An Introduction to the Painting of Caspar David Friedrich, Romanticism & the Sublime

When Denis Vil­leneuve was announced as the direc­tor of the lat­est cin­e­mat­ic adap­ta­tion of Dune, few could have object­ed on aes­thet­ic grounds. The blast­ed sand plan­et of Arrakis, with its storms and worms, demands a sense of the sub­lime; to a unique degree among film­mak­ers work­ing today, the auteur behind Arrival and Blade Run­ner 2049 seemed to pos­sess it. Though long since vul­gar­ized to mean lit­tle more than “high­ly enjoy­able,” sub­lime has his­tor­i­cal­ly denot­ed a rich­er, more com­plex set of qual­i­ties. The sub­lime can be beau­ti­ful, but it must also be in some way fear­some, pos­sessed of “a great­ness beyond all pos­si­bil­i­ty of cal­cu­la­tion, mea­sure­ment, or imi­ta­tion.”

That quote comes straight from the Wikipedia page on “Sub­lime (phi­los­o­phy),” which also promi­nent­ly fea­tures Cas­par David Friedrich’s paint­ing Der Wan­der­er über dem Nebelmeer, or Wan­der­er above the Sea of Fog. Com­plet­ed around 1818, it has become a famil­iar image even to those who know noth­ing of Friedrich’s work — work to which they can receive an intro­duc­tion from the new video above by Evan Puschak, bet­ter known as the Nerd­writer.

Friedrich, he explains, was “asso­ci­at­ed with Ger­man Roman­ti­cism, a ris­ing intel­lec­tu­al and artis­tic move­ment” of the late 18th and ear­ly 19th cen­turies “that sought to recon­nect human­i­ty with feel­ing and spir­i­tu­al­i­ty” after the Enlight­en­ment so desta­bi­lized human­i­ty’s Weltan­schau­ung.

Friedrich’s land­scapes, real­is­ti­cal­ly paint­ed if not nec­es­sar­i­ly faith­ful to real places, “rep­re­sent the pin­na­cle of this move­ment.” They do this by con­vey­ing “the feel­ing he has in the pres­ence of the land­scape, the stag­ger­ing encounter with the divin­i­ty he sees in it. This is the essence of the sub­lime,” which took on spe­cial urgency in an era “when sec­u­lar­ism was threat­en­ing the core of Chris­tian­i­ty.”  More than reli­gion, the Roman­tics thus began to regard nature as awe­some (in the orig­i­nal sense), hum­bling them­selves before the great­ness of land­scapes real and imag­ined. The wan­der­er loom­ing above the sea of fog is actu­al­ly an excep­tion in Friedrich’s work, most of whose human fig­ures are small enough to empha­size “the vast­ness of the ter­rain” — a sub­lime-evok­ing tech­nique that we can still feel work­ing two cen­turies lat­er, Puschak points out, in Vil­leneu­ve’s Dune.

You can pre-order Nerd­writer’s upcom­ing book Escape into Mean­ing: Essays on Super­man, Pub­lic Bench­es, and Oth­er Obses­sions here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Andrew Wyeth Made a Paint­ing: A Jour­ney Into His Best-Known Work Christina’s World

When Our World Became a de Chiri­co Paint­ing: How the Avant-Garde Painter Fore­saw the Emp­ty City Streets of 2020

Why Leonar­do da Vinci’s Great­est Paint­ing is Not the Mona Lisa

Bri­an Eno on Cre­at­ing Music and Art As Imag­i­nary Land­scapes (1989)

New Study: Immers­ing Your­self in Art, Music & Nature Might Reduce Inflam­ma­tion & Increase Life Expectan­cy

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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