Saturday, July 5, 2008

Cross in the Mountains

Here is an earlier artist, who like Thorvaldsen, was a seriously religious Lutheran from a region facing the Baltic.  Caspar David Friedrich came to some very different conclusions from Thorvaldsen when he painted this landscape in 1807-08 on his own initiative.  He may have painted it with the intention of presenting it to the King of Sweden who ruled Friedrich's native town of Greifswald at the time (and who it was hoped would protect the town from Napoleon's advancing armies).  Friedrich designed the frame, intending this picture to be a kind of altarpiece.  It was indeed used as such when the Roman Catholic Graf von Thun-Hohenstein bought the painting for his private chapel in Tetschen Castle after the King of Sweden declined the gift.  The painting has been known as the "Tetschen Altarpiece" ever since.

The painting was both a great hit with the public, and a cause for outraged protest from more conservative religious quarters.  Like many a later artist who began with a hit/scandal, this painting launched Friedrich's career.

The critics had a point.  Should this really work as a religious picture in a liturgical setting?  What really is going on in this picture?  We are not looking at any identifiably religious subject.  The cross is not Christ on the Cross dying on Calvary.  It is one of those carved crucifixes that we can still find at crossroads and at high points all over northern and central Europe.  We see this cross as the sun sets behind the rocky hill.  Friedrich's bitterest (and most perceptive) antagonist, Friedrich Wilhem Basilius von Ramdohr writes: is pure and simple insolence for landscape painting to try to steal into our churches and onto our altars.  [It is] the sort of mysticism that is now all-pervasive, and wafted to us from art as well as science, from philosophy as well as religion, like some narcotic haze!  The sort of mysticism that passes off symbols and fantasies as artistic and poetic images...the sort of mysticism that prefers the Middle Ages and its institutions to the age of the Medici, Louis, and Frederick.

If it sounds a little familiar, it should.  People have been complaining about the "spiritual supermarket" for a long time.  Indeed, despite the presence of the cross, there is no specifically Christian subject matter here.  There is a kind of universalism of feeling here, that sensation of exaltation that comes when contemplating the setting sun and its effects which seems to cross sectarian and cultural boundaries.  Ramdohr accurately understands what Friedrich is doing, appreciates its revolutionary quality, without asking what necessity drives it.
There was a growing sense among a lot of artists at this time, and in the public at large, that the traditional language of religious imagery doesn't work anymore.  No matter how much NeoClassicism tried to remake the old formulas with a new austerity of form and gravity of feeling, they no longer spoke to the imaginations of individuals, or described their experiences.   The traditional imagery no longer adequately described religious experience in a world where poets like Alfred du Musset could write, "I do not believe, oh Christ, in thy holy word/  I came too late in a world too old."   There could be no going back, and to pretend otherwise was pointless and unproductive.

Friedrich, a sincerely religious man, wanted to go back to those primordial emotional and intuitive experiences from which religion emerged.  He wanted to some how repair that connection between the larger world and the private imagination that was now broken in the wake of modern experience.  He believed that the best place to start was in those exhilarating and expansive encounters between the lone self and nature, where he (and a number of other German poets and theologians of the day) felt that we all have our first true intimations of the spirit.

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