Casper David Friedrich has become an artist of interest to me lately. Wanderer Above Sea of Fog, is perhaps his most famous work and as I read more about him I am increasingly fascinated by his approach to nature and its relationship to religion and spiritualism. It seems to me that his work demands an emotional response, usually one of loneliness or contemplative wonder.
Born in the 19th Century, Friedrich is now considered one of the most important painters of the German romantic period. His early career brought him fame and popularity though he fell out of favour towards the end of his life – despite, in my opinion, creating some of his strongest work during at this time. What caused public favour to turn away from Friedrich in his later life and for his talent to only be fully appreciate years after his death? To me his career is a clear cut example of society’s role in the promotion of art, and how changing times effect the creation of art as it follows a roller coaster ride of mixed appreciation.
Friedrich’s genius comes in his ability to capture the stillness of nature, to make it seem completely frozen and untamed. His painting of a simple snow covered tree can stir all kinds of emotions in the viewer, as his colour palette and the flawless attention to detail turn a landscape into something other than a simple view to be enjoyed. His landscapes are the motive and expression centre of drama, and humans are conspicuously absent. The subtle inclusion of crosses in several pieces points us, quiet literally to something beyond ourselves. To me, his landscapes seem like you could step into them and explore them: both frightening and wonderful at the same time. His scenes seem as if no one has set foot in them, enticing us, the audience, to run through them and create tracks.
Despite the magic and mystery of his paintings, Friedrich died in poverty and supposedly half mad. The demand of the German art world at the end of the 19th century was not for still, winters landscapes, but for modern dynamic art works. His work was old fashioned. Yet it gained popularity with the impressionists of the 1920s who drew ideas and influences from his themes. Unfortunately, his skill was also recognised by the Nazi movement of the ’30s and ’40s, and so this, quite naturally after World War II, meant a huge decline in his popularity.
However, Friedrich’s talent could not be long forgotten and now all associations with the Nazis have fallen away and he is widely accepted as one of the most influential artists of this period. Yet the changing attitudes towards him raise an interesting question about an artist’s skill versus his worth. Friedrich’s skill never changed, his work was always the same, yet his value as decreed by society rose and fell very dramatically. He went from innovative to old fashioned, icon to unpleasant reminder. His fortunes illustrate how the value of an artist’s work and his influence upon the changing face of art history, is ultimately limited by the values of society, raising many ineresting questions about the art of our own society and times.