedrich’s daughter marries in the watery part is still intended to be ironic.

Bambi and Hitler

The writer behaves like a romantic in this book. He is more of a storyteller than a thinker and more of a dreamer than a viewer. We do learn interesting things about the impact of Friedrich’s work. This is how the painting turns out Two men contemplating the moon (1819-1820) to have been the source of inspiration for Samuel Beckett’s famous play Waiting for Godot (1952). And Illies documents how the first Dracula film Nosferatu (1921) borrows many things from its imagery, such as later Walt Disney has the cute deer Bambi hopping through the forests of Friedrich. Bambi is released in 1942 and Hitler is one of the first in Europe to watch the film, in his private cinema at the Berghof. It takes some empathy to empathize with his emotion during the film.

The Führer was slightly less enthusiastic about Friedrich himself. The work was probably too melancholic and tranquil for him, while many other Nazis incorporated it into the typical German style that they considered so superior. They had a point there in that the painter was outspokenly nationalistic and hated the French, who occupied Prussia in those days. He even went into long-term debt to buy armor and a horse for the painter Georg Friedrich Kersting, so that he could join Lützow’s free corps to drive Napoleon’s troops out of the country.

Illies does not close her eyes to this war and to the later annexation of Friedrich by the Nazis, but prefers to talk about the compelling adventures of his individual works. About how they took the strangest roads before ending up in a museum where they were sometimes stolen again. Or about the personal fortunes of the romantic painter with the enormous red sideburns. I once read how a contemporary warned that anyone who wanted to see Caspar David Friedrich again should hurry, because he would soon be completely covered in facial hair.

Friedrichs Weltschmerz becomes in Enchanting silence served with restraint, although the tragic death of his younger brother is rightly discussed. When Caspar David fell through the ice and disappeared under it, his little brother jumped after him, saved him and died. With that indelible sadness and guilt in mind, the wildly drifting ice in his later paintings takes on something downright uncomfortable.

Painted on the back

The assumption expressed in this book that Friedrich could not paint people and therefore preferred to omit them from his work or otherwise portray them from behind makes no sense. His ‘Rücken Figures’, people painted on the back, are actually a quality. Instead, they evoke a strong identification from the viewer. Because this way you look along with them and you become much more intensely absorbed in the painting and therefore in the view: nature. And that nature is not so much an image of reality as primarily an expression of an inner world. The painter does not depict what he sees, but what he sees within himself.

In this way, Friedrich’s work is the painterly variant of what the romantic philosopher Schelling once expressed as beautifully as it is enigmatic: nature is visible spirit, spirit is invisible nature. This intuition is a key to understanding why the Wanderer over the Nebelmeer (ca. 1818) could become the best-known painting of the last two centuries. We look along with the man seen from the back and blend in with the misty patches of the surroundings. The fame of this image shows how deeply romanticism has entrenched itself in our culture. Watching Friedrich therefore also teaches us something about the world we live in – and about ourselves.