She asked me what I do for a living; I asked her if she liked Seedy Friedrich. ‘They’re my favourite band’, she replied. She was hip to the Twelfth Night quotation of An Apple Cleft in Twain, she was hip to the pun on Caspar David. It turned out she also loves the mysterious landscapes of the great German Romantic, the radical subjectivity of his lonely wanderer that Gram so ravishingly turns into song. And thus, my love, a moment of grace between your wanderer and a sister of mercy allowed me to believe I was more than a ghost.
From Joseph Leo Koerner, Caspar David Friedrich and the Subject of Landscape, 2nd Edition (London: Reaktion Books, 2009), pp. 189-197
Posted by kind permission of Joseph Leo Koerner
Mr. Koerner, among the foremost specialists in Northern Renaissance and 19th-century art, is Professor of the History of Art and Architecture at Harvard University.
He is also the writer and presenter of Northern Renaissance, an outstanding 3-part BBC Four series (2006).
Painted in 1828, the same year of the pendant canvases From the Dresden Heath, Friedrich’s Early Snow, now in Hamburg, is a picture of the new, of a world uncontaminated by a human gaze. The snow is untouched. I am the first to enter this wood; no footprints mar the uniqueness of my experience. My eyes dart about the canvas’s surface, drawn by the blank whiteness. My glance does not disturb the snow, but visits the scene with the snow, which recalls fortuitously the etymological link of ‘glance’ to ice (French glace), suggesting the sliding of the eye about this snowy scene. The snow withstands my gaze and the frozen scene, halted like myself in passage, remains present to me, its earliest discoverer. While the canvas was first exhibited in Dresden in 1828 under the title Spruce Forest in the Snow, it has acquired the appellation Frühschnee (‘Early Snow’), suggesting that this snow is the year’s first. Yet it could well be Frühlingsschnee, the last snow in a thawing world of spring. Art historians still argue over the season, just as Friedrich’s critics in 1809 were unsure about the time of day in Cross in the Mountains. But what is important is, of course, the uncertainty as to whether the scene is early or late.
About fourteen years before painting Early Snow, Friedrich finished another picture of virtually the same scene. Yet in Chasseur in the Forest, a traveller has entered the wood, halting before the turn in the path. His gaze penetrates the secret space that had been closed to our gaze in the snowy turn in Early Snow, and his presence radically alters the way we see the painted world before us. The dark figure draws attention to himself, arresting the movements of our eye about the canvas. The world looks altogether different with this traveller at its centre. Space organizes itself around him: it is no longer my lovely wood, my adventure in the snow, but his. The objects seem to desert me, showing themselves now to him. The trees in the foreground are not my companions, but have turned their shoulders to me as if to gaze at him; whatever is in the background has become his vision. I do not stand at the threshold where the scene opens up, but at the point of exclusion, where the world stands complete without me.
The temporal fabric of the wood has changed, as well. In Chasseur we oversee the experience of someone else, someone who was already there in a past long before our arrival. Where in Early Snow I had a sense of undisturbed presence, here I am not the first in this snowy landscape, for the traveller remains spatially and temporally before me. Nor am I the last. If I go forth into the painting’s space, seeking to stand where the turned traveller pauses, I will feel myself looked at from behind. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, following Karl Jaspers, reported that patients suffering from autoscopy (the hallucination of seeing oneself) feel the approach of their Doppelgänger through a burning sensation in the nape of the neck, as if someone were viewing them from behind. Autoscopy is somehow always implied by such turned travellers in Friedrich’s paintings, for in their faceless anonymity they mirror our act of looking in an uncanny way. During the experience of autoscopy, we read, ‘the subject is overcome by a feeling of profound sadness which spreads outwards and into the very image of the double.’ The sadness of seeing oneself seeing explains, perhaps, the melancholy colouring which a traveller gives to an empty landscape. Friedrich’s paintings are strangely sadder and lonelier when they are inhabited by a turned figure than when they are empty, Who is this sole self who halts before wandering into the painted world, and who, as Friedrich’s contemporaries interpreted Chasseur, hears his deathsong sung by the raven sitting in the margin that separates him from ourselves?
Confronted with a painting of unprecedented pictorial veracity, detail and scope, Jan van Eyck’s viewers discover their own attitude of visual amazement mirrored and thematized by these diminutive Rückenfiguren. With the further development of landscape painting in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, the Rückenfigur took its place within the stock repertoire of staffage which might ornament a panorama’s foreground and determine the overall character and message of the scene. In the ‘view-painting’ or veduta, a turned figure could establish the vista’s scale, enhancing its monumentality and marking off the whole pictorial field as something ‘worth seeing’. In one popular variant, the Rückenfiguren is an artist who sits at the margin of the scene, sketching the landscape we see. The draughtsmen at the right of a landscape etching of 1640 by the Dutch artist Allaert van Everdingen represent the operation of drawing from nature on which the print itself claims to be based.
Friedrich, Flatlands on the Bay of Greifswald, c. 1832
Friedrich, The Stages of Life, c. 1835
Friedrich, Moonrise at Sea, c. 1821
This change is clear if we compare Friedrich’s Rückenfigur to similar devices within the Baroque emblem tradition. Art historians have long noted the striking similarities between some of Friedrich’s landscapes and Jan Luiken’s illustrations for Christophoro Weigelio’s popular emblem book, Ethica Naturalis (1700). In Luiken, the human figure dominates the landscape. Indeed he seems to exist in a separate space, rather like an actor before a stage setting. He does not claim to ‘experience’ the scene, the landscape being only a book which he reads and interprets. Often Luiken’s figures will gesture towards the scene, as if to say, ‘Behold!’ They are not concerned with the beauty of the landscape, but with its public and usually, moral significance, which they mediate in the texts appearing around the image.
Friedrich represents himself several times as Rückenfigur. Occasionally, and more hauntingly, he observes his own family from behind, as in his masterpiece, Evening Star, dating from around 1834 and now in Frankfurt. Against a sublime evening sky, with the silhouette of Dresden’s church recognizable on the horizon, Friedrich depicts what probably are his wife and children walking homewards: to the left, Caroline née Bommer, whom Friedrich married in 1818; by her side one of the couple’s daughters, either Emma (b. 1819) or Agnes Adelheid (b. 1823); and at the crest of a small rising, with his arms raised as if to greet the immensity of the view, or to grasp the veering bands of clouds above, their youngest child and only son Gustav Adolf (b. 1824). The boy’s gesture is unusually animated, for Friedrich typically pictures subjects frozen in contemplation, their stillness a mark of an immense interiority. It is as if, through the gesture of his son, Friedrich were trying to capture the entire afflatus of experience in a single gesture, or as if, from the perspective of a boy, nature’s engulfing infinity can be wrested down to earth. And the world responds. For if we block out the child from the picture, observing the scene peopled only by the mother and daughter at the left, the bands of clouds and sky appears to rise higher above the land. Friedrich’s son as Rückenfigur draws down to earth the evening sky, as if for a moment catching the departing light in the coincidence of his open arms and the edge of the horizon’s darkening bank of clouds.
John Everett Millais
Tamara de Lempicka
Nicolas de Staël
Hans Holbein, Younger
Vincent Van Gogh
Caspar David Friedrich
Leda and the Swan