Tag Archives: German Romanticism

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.

Caspar David Friedrich – A Vision of Eternity

2 Oct

”So driven onward to new shores forever,
Into the night eternal swept away,
Upon the sea of time can we not ever
Drop anchor for one day?

O Lake! Scarce has a single year coursed past.
To waves that she was meant to see again,
I come alone to sit upon this stone
You saw her sit on then. (…)

Pause in your trek O Time! Pause in your flight,
Favorable hours, and stay!
Let us enjoy the transient delight
That fills our fairest day.

Let’s love, then! Love, and feel while feel we can
The moment on its run.
There is no shore of Time, no port of Man.
It flows, and we go on…

(The Lake – Alphonse de Lamartine, translated by A.Z.Foreman)

1822. Moonrise over the Sea - Caspar David FriedrichMoonrise over the Sea, Caspar David Friedrich, 1822

Caspar David Friedrich, although a famous German painter of Romanticism today, was pretty much neglected as an artist until the painters of Symbolism discovered the connection between his paintings and their own ideas. Friedrich’s paintings reflect the mood of Romantic poetry of his times, which is also the mood of Schubert’s music, and some unjustly criticised his art as being to literary. His painting above Moonrise over the Sea, perhaps his most famous work, is a typical Friedrich’s landscape: dreamy but emotionally charged, it shows the sea without the line of horizon which leaves the impression of something infinite.

As usual, we don’t see the faces of his characters, two women and a man in this case, contemplating on a desolate beach, admiring the moonrise perhaps. The colours are exquisite, as I’ve seen the painting in Berlin – now I can die happily. While the stones and the shore in the foreground may seem repulsive in their dark brownness, the sea and the sky are absolutely stunning; lavender shades softly reveal the golden setting sun, then the boats sailing on that magical blueness of the sea… Perhaps the solid brown rocks symbolise stability of his family life, the merging sea and skyline freedom, and the setting sun lost hopes and a feeling of helplessness against transience.

A hint of mystery and infinite is present in this painting as well, some interpret his paintings as portrait of human alienation and solitude. Namely, Caspar was born and grew up in Greifswald, a university town and a seaport on Baltic coast. He remained closely connected to the town even as an adult, and most likely admired the sea himself, for he did say ‘I have to stay alone in order to fully contemplate and feel nature.‘ However, he had experienced a several traumas in his childhood which may had left him with a bleak and melancholic view on life; deaths of people close to him: his mother and sister had died when he was very young, and at thirteen he witnessed his brother drowning while ice-skating.

As I’ve already said, Friedrich’s paintings have often been perceived as highly poetic and connecting them to poetry then seems quite right, don’t you think? Well, as a fan of poetry of Romanticism, I’ve noticed how longer gazing at this painting reminds me of Alphonse de Lamartine’s poem The Lake. The story behind that poem is very sad, but also a material for a novel. In 1816 Lamartine met a young girl by the lake Bourget. The following year he returned to the lake, expecting to see her again, but she wasn’t there. At first he thought that she had stood him up, only to find out later that she had taken ill and died… Still, to him she remained a symbol of platonic, unearthly love.

echo and the bunnymen heaven up hereEcho and the Bunnymen ‘Heaven up Here’, 1981

Art always reinterprets itself and I see a connection between Caspar David Friedrich’s wistful and dreamy, yet lonely landscapes with the cover of the album Heaven up Here by the Echo and the Bunnymen, a great post-punk band from Liverpool. I’ll quote Wikipedia: ‘The photograph used on the front and back cover of the album was taken by photographer Brian Griffin. The picture shows the band on a wet beach in the south of Wales; there are dark clouds in the sky and the sun is low on the horizon causing the band to be silhouetted. The original album’s cover art was designed by Martyn Atkins. Reynolds said that the band’s manager Drummond saw them as representing “cold, dampness, darkness“.‘ I fully recommend the album by the way, as it is perfect for Autumn, the melodies remind me of exactly of Friedrich’s damp and solitary landscapes, but rich in colours, and atmospheric just like songs on Heaven up Here (1981). Song Over the Wall is the one I’ve listened to the most, so I recommend you to check it out if you like.