Caspar David Friedrich

by Benjamin Schwarz

November 2012 ATLANTIC

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Caspar David Friedrich
Johannes Grave
PRESTEL

Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840) transformed landscape painting and was undoubtedly the greatest of the German Romantic painters. But his strange, deeply spiritual canvases, which conveyed the numinous experience of nature, lost favor in the final decades of his life, as Romanticism fell out of fashion. Critics and the public took a very long time warming to his work again—perhaps not surprisingly, for although his paintings are overwhelming (in many senses of the word), they are hardly welcoming; many of his paintings bleakly emphasize the insignificance of man in nature. The artist himself was hardly a joiner. Accused of misanthropy, Friedrich obtusely countered, “To love people, I must avoid their company”—a viewpoint not lost in his paintings.

The nature he depicts, especially in such celebrated winterscapes as The Polar Sea, is stark indeed; the art historian Hermann Beenken wrote that Friedrich painted winter scenes in which “no man had yet set his foot.” And the Nazis’ unfortunate embrace of his work cast a pall that no doubt further delayed the rehabilitation of his reputation. But since the 1970s, beginning perhaps with a famous exhibition of his work at the Tate Gallery, Friedrich’s work has been celebrated, and his influence, on artists such as Anselm Kiefer and Gerhard Richter, has burgeoned. The number of significant books on Friedrich’s art—including, most notably, volumes by Werner Hofmann and Joseph Leo Koerner—continues to grow. Now, with this book by Grave, a German academic currently organizing a colossal exhibition of German art for the Louvre, we have by far the most sumptuous and historically informed text. Building on the insights of previous critics and scholars, Grave skillfully assesses Friedrich’s canvases (reproduced here more beautifully than in any previous book), but his greater achievement is authoritatively placing Friedrich’s work in its cultural, intellectual, and aesthetic context.

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