Everyone has their favorite artist, some artist that they connect to in their heart. Some people adore Monet for his colors, some love Van Gogh for his vitality, and some might love Picasso just because they know of no other artist. For myself, it is Caspar David Friedrich whom I fell for because I am drawn to his stark portrayal of humanity. Often the people in his paintings are alone. He paints his figures with their backs usually turned, and their gaze cast gaze somewhere far off the horizon. His trees rarely have any leaves, and branches stand naked against turbulent skies.
Looking outside one of his windows, one never sees an entire ship, but only the poles and strings of a ship’s mast peek through to let you know that where he lives is a seaside town. Ancient abbeys are never complete buildings; he paints them as desolate yet hauntingly romantic ruins. To Friedrich, a ruin can never have four walls, nor can they ever have windows that hold any bit of glass. Yet despite a ruins emptiness and neglect, Friedrich knows that these lonely buildings are far from dead. Ruins have a spirit about them, and it is he who paints a group of worshippers, backs toward us, heading inside an abbey of empty walls to hold a mass.
It is this portrayal of quiet human passion that is so moving. Alone, we are in this world — always questioning if there really is something beyond ourselves to believe in. Friedrich successfully paints the silent human drama of contemplation. When left to ourselves, we cannot help but think. Think about what? Think about everything.
His paintings are so silent, it as though they whisper. They whisper secrets. His paintings think, and if you get close to them, you will hear profound insights. His paintings have thought everything over, and they will be the first to tell you that there are no answers. His paintings invite you to sit beside them and ponder the world alongside them. Soon, you too will feel the wind’s gentle breeze, hear the ocean’s soothing roar, and experience the silence of mountaintops. His paintings bring these things to you. I know of no other artist that can create an atmosphere that is so relaxing, yet so stirring. For all the quiet reverie, there is yet a tinge of anxiety about them. Most of this anxiety exits in the colors — the browns, the blues, the blacks. Even his bright colors — his yellows, oranges, and red — are moody. His art is not merely about what he paints but also about how he paints them. Even when he uses white, he uses it to paint an iceberg that silently crushes a stranded ship.
It is this juxtaposition of color set against the underbelly of life that makes Friedrich so good, yet so overlooked. He paints the things that we don’t necessarily want to see nor feel. He paints the exact feelings that we feel when we are lonely, and a lot of us don’t like to see those feelings painted before our eyes. We are almost afraid of Friedrich because he paints exactly who we are inside. This revelation is almost too scary to face, so it is easy to run away from him. I think it is for these reasons why Friedrich is not very well known, or barely known at all. The popular artists are popular because most of them paint things in colors that make us feel good about ourselves. Friedrich doesn’t do that. He doesn’t even try to make us feel happy. He prefers to paint light things that weigh heavy upon us. Friedrich is the more honest artist in this sense. Perhaps he rests comfortably in his grave knowing that his paintings are not mainstream and not donned on the front of every Hallmark card. His paintings have never “sold out.” His paintings are still pure. Pure art.
I have been to the Getty Museum three times since it opened in its new location in 1997. The first time, I went to see the museum collection in general, and then the other two times, I went there mainly to see the single Friedrich painting they owned. The museum itself, I must say, is absolutely fabulous. Architecturally speaking, the place looks and feels great. Designed by the architect Richard Meier, the Getty Museum sits atop a dramatic 750-acre spur of the Santa Monica Mountains and offers plenty of panoramic views of smoggy Los Angeles.
The museum galleries are mostly lit with natural lighting, and the cool tan-colored stone used throughout is a welcome change from the typical museum-sterile plain white walls. And the best thing about the Getty Museum is that it is free!
The Friedrich painting that the Getty has is titled A Walk at Dusk. Friedrich lived to be 65 years old, and he painted A Walk at Dusk roughly ten years before his death in 1840. It is a painting that has many meanings.
It is a quiet picture, as most of his paintings are, but the central figure is not of a person, but a big fat rock. A dolmen. This large rock is what makes the picture somewhat disturbing: it is the painting’s anxiety. The painting is not titled A Rock at Dusk but rather, A Walk at Dusk; however, the figure is not walking. He was walking, but he stopped to contemplate the stone. I believe that it is Friedrich looking back on his life.
The large stone is erected upon a bed of smaller stones, and it is believed that an ancient race of people put it there a very long time ago. It is very likely that the stone was once even worshipped or at least venerated. Time has passed, the ancient people have gone, but the stone — the dolmen– remains. It is hard to walk past it without giving it some thought as Friedrich must have done on his quiet strolls by himself many times throughout his artistic life.
The dolmen is bigger than the man who contemplates it. There is a chill in the air, and the man wears a long heavy red robe, gloves, and a big fancy fur hat. It will be winter soon, and this man takes advantage of a crisp late afternoon to take a long stroll, for it is certain that the dolmen lies a bit far from his house. He is on the outskirts of the city, near the country’s edge, and the dolmen is found on a path nestled with trees. The trees no longer have their leaves, and as the sun begins to set, the moon has already risen with the evening star beside it. The colors of the painting capture the color of dusk perfectly — no longer being light of day but not yet completely dark; dusk has a special hue to it. There is almost something spiritual about the color of dusk. Dusk is hauntingly moody as the Earth holds on to the last flickers of waning sunlight.
Dusk creates the perfect colors for thinking, especially for a man who nears the last years of his life.
So, Friedrich paints a man, himself perhaps, as he contemplates the dance of time. The dolmen, the man decides, is humanity itself. Standing beside it, though he is an aged man by now, he feels himself to be young. The rock is so much older. And even when he is gone from this world, the rock will remain where it is. Humanity will continue, and the world will turn without him. Is it a sad revelation, but a reassuring one nevertheless. The world will not die when he is no longer able to live in it.
The man thinks about his family, his friends, his legacy, and his art. Certainly, Friedrich would have had his quiet moments when he would think about the fate of all his paintings. Would they endure? Who would keep them? Will his paintings fall through the crack of time? Or will they all be thrown away?
Friedrich spent his life painting. It is strange not to know what will happen with one’s art once one dies. For even when the artist lies dead and buried, a part of that artist still resides in the world of the living. The artist’s existence lives on the canvass. So the mystery of not knowing what will happen to one’s art is like not knowing what will happen to one’s soul when one dies. What will one’s fate be? An artists’ legacy is never guaranteed. Once dead, someone could take all of an artist’s artwork and destroy it, ensuring forever that the artist will forever remain forgotten. If that happens, then someone throws away a part of everything that artist ever was. Death can be a very scary thing for an artist, especially for one who has always been sentimental toward life. An artist feels that they never really leave this world, for the art they leave behind will continue to speak on the artist’s behalf.
To tell the truth, the painting A Walk at Dusk is cracked as, unfortunately, most Friedrich paintings are. Luckily, though, the paint has not fallen off the canvass. In this picture, most of the cracked paint is limited to the surface of the stone, which is almost mysterious in a way. All thoughts are meant to be directed to the dolmen and what it represents: age, time, war, and determination. How fitting that the stone’s paint is cracked. The weight of the world has fallen upon it and has worn it down. The cracks are a poignant reminder that time, someday, will wear down even the heaviest of stones.
Aside from several paintings that have been either lost or destroyed during WWII, most of Friedrich’s paintings have survived the portal of time. Yet, like all things, their fate is never definitely determined. Someday the paint might crack and fall off completely, or the colors might fade, or another war will destroy another handful of paintings. The man who contemplates himself will never reach a certain conclusion. As long as this painting exists, the man will continue to wonder. Friedrich will continue to wonder.
The answers will never be found.
To see more Caspar David Friedrich paintings, click on this link here.