Monday, 26 January 2009

Caspar David Friedrich
Not seen (Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin)
13 January 2009

Der Mönch am Meer 1808-1810
Oil on Canvas 110 x 172 cm

Friedrich is classed as a German Romanticist and the title probably refers to the notion of artist as monk that was popular in Germany[1] in the early 19thC. Beat Wyss in her essay[2] on Caspar David Friedrich goes as far as to suggest that it is actually a self portrait of Friedrich wearing a black overcoat standing on the Baltic shoreline.

I need to arrange a trip to Berlin to see this painting as it is hard to gauge the aura of this painting from reproductions in books and magazines. What I do know from reproductions is that the painting shows a tiny figure of a man standing on the apex of a sandy coloured beach looking out over a dark oppressive ocean. There seems to be a storm gathering on the horizon. Apart from the triangle of sand and a few distant gulls there is nothing to suggest depth in the painting, and this lack of any reference underlines the loneliness of the figure contemplating the sublime natural landscape.

It is this notion of the sublime as a metaphor for infinity more than our insignificance in the face of the full force and terrible splendour of nature that I find melancholic. Friedrich seems to be asking us to stand with him and gaze at infinity (all the lines lead out of the canvas) and perhaps the boundless powers of artistic imagination.

[1] A favourite text amongst the German Romantics was Outpourings from the Heart of an Art-Loving Monk, published in 1797 by Wilhelm Wackenroder and Ludwig Tieck, tells of an artist, a pious wanderer who gives his all in his search for an ideal of beauty to which he swears eternal allegiance.

[2] Wyss, Beat “The Whispering Zeitgeist”, Tate Etc Issue 14 pp52-55

©blackdog 2009


  1. There is a site that has examples of aura camera systems at that prints aura photos. Has anyone experienced this system?

  2. As I the first time stood in front of this painting, never having been prepared for that look, I didn't see the monk, overwhelmed by the depictured wild nature, for the one person is only a little figure, a stripe, almost a 'nothing' in the midst of the gorgeous universe of water, sky and clouds, surrounded by all the nature elements (except fire) we live from, which he is part of, on the other side he is standing being alone and totally lonely, fighting against a riot of nature- there is a feeling of loneliness- but if you are looking at the painting from a distance you noticce the sky to be clearing up and light of hope is coming up. I can well imagine the intense reception of this paining, it is unique regarding the theme and the technique of painting- Clemens Bentano's description and interpretation is surely one of the most beautiful ones!

  3. I saw the painting in Berlin, formerly Schloss Charlottenburg. I find your analysis very well! CDF might have preferred a religious interpretation, he often tended to depressions- a rather problematic- complicated character as I heard- it might be unpossible to decode his paintings in one decisive way!