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.

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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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