The Monk by the Sea

The Monk by the Sea by Casper David Friedrich

William Vaughan's book on Friedrich was the first volume I had read in Phaidon's Art & Ideas series. It is a series that seeks to put art back into its historical and intellectual context and write art history from the perspective of the art's meaning as well as its formal characteristics and to do this in language that is accessible and jargon free.

If this volume is any indication, it is an excellent idea admirably executed. Vaughan's reading of the paintings (and the man) are sympathetic, intelligent and illuminating. His simple, but not simplistic, account of the different uses of the 'the sublime' and 'the beautiful' in the Romantic period are worth the price of the book on their own. He confirmed for me that the brilliance of Kant (in aesthetics) dissolves the closer you bring him up against the texture of living examples. The generalizations of this philosopher are alluring, captivating until you put them to actual work!

But, more importantly, the book helped me understand why I am so drawn to Friedrich's work - even the most 'modest' example that I saw recently in the Pushkin held my attention longer and deeper than the more 'significant' works of other artists.

Friedrich was an unashamed painter of 'feeling', what counts most deeply in his work is that the painting places you in a place of communion with the particular situation evoked and only then does that particularity open out into a deeper whole. As here with 'The Monk by the Sea', you taste the place 'inwardly' - the melancholy isolation of a shore wrapped in mist but a mist breaking down and out towards a more distant prospect of light. It is both a particular place of one's man's being present and a parable of the dilemma and opportunity in which we all stand. It, also, speaks to my own contemplative sense that is always deepened by being placed in just such contexts - of solitude and bodies of water.

Vaughan convincingly argues, I think, that Friedrich, pace some of his most distinguished interpreters, was not a 'symbolic' painter with each 'item' of a composition articulating a known symbolic content. Symbol is dissolving into a wider, deeper experience of being addressed by nature sustained by a Creator to whom Friedrich owed life long commitment. He was a friend of the German Protestant theologian, Schleiermacher, who wrote:

"Religion is the outcome neither of the fear of death, nor of the fear of God. It answers a deep need in man. It is neither a metaphysic, nor a morality, but above all and essentially an intuition and a feeling. ... Dogmas are not, properly speaking, part of religion: rather it is that they are derived from it. Religion is the miracle of direct relationship with the infinite; and dogmas are the reflection of this miracle. Similarly belief in God, and in personal immortality, are not necessarily a part of religion; one can conceive of a religion without God, and it would be pure contemplation of the universe; the desire for personal immortality seems rather to show a lack of religion, since religion assumes a desire to lose oneself in the infinite, rather than to preserve one's own finite self."

It captures the underlying 'metaphysic' of Friedrich's art beautifully, even if Friedrich retained both faith in God and a hope for immortal redemption.

Friedrich's comes over as an admirable man - though in his old age he did become disturbingly jealous with regard to his (much younger) wife, accusing her, without foundation, of having affairs. This may have been the deteriorating impact of several strokes on his own sense of mental balance. But he upheld his liberal convictions - political and social - to the end even where these undermined his market as an artist, as he did his faithfulness to an 'inward' art that saw nature balanced and interpenetrated by spirit. He refused either to become a simply naturalistic painter nor one who saw spirituality as retreating into a faux medievalism!


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