Tag Archives: German art

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.

Franz Stuck: Dark Female Figures in a World of Anxiety and Lust

6 Sep

If you gaze at dark and richly textured paintings of a German Symbolist painter Franz Stuck for too long, you become spiritually drowned in a world of ‘anxiety and lust’, to quote Carl Jung. That peculiar mood of his paintings is as intoxicating as it is heavy and suffocating, radiating the typical turn of the century claustrophobia and interest in eroticism.

1903. The Sin (Die Sünde) - Franz Stuck

Franz Stuck, The Sin (Die Sünde), 1903

Last August, while I was in Berlin, I had a chance to see Stuck’s The Sin and Circe in Alte Nationalgalerie where they are part of the museum’s permanent collection. I remember it clearly, the feeling of being completely and fully mesmerised by hypnotic power of Stuck’s vamp femme fatales; dark eyed Eve luring from the shadow, and Circe, clad in purple, offering a gold cup, and smiling lustfully with moist, half-open lips. The day was rainy and gloomy, the chamber quiet and solitary because most visitors chose to see the Im-Ex exhibition that was on at the time. Even in the middle of the day, painting The Sin seemed frightening and grandiose because of its dimensions, but how magical and sinister at the same time would it look at night, with a few tall candles as only sources of light, shining in brilliant Byzantine golden flames, and a sofa you could lie on, smoke opium and immerse into dreams, watched upon by those big, darkly oriental eyes. I think that kind of experience would be the closest to an acid trip I could possibly imagine.

If you observe Stuck’s oeuvre, you’ll notice that darkness, like heavy November fog, lurks from every corner. World that he created in his paintings is a mythical one, where anxiety and erotic fantasies emerge from every canvas. Sometimes his paintings, just like those of Edvard Munch, can be a tad difficult to digest, at least for me, as they seem to lurk the viewer to the end of the cliff; first to be amazed, and then – to fall. I feel emotionally drained and ill after looking at them for too long, that’s the power of art for you all. Stuck portrays the dark side of mythology and female dominance and images that arise from his artworks are those of suffering and agony, twisted bodies, murky colours and strong contrasts, and ever popular in Symbolism, figures of wicked and possessive femme fatales.

So, what exactly is the true subject of his art, the spiritual fall of the Western society of his own secret Freudian fantasies?

Stu-04-NatGalFranz Stuck, Tilla Durieux as Circe, c. 1913

Stuck painted the subject of Eve’s sin and the consequent Fall of Humanity many times. The version I’ve put here, from 1903, isn’t the most striking, but it is the one I saw. In The Sin, Eve looks directly at the viewer, ironically smiling. Her sickly white, yet robust body emerges from the dark background. Two large, dark, protruding almond shaped eyes resemble those of Luisa Casati, an extravagant Italian heiress and a great example of fin de sicle decadency in lifestyle. A garishly green shadow hides her face. Framed with masses of Rossettian hair so dark it seems to have been woven from darkness itself. And then, as if the painting wasn’t unsettling enough, you notice the snake wrapped around Eve’s body, with thin piercing pupils and purplish skin that distinguishes it from the pervading darkness. If you don’t move your eyes, it will draw you in too.

Circe is visually brighter, painted in three vibrant colours; auburn for the hair, dark yellow with hints of olive brown for the cup, and lastly – purple, like dried larkspur flowers. Three colours against the pitch dark background and again, that strange sickly pale skin, were enough to uplift the mood of the painting. In body sculpting, Stuck slightly reminds me of Burne-Jones. Look at her purple tunic that sensuously falls, then her earrings and the luminous cup. Who wouldn’t be tempted to drink from it, even if the price was entering the kingdom of death and running into the arms of Persephone, a fellow mythological creature that played around with fin de siecle imagination. Stuck’s Circe reminds me of silent film stars of 1920s, such as Theda Bara and Pola Negri, who often played roles of vamp femme fatales.