Chalk Cliffs on Rügen (1818), Caspar David Friedrich
Romanticism in art, as in literature, followed the pendulum swing away from the optimistic Enlightenment idea of human dominion over nature and the credo that Reason would ultimately reign supreme. Revolutionary and chaotic, emotional rather than rational, often psychologically introverted, the Sturm und Drang ("Storm and Stress") movement in Germany - emphasizing subjectivity and unease - and its offspring the Romantic movement abhorred the 18th century's orderly imposition on nature and the designs of squared parterre tidy gardens with orthogonal lines of pollarded trees. Instead Romanticism preferred the vast wildernesses of an indifferent and unpredictable nature with its endless forests, towering clouds and deafening waterfalls from icy giant peaks. Beginning in 1774, Goethe's Werther wept with newfound emotion in a landscape overflowing with undammed sentiment paralleled by swollen rivers and unmanageable floods of the world at large. Honesty about feelings were now more important in speech than wit and répartée; being and behaving genuine more important than artifice. Themes such as liberation, mysticism, exotic orientalism, human insignificance and a darker psychology ran counter to the eurocentric Age of Reason. Poems and paintings alike found the moon and dreams more interesting than the sun and conscious thought. Hermit shrines in the woods brought the artists closer to God than hollow liturgies in cathedrals of crowded cities darkened by coal smoke and religious hypocrisy, as Blake uttered like an Old Testament prophet in poetry:
"How the chimney-sweeper's cry
Every blackening church appals..."
Attack on a Coach (1787) Francisco de Goya y Lucientes
169 x 127 cm, Private Collection
This is somehow also the collective landscape of Goya's Attack on a Coach (1787) and Caspar David Friedrich's Chalk Cliffs on Rügen (1818) and The Sea of Ice (1823-4), all of them manifests of Romanticism. Goya (1746-1828) undermines faith in order, showing instead the isolated forest where disorder reigns: travelers plead for their lives to murderous but indifferent bandits whose ruthlessness is more a reflection of nature than inherently cruel. The dead bodies of coachmen bleeding away to senselessness are no deterrent to further savagery. Goya does not predict the outcome of this tragedy, rather invites viewers to speculate in clinical abstraction about the amoral motives of robbers and the plight of travellers. As the first of two similar scenes of robbers attacking carriages, the other a smaller canvas (43 x 32 cm) in 1793 set in a rocky landscape and now in Madrid, the scene "present a vision of Man's helplessness before the forces of nature or human wickedness..." (1) Goya's pitiful surviving travelers have no recourse surrounded only by trees who seem to not hear the screams or last prayers any more than the musket shots and curses. Goya is not glorfying such attacks, only recording the abstract threat of rampant chaos to any civilization foolish enough to think it is safe. In his Romantic imagination, where dreams reigned, Goya reminds of Fuseli, of whom Simon Wilson recently said, "Fuseli exemplifies the Romantic movement’s pre-Freudian probing of the darker corners, of the psyche." (2)
Friedrich's Chalk Cliffs on Rügen likewise portrays the immensity of fantastic nature away from human artifice and puny achievements. Vertical white jagged cliffs polarize the flat horizontality of the blue sea where tiny boats float unaware of their frailty. A few humans point or crawl to the edge of the abyss peering down dizzy drops they cannot possibly go. The far ocean stretches to the highest edge of the world's canvas. The oceans that beckoned to explorers now look deep and daunting: "For the Enlightenment, such exploration was a fulfilment of the dominant impulse to bring order and system to the dark corners of the globe, but for the Romantic mind, the multifaceted variety of objects and of human customs that was thereby revealed served to challenge the neat schemes of the Enlightenment." (3) Perhaps Friedrich (1774-1840) suggests that if we are not dazzled by the uncontrollable power of nature, we are too stupified by our own foolishness in a universe that doesn't cares whether we understand its power or not. In the same way, hisSea of Ice holds us rapt as its icebergs hold the almost inivisible small ship on the right. According to Wolf, this artwork "can rightfully be called one of the key paintings of the 19th century," (4) Who dares challenge these inimical elements and the very earth itself without consequence? Romanticism asked humbly in a way that the 21st century might now also wonder anew.
The Sea of Ice, Caspar David Friedrich, c. 1823
However mild Romanticism's antithesis to the Enlightenment, the perception that there is more to life and the universe than meets the eye or can be comprehended by the mind is not novel, but there is a humility and sense of human unimportance in the grand scheme that is still winsome. At the same time, there was a sense of responsibility to nature that the runaway Industrial Revolution had somehow evaded with its coal fogs and septic streams, and a preference for unorthodox transcendentalism to orthodox theology that proclaimed the earth was man's to rule as he wished. This kind of credo was tagged as Neo-Paganism even in the nineteenth century, but strikes us now as direly prescient in the face of far greater global pollution than the worst nightmares of Romanticism . Friedrich, like Thoreau, said, "I must surrender myself to what surrounds me, unite mysef with its clouds and rocks, in order to be what I am. I need solitude in order to communicate with nature." Clearly nature or his soul communicated something back to Friedrich from his many meditations on canvas, a humble philosophy that we would do well to ponder in knowing our place and to wonder at the world with new respect. John Muir, Wallace Stegner and even Isaiah would agree, as will our future generations should we be so fortunate.
(1) Juliet Wilson-Bareau and Manuela Mena Marques, eds. Goya: Truth and Fantasy. Exhibition Catalogue: Madrid's Museo del Prado, Royal Academy, London, Art Institute of Chicago. New Haven: Yale University, 1994, 202.
(2) Simon Wilson. "Meet the Ancestor." RA Magazine, London: Royal Academy of Arts, Winter 2005.
(3) John Gascoigne. "Review of Fulford, Lee and Kitson, Literature, Science and Exploration in the Romantic Era."Cambridge University Press, 2004, in Journal of Early Science and Medicine XI.1 (2006) Leiden: E. J. Brill, 132.
(4) Norbert Wolf. Caspar David Friedrich: The Painter of Stillness. Cologne: Taschen, 2003, 77.
Copyright © 2006 Patrick Hunt