Wednesday, 7 October 2009


I bought a book on Caspar David Friedrich this week. It is one of the excellent little Taschen Basic series books. They are cheap with decent reproductions: small and slim, but big enough to get a feel for someone's work or, as in my case, to serve as a reminder of someone you already admire. They are also pretty readable.

I've always loved Friedrich. When you draw or paint, certain artists seem to have a particular resonance at different stages of your life. One day you will see the work of someone you thought was absolutely fantastic and wonder why on earth you hadn't seen through all his technical shortcomings and empty trickery before. An artist who had previously appeared without any kind of merit will now seem to hold the key to all kinds of possibilities. Actually, that's true of writers too.

But Friedrich has been a constant. Even when my painting output grew increasingly abstract, I still found things to admire in his work. More often than not I am drawn to a painter because of the way he paints. Rather than standing back from the work, like most painters, I make the guards nervous by leaning in. I want to know how it was done.

The strange thing is, this is totally different with Friedrich. This is not to say that there is not much to admire about his painting technique, but it is the imagery that I find so compelling. There are lots of pictures of men and women standing on shorelines and cliff edges or at windows, shown from behind. They pull you into the painting to share the view. I want to tap them on the shoulder.

It is often twilight in Friedrich paintings. Many of the paintings are of sunrise or sunset, or of eerie moonlit nights. He paints snow covered trees and mist drifting across hillsides. He paints ruined abbeys and deserted graveyards. There is an unearthly quality to most of his best work. They seem like notes from a dream.

His work is so evocative and moody that it is often used for book jackets. Here he is on the cover of the Vintage edition of Susan Hill's The Woman in Black.

Friedrich is a quintessential Romantic and his work is often used on the covers of books that deal with Romantic painting or literature. With his paintings of graveyards, mountains, frozen seas and mysterious travellers, almost any Friedrich painting would serve as a very good illustration to Frankenstein, but it his Wanderer Above a Sea of Mist that always seems perfect for that book. It seems to evoke both the doomed, god-like loftiness of Victor Frankenstein and the tragic isolation of his creation.

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