Tag Archives: 1818

Caspar David Friedrich – Greifswald Harbour: Set sail in those turquoise days…

2 Oct

It’s that time of the year again, when sweet Autumn rains and whimsical winds bring thoughts of Romanticism and Echo and the Bunnymen to my mind. Gloomy, post-punk and a bit psychedelic melodies of Echo and the Bunnymen’s album Heaven Up Here (1981) resonate perfectly with moods of Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings.

1818-20. Greifswald Harbour - Caspar David FriedrichCaspar David Friedrich, Greifswald Harbour, 1818-20

Dreamy and gloomy paintings of Caspar David Friedrich go hand in hand with brooding post-punk melodies of Echo and the Bunnymen’s album Heaven Up Here; this artistic match made in heaven delights me beyond belief, often to the point of tears – tears of beauty. Similar mood pervades Friedrich’s painting Greifswald Harbour and song Turquoise Days; moody melody coming from the distance, from a rocky beach somewhere in Wales, emerging from an ancient Albion mist, coming from the distant Celtic shore… Similar dreamy, yet sombre mood can be found in all of Friedrich’s artworks, specially those portraying a beach or a harbour, where ships appear from the blueish mist, like in a dream.

In ‘Greifswald Harbour’ Friedrich revisits the landscape of his childhood, portraying the harbour of Greifswald; a seaport on the Baltic coast and his birth town. Cold climate and death of close relatives intensified his tendency towards melancholy, his sensitivity and perhaps even a certain sense of isolation that dominates his paintings. Take a look at the painting. I’ll give you a moment to sober up from the beauty of those dusky colours and mystic shades of blue, green, grey and yellow.

Greifswald Harbour was painted between 1818 and 1820, in times when Romantic sensibilities were slowly becoming ‘passé‘, and Friedrich was perceived not as a symbol of a generation and a romantic hero, but as an overly melancholic recluse who spend most of his time alone, wandering woods and meadows, and enjoying the isolation. He said himself: “I am not so weak as to submit to the demands of the age when they go against my convictions. I spin a cocoon around myself; let others do the same. I shall leave it to time to show what will come of it: a brilliant butterfly or maggot.” It goes without saying that the fruit of his life, his oeuvre, is indeed ‘a brilliant butterfly’.

Aesthetically, this is a typical painting of Romanticism. Symbolically, it deals with subjects of transience and painters own mortality. In the dusk, small and large ships appear through a misty veil of Autumn evening. Glimpses of cityscape appear through the grey blueish fog. Shy waning moon shines in the sky. Day is dying in rich warm yellow and orange shades, while fishermen in the foreground are nearing the end of the working day, probably in a hurry to visit an inn or a brothel. Ah, the mood of harbours, with sailors and hookers, goods from the far East, constant change and movement… Friedrich’s harbour is a somewhat desolate place. Those large ships are probably returning from a long trip, or just setting off to a new voyage, but what about the smaller ones? Some ships probably never left the harbour, nothing exciting comes on their path. They could spent a whole existence soaking in the cold sea water waiting for something which never really occurs. It’s like an unlived life. Once again, Friedrich stimulates the viewer to observe the deeper, psychological side of his art.

In Friedrich’s art, human figures are either missing or painted from the back. You may be wondering then, why he decided to include a bunch of fishermen in the foreground? Well, the figures of fishermen and the boat in the foreground weren’t painted by Friedrich himself, but were added later. Infrared photographs of the painting taken in 1974 revealed this two centuries old secret. Why did someone decide to do that, we’ll never know. Perhaps one considered the painting too dull with just ships and sky, and wanted to enliven it with human figures. Indeed, someone who doesn’t appreciate the soft transitional moods of Friedrich’s art would deem this painting non exciting because its beauty and charm are hidden behind layers of gauze veils, just like the face of a Victorian bride. As Ludwig Justi wrote: “We cannot appreciate the secret music of this picture without sensing the inner life of the ship. … The forms, appearing quite sober on first sight, are in fact alive with ardour and longing and dreaming.

I would like to finish this post with beautiful lyrics written by Ian McCulloch of Echo and the Bunnymen.

Just when the thought occurs
The panic will pass
And the smell of the fields
Never lasts
We’ll put your faith
In those crimson nights
Set sail
In those turquoise days…” (Echo and the Bunnymen, Turquoise Days)

Dear reader, set sail in the beautiful turquoise days and crimson nights of Autumn that are upon us.