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Romanticism and Caspar David Friederich

The ideas of Caspar David Friedrich and Philipp Otto Runge on painting were formed within the milieu of the German transcendentalists. Living in Dresden, Friedrich could hardly have been unaware of the ideas of such Romantic writers and critics as Tieck, Novalis and the Schlegel brothers. Inspired by Kant, Schiller and that earlier mystic, Jacob Boehme, they had brought new dimensions to the emotive awareness of nature that had spread throughout Europe in the late 18th century through the influence of Rousseau and the English nature poets. And although writers and philosophers could not provide painters with the pictorial means for discovering emotive symbols in the imagery of nature, they certainly seem to have influenced their approach towards pictorial conceptions.

The emergence of a philosophy of Nature, bordering on mysticism and pantheism, and for which FWJ von Schelling was the spokesman, opened new means of expression for landscape painting, as well as an opportunity of extending its scope. It is interesting to note that Friedrich's Altarpiece for Tetschen Castle (1808) was painted a year after Schelling's address "Concerning the relationship of the creative arts and nature" (1807). Schelling believed that one creative spirit pervades both the physical world and individual consciousness. Art required that the two opposite components of mind, the conscious and
the unconscious, be reconciled. Of the two, the unconscious to him was the more important. He believed that the reflective and critical part of the mind, which was schooled and advanced through academic training and education, could not in itself produce art. It was the unconscious energy which man shared with nature that encouraged him to produce works of art which, like nature, have life and carry meaning. Art was to him, then, not a calculated abstraction from nature but a genuine parallel creation.

Caspar David Friedrich, whose greatest achievement lies in his new approach to pure landscape imagery, was deeply influenced by these writings, as well as by those with which he became acquainted in his youth in Pomerania, Dear the Baltic Sea. His ideas and aspirations grew directly out of the world in which he lived. LT Kosegarten, whose writings reflected the ascetic attitude of Northern Protestantism, was amongst those who demanded the priority of the spiritual over material reality, and who regarded nature as the only physical manifestation of an inner life and as a continuous activity which corresponded to the agitation of the human mind.

Karl Gustav Carus was a physician as well as a painter, who combined his scientific interest in natural phenomena with a love of art. Influenced by Schelling's philosophy, he applied his theories to Friedrich's landscape painting. His Nine letters on landscape painting (1831) are an important 19th century document on Romantic painting. Art, according to Carus, was concerned with process and change and with the significant behaviour of matter, rather than with the appearance of inert objects; it is the product of the painter's physical and spiritual communion and identification with nature. He believed that, through the experience of nature, the existence of a suprasensuous reality could be achieved.

Friedrich's own statements very often reflected similar ideas. He understood that what was perceived of the outer world had to be reformulated through a personal act of conception.

Before beginning a painting, Friedrich had fully conceived it in his mind. His method was to choose landscape images to create a vocabulary of symbols whose meaning was extended through subtle spatial and tonal relationship - echoing almost exactly what Schelling propounded in his essay "Concerning the relationship of the fine arts to nature":

The artist must follow the spirit of Nature working at the core of things, and speaking
through form and shape as by symbols only.

Like Runge, Friedrich started his artistic career at the Copenhagen Academy, where he learnt to draw like the Neoclassicists, copying ancient plaster casts and the works of the Old Masters. His early landscapes are carefully drawn in thin contours and sepia wash. Although Friedrich continued, throughout his life, to make exact studies of nature, his paintings are marked by a distinct disregard for exact topography. He repeatedly used the same sketches (the same tree, as an instance, occurs in various paintings), but transformed the actual landscape as a whole in his search for deeper meaning.

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