“I am not so weak as to submit to the demands of the age when they go against my convictions,” a defiant Caspar David Friedrich declared as his art and the Romantic ideals of the early nineteenth century were falling out of favor towards the end of his life. “I spin a cocoon around myself; let others do the same. I shall leave it to time to show what will come of it: a brilliant butterfly or maggot.”
Today, we think of the German as a visionary artist reconciling human beings with their higher yearnings through the mediation of nature and contemplation. But for the longest time, Friedrich was seen as a liability after having had his art appropriated by the Nazis and enmeshed with Hitler’s nationalist propaganda.
When Friedrich’s career got a resurrection in the second half of the twentieth century it was largely due to The Monk by the Sea, an unusual painting which would end up catapulting him as one of the dubious fathers of that charming bastard-child we like to call modern art.
The man to thank for this rebirth, for bringing Friedrich out of obscurity and making him relevant again, was art critic Robert Rosenblum. In his 1975 book Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition Rosenblum traced back the en-vogue imagery, at the time, of Abstract Expressionism to German Romanticism, seeing a direct connection between Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea and Mark Rothko’s 1956 Green on Blue.
Although belated and fully deserved, the revival was ironic, two fold. One, the picture is unlike anything Friedrich had ever painted, too abstract and devoid of his typical symbols and devices. Two, Friedrich was a conservative to the bone, more concerned with finding God in art than with forging a new aesthetic.
“To wit, it is a seascape. First comes a barren sandy beach, then the unsettled sea, and then the air,” writes Friedrich describing the painting and pointing to its layers stacked on top of another like an existential cake of angst and restlessness. “Along the beach walks a man in a black cloak, deep in thought; seagulls hover around him, shrieking anxiously, as if to warn him not to venture into the tempestuous waters.”
The man in black clothes was later identified as a monk, though it is unclear whether this was Friedrich’s intention or not. There’s also speculation among art critics that the man represents the artist’s self-portrait, sharing his blond-red hair.
This kind of minimalism with bare details was a big departure from Friedrich’s signature style, which usually included numerous symbols alluding to Christianity and German nationalism. The minimalism is also what makes the painting more relatable to us, in the twenty-first century, as it escapes the context of its era; great art will always find a way to speak to audiences across centuries and continents.
Personally I see The Monk by the Sea as the perfect metaphor for anxiety, or for that split-second before anxiety strikes, when one realizes that there’s nothing out there, nothing to hang onto. It is a moment of suspension, of holding one’s breath while letting the emptiness sink in, a moment as violent as a wave crashing into a cliff. To probe this profound mental and emotional state through the use of a landscape – a minimalist one, no less – speaks volumes to Friedrich’s genius.
The minimalism is no accident, either. The artist worked hard to strip the composition of any elements that might have given us a sense of direction and pull us out of the all-encompassing nothingness.
Based on contemporaneous documents and the latest technology we now know that ships – which appear recurrently throughout Friedrich’s paintings – were removed from this painting. So were the celestial bodies, while the lines between the shore and the sea were deliberately blurred. The sky was covered with clouds so as to make it impossible to determine the time of day. We’re in no man’s land. To add further confusion, it seems unclear whether the seagulls that Friedrich references and barely renders are birds or wave crests.
And notice how the ambiguity of the landscape and man’s relation to it is further amplified by the posture of the monk: his back is curved like a question mark.
Aside from these departures, there is also the small scale of the Rückenfigur (tr. “figure from the back”), an innovation that Friedrich had previously introduced in his art so that we, the viewers, could identify with the figures in his paintings and scrutinize the landscapes from their point of view.
This device elicits a highly immersive process, particularly compelling in works such as Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. But whereas in Wanderer above the Sea of Fog the Rückenfigur seems to be dominating nature with his power pose, here our monk gets lost in the landscape, and so do we, as onlookers.
The lack of a foreground further amplifies this impression, determining Heinrich von Kleist to write at the time that,
“Since it has, in its uniformity and boundlessness, no foreground but the frame, it is as if one’s eyelids had been cut off.”
For Friedrich, as for Kierkegaard , anxiety is tied in with religion and the unfathomable eternity that lies beyond our brief life. “You may ponder from morning till evening, and from evening till darkest midnight, still would you neither conceive nor comprehend the unfathomable Hereafter!”, Friedrich writes about Monk by the Sea, as if reprimanding himself for his ignorance and ambitions. “With wanton arrogance, you imagine yourself becoming a light to posterity, illumining the darkness of the future! This is no more than holy retribution, visible and cognizable only through faith; and finally [you imagine yourself] knowing and understanding clearly! Though your footsteps sink deep in the deserted sandy beach, yet a gentle wind blows over them, and your tracks are no longer to be seen: foolish person, full of nought but conceited pride!”*
With Friedrich all roads ultimately lead to death.
… and then, to the afterlife. This heaviness that he imposes upon his pictures takes away from the beauty of the landscapes, insofar as mystery, instead of being left dormant, is called out aggressively through the use of symbols.
Curiously enough, when Friedrich exhibited Monk by the Sea at the Academy in Berlin in 1810, its accompanying piece (called pendant) was The Abbey in the Oakwood. The latter shows the funeral of a monk among the ruins of an abbey, with a faint moon kissing the dusk sky as a promise of redemption.
It is quite likely that Friedrich intended these two paintings to be joined by the narrative thread of death. Perhaps the monk that we see in the first picture is the one carried in a coffin in The Abbey in the Oakwood.
I find that this kind of enforced storytelling takes away from the potency of Monk by the Sea, as it distracts our attention from the emotional experience and tries to enclose it in a more orderly narrative. On its own, the painting speaks to all of us with its overwhelming nothingness and abstract qualities; it’s up to us to make sense of the void.
Several decades later, French artist Gustave Courbet took this encouragement to heart when he painted his own Friedrich-inspired version, the 1854 The Seaside at Palavas. The Rückenfigur, the barren shore, the vast sea and the sky – they’re all there, stretched one on top of the other following Friedrich’s recipe.
But Courbet’s painting is awash in light instead of mist and, more importantly, the well-dressed man seems to be greeting the sea with his hat in his raised hand, welcoming all its uncertainty. He acknowledges the sweeping vastness in front of him, yet sees it as a challenge and a celebration instead as a sign of his own insignificance. “Hats off”, he could be shouting, or “Chapeau!”, like the French would say, in an act both of respect and exuberant defiance. Emptiness, Friedrich and Courbet each prove in their own way, is what we make of it.
*Note: Friedrich’s painting and description of it remind me of Walt Whitman’s unusually melancholic poem As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life. In it the American poet also chastises himself for his pride and accepts his nothingness: “As the ocean so mysterious rolls toward me closer and closer,/ I too but signify at the utmost a little wash’d-up drift,/ A few sands and dead leaves to gather,/ Gather, and merge myself as part of the sands and drift.”