Caspar David Friedrich - the essential Romantic
German Romantic Art for Russian Imperial Palaces 1800-1850
By Corinna Lotz
It was one of Russia's most despotic monarchs, Tsar Nicholas I, who brought together the exquisite group of Caspar David Friedrich paintings which we can see in London over the next months.
He was the same Nicholas who suppressed the Decembrists, a group of young officers who tried to overthrow the Romanov autocracy in 1825. He instituted a new secret police and strict censorship. Nicholas sought to suppress liberal ideas within Russia as well as sending his armies to expand the Russian empire in all directions.
While brutally crushing opposition at home and abroad, Tsar Nicholas and his German-born wife Alexandra were enthusiastic patrons of contemporary German Romantic art.
Nicholas also exercised his dictatorial powers in his dealings with the artists he employed. Curator Boris Asvarishch vividly describes the Tsar's infuriating pernicketyness as he inspected work sent to him by well-known (at the time) court artists, including his favourite, Franz Krüger. Krüger was often forced to correct his "errors" and start all over again.
The Russian Romantic poet and tutor to the Tsar's children, Vasily Zhukovsky, was the link between the royal family and leading German artists, especially Caspar David Friedrich. But he too met the Imperial wrath and had to leave Russia for Germany.
In 1852 the New Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, specially designed as a museum, became the first public art museum in Russia. At first there were restrictions on who was allowed admission. By the 1860s it was open to anyone who was respectably dressed. Even so, you had to pass through the police office, which would check your political credentials, in case you were an anti-monarchist. After the 1917 Revolution, the private art collection of the imperial family was nationalised and expanded.
Today, a miniature version of the Hermitage is recreated within Somerset House on the Strand. Instead of the lavish vastness of the Winter Palace in Leningrad we have an intimate sequence of rooms with just the right number of art works to appreciate in an hour or two.
It's not so much lavish baroque as a scaled-down 19th century neo-classicism in the style of the German architect Leo von Klenze, perfectly attuned to Friedrich's visionary scenes. Klenze had already designed the famous Pinakothek and Glyptothek as public galleries for King Ludwig in Bavaria, before being employed by Nicholas I.
The Hermitage Rooms at Somerset House open with a bank of computers cleverly integrated into what looks like a handsome dining table. These provide images and details of the Hermitage collection in addition to a live camera link with the museum in Russia.
It is the second space which provides a "total immersion" in the spirit of Friedrich. The elegantly proportioned room is laid with parquet floors copied from the real Hermitage, thus providing a "contemporary" backdrop for six Friedrich paintings. Dark glass chandeliers, also replicas of the originals, sparkle overhead.
The German Romantic period has become more appreciated in Britain recently, due to pioneering exhibitions in the 1990s in Edinburgh, London's Southbank and the National Gallery. Last year the National staged Spirit of an Age, which showed the relation between the Romantic school and German national identity through a group of paintings borrowed from Berlin's Nationalgalerie.
The secretive and melancholy Caspar David Friedrich is probably the most iconic of the early 19th century Romantic painters. But, as Asvarishch, keeper of the German painting department of the State Hermitage Museum writes*, few of Friedrich's works can be seen outside his native Germany. The acquisition of a work by this artist is a now significant event for any museum.
Only one painting by the artist hangs in any British public collection. The National Gallery bought his haunting Winter Landscape in 1987, which was subject of a special "Painting in Focus" show in 1990. But the twelve splendid Friedrich oils and drawings from the State Hermitage Museum in Russia, have not been seen in Britain before, and so present a wonderful opportunity to appreciate the mysteries of Friedrich's work.
On a Sailing Boat was purchased by Grand-Duke Nicholas (the future Tsar) directly from the artist in 1820. It was installed in the Cottage Palace at Peterhof, near St Petersburg.
Completed just after the artist's marriage, a powerful sense of yearning for a mysterious "beyond" suffuses the painting. The composition draws the viewer inexorably to the two figures at the bow of the ship, and further away again to the pale spires in the distance. It is amazingly daring for its time, pre-dating Degas and the Impressionists in its "cut-off" framing, which places the viewer into the boat.
The painting is suffused with a soft, warm light, as though a new day is dawning. The mast and sails strain in the wind in varied layers of translucent canvas. We are invited to participate in a dreamy moment of hope and anticipation. The two figures turn to an ideal city, like a hazy utopia, which rises on the horizon. Joined only by the hand, their bodies are gently curved as they reach out to an some impossibly ideal moment.
Asvarishch explains how Friedrich worked in cycles, returning again and again to specific motifs. On a Sailing Boat seems to be the first of a cycle of three. It was followed by Night in Harbour (Sisters) and Moonrise Over the Sea, all of which are based on the theme of Hope.
Friedrich's deeply symbolic paintings have a purity, spareness, and restraint, which distinguishes them from the Biedermeier sentimentality which affected later 19th century painting, and which can also be seen in this show.
Friedrich chose to depict the softest effects of light - the faint shine of starlight, the just visible light cast by a rising moon, misty morning light in the mountains, the golden afterglow of a sunset. The eye slowly discovers details which are not visible from the beginning, as it grows accustomed to the dark. As in On a Sailing Boat, details emerge out of shadows, and gentle gradations of colour provide a backdrop for the tracery of figures, ship masts and sails, pine needles and gothic ruins.
In The Dreamer (Ruins of a Monastary at Oybin), a late work, Friedrich touches on his favourite themes. He loved to show humans contemplating the infinite, the world beyond the self. In The Dreamer, the play between the internal, delimited world and the unlimited world of nature is turned inside out. The ruined interior of the monastary seems to be "outside", cold and alien, while the light of the setting sun is "within", like the light glimpsed through the windows of a house. A group of six stunning watercolours and sepia drawings, including two spooky owl drawings, complete the Friedrich component of this show.
A series of views of the Crimea by a fellow German, Carl Ferdinand von Kügelgen, were made on the orders of Tsar Alexander I, between 1804 and 1824. Forty of them were worked up into landscape compositions, which as Asya Kantor-Gukovskaya writes in the catalogue, "are imbued with the atmosphere of days long gone and represent…. another manifestation of the Romantic spirit". The exotic scenes show places like Bakhchisarai (Tatar for "Palace of Gardens"), the Karaite (an ancient Jewish sect) cemetery at the cave-town of Chufut-Kaleh, the hanging cliff of Inkerman, the caves near Kachikolen, which were inhabited by the Crimean Tartars.
Last, but not least, there is The Magic of the White Rose, a cycle of 10 gouaches by Adolph Menzel, commissioned in 1853 by the King of Prussia for his sister, the Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna, the Tsar's wife. By now, the fairy-tale atmosphere is complete. Menzel frames his paintings like pages out of a medieval miniature or scenes upon a fantastic stage. We have layer upon layer of unreality, a stage within a stage, a story within a story, miraculously lit from within by the light of a thousand candles on multiple chandeliers.
Amazingly, Menzel is the same artist who, only a few years earlier, had made almost impressionist depictions of the Berlin-Potsdam railway and ground-breaking works like The Balcony Room and a grand image of factory workers. The industrial and political revolution was transforming Britain and Germany, even as the Empress celebrated her birthday in St Petersburg, revelling in Menzel's storybook fantasies.
* Catalogue, published by State Hermitage Museum, edited by Boris Asvarishch £11.95