at the Art Institute

On my first visit to the Art Institute’s wonderful Caspar David Friedrich exhibition, the painting that impressed me the most was a large canvas titled Moonrise by the Sea. In the lower foreground are large rocks and a ship’s anchor; mid-ground are two women seated on a rock; further out two men stand on another rock; still further are two sailboats in the sea. Above is a darkening, cloudy sky, with the moon just rising from behind some clouds, which form a kind of V pattern whose apex is just at the moon’s edge. The cloud lines, in fact, are suggestive of the perspective lines that lead to vanishing points in Renaissance paintings. The sight lines set up by the rocks and the two pairs of figures also lead to the moon; the two sailboats set up a different line, going off to the left, below and beyond.

What amazed me about this picture was that the end point, or rather end points, of all these sight lines was never a static resting place. The moon itself has an uneasy and unearthly light; its half-revealed disk, when stared at, only leads the imagination further into the picture, beyond all that is visible, to some mystical, spiritual realm. Thus “vanishing point” truly vanishes: when we arrive at the moon, where the implied sight lines lead us, its strange light carries us further still. Every part of the picture points to some invisible elsewhere.

This otherness is perhaps less surprising in light of the fact that Friedrich, who was born in 1774 and died in 1840, is generally regarded as the greatest German Romantic painter. Friedrich lived most of his life in Dresden and was acquainted with and admired by Goethe and Schopenhauer; but his reputation, though once great, was already declining in his own lifetime, only to be reborn in our century. Though his paintings show a meticulous observation of nature’s details, and a notably Germanic precision of line, they always evoke, with a paradox characteristic of Romanticism, the realm of the invisible, the unseeable beyond. He once wrote, as an instruction to himself, “Close your bodily eye so that you may see your picture first with the spiritual eye. Then bring to light that which you have seen in the darkness so that it may react upon others from the outside inwards.”

But simply writing about “the realm that lies beyond the visible,” as Robert Rosenblum does so well in his excellent essay in the catalog, cannot begin to convey the transcendent power that these works have, any more than seeing them in reproduction can convey their strange luminosity, a glow that seems to transport them beyond physical space and time.

The complete inadequacy of reproductions in conveying Friedrich’s art combined with the fact that only one of his paintings is on regular public view in the U.S. (in the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas) makes this exhibition a particularly special event. It is by usual museum standards a small show, consisting of 9 paintings and 11 drawings (all from museums in the USSR). But its smallness, rather than being a disappointment, simply makes it possible to give concentrated and repeated attention to each work; Friedrich’s art requires deep contemplation and rewards repeated viewing. The Art Institute seems to agree: Douglas Druick, Searle curator of European painting, told me that the idea was to present “a smaller, focused exhibition that won’t contain as many works of art as people are used to in blockbuster shows. Hopefully people will be able to slow down enough to give these works the attention they deserve.”

Friedrich’s images are often reproduced, and his influence on later painters is well documented; nature scenes in which a figure peers out into the distance are common in both the very fine work of American Hudson River painters like Thomas Cole and Asher Durand and in the worst kind of kitsch art. It is a revelation to see similar compositions working at full power in Friedrich’s work. “Viewers might feel echoes of “I’ve seen this before’ yet will also face something new,” says Druick. “When you see them in the flesh you have to come to terms with their physicality as works of art.”

I can think of no better argument for the proposition that it’s best to see a number of an artist’s works together than this exhibit. I came away the first time liking all the work but having been deeply moved only by Moonrise by the Sea, which, perhaps not coincidentally, I had seen last. On repeated visits, images that had before seemed simple and precise now seemed to open onto vast unseen realms. Perhaps the explicitness of Moonrise by the Sea helped guide my re-viewing; certainly each work helped me see each other work more deeply. In a deceptively simple drawing, Window With a View of a Park, a window centered in a blank wall looks out on plants on the outside ledge and trees and buildings in the middle distance. The precisely drawn lines of the plants and trees form an evocative, mysterious contrast to the window’s rectilinear flatness; what is on one level an unremarkable view takes on mysterious aspects.

At least half the works in this show contain imagery of passage. One is always aware in these images of the process of moving from one state of existence to another, the second often, but not always, connected with nature. In On the Sailboat, for instance, the lines of the boat’s sides and prow, the edges of the sails, and the two figures seated at the bow all lead the eye toward the spires of a distant, imaginary city. Similarly, the two women in Sisters on the Harbor-View Terrace view a misty cathedral and ships’ masts. But they, like most of Friedrich’s figures, are surrogates for the viewer, whose eye moves from behind their heads, along their lines of sight, toward the more distant view. It is to Friedrich’s great credit that, as with Moonrise by the Sea, the eye’s movement is not then arrested on a static, picture-postcard scene. The masts and spires, enveloped in dusky light, lead the eye on unpredictable paths, back and forth across the surface of the canvas. At the same time, these forms, seen dimly through the fog, appear to vibrate between the visible and the invisible.

It is no accident, I think, that Friedrich’s paintings are often set at dawn or dusk. The light at such times is right at the boundary of visibility, so that each object has aspects of both its clear daylight form and the more mysterious and ethereal shadow it will become in darkness. Dawn and dusk are also times of passage, symbols of transition. In many of Friedrich’s works it is impossible to tell whether it’s dawn or dusk, and we don’t know whether we are, in Douglas Druick’s words, at “dawn, the birth of a new day, hope; or twilight, the drawing to a close, the end of it all.”

The works that don’t contain explicit signs of passage–the lone viewer or the solitary couple; a window frame or doorway–are generally images of ruins, which held much fascination for Friedrich. As the eye moves from brick to brick across the broken walls in Ruins of the Eldena Monastery, the mind turns, in another kind of passage, toward the past ages and lost civilizations that ruins inevitably evoke.

The show is superbly installed in four separate rooms, with lots of space between pictures. But there’s a flaw: the music being played continuously in the first room–an orientation space with no artwork but rather information on Friedrich’s life and times–and heard at successively lower volume levels in the three exhibition rooms. Certainly the pieces selected, some of Schubert’s impromptus for piano, are appropriate historically and stylistically; according to Douglas Druick, “We thought this was an exhibition that invited experimentation to see whether music of the period would enhance the viewing experience. The Romantics viewed music as a vehicle for contemplation and reverie–a stimulus to dream, for introspection.” But for me, one of the strongest aspects of Friedrich’s work is the overwhelming sense of silence that each picture creates as it separates the viewer from the physical world. This is a particular kind of silence, achieved through specifics of line, composition, and color, and it is only destructive of the experience to have it filled aurally with music. However related the worldviews of Schubert and Friedrich may be, the process of listening to Schubert involves a very different mode of perception–an attention to notes, rhythm, melody–than the one we employ in looking at paintings. (Thus this use of music is unfair to Schubert as well.) Some may find that the music does enhance their viewing, but at current volume levels everyone hears the music, like it or not. It’s a shame that the show is marred by this singular refusal to follow Mies van der Rohe’s famous dictum “Less is more.”

My two favorite pictures in the exhibit lack the explicit references to passage that first helped me understand what Friedrich was doing. Indeed, if they were the only two works of his I’d seen, I doubt I would have understood them as well or been nearly as moved. In The Nets, moonlight glistens on pools of water in the foreground and on the horizon line of a distant sea. A line of birds rises toward the moon, which is partly behind clouds; in the foreground, nets, barely visible for the darkness, are drying. The gray brown light evokes neither day nor night and unites sky, clouds, birds, water, and ground into a single spiritual unity. It would be rare for a careful viewer of this picture not to feel eerily transported.

In Memory of the Riesengebirge is a large, daylit canvas of a mountain scene; the most distant peak is one Friedrich climbed in his youth. This 1835 painting was one of Friedrich’s last, before a stroke restricted him to drawing; its rough texture perhaps evokes some of the roughness of the terrain as felt by one who walked it. There are no human figures, no framing devices, but the perspective–with successively higher peaks leading off toward the left, the highest peak almost lost in sky–makes the viewer acutely aware that the picture, a rectangle, is the ultimate window. Just as we look through the window in Window With a View of a Park, so here we are aware that we are looking through a rectangle, into an ultimate beyond. The absence of surrogate figures in these two works is part of what makes them so direct, and so profound: the only narrative in the picture is the viewer’s process of discovering its ever-deepening space. I almost felt, as the writer Heinrich von Kleist wrote of a different Friedrich picture, as if my “eyelids had been cut away.”