Caspar David Friedrich in Essen

Last Wednesday I and a friend dropped by the Caspar David Friedrich exhibition at the Museum Folkwang in Essen. I have always had a soft spot for Friedrich, who is considered the greatest German Romantic painter and is best-known for his brooding, metaphysically-charged landscapes. Typical subjects are two monks wandering next to the see, or a neglected cemetery in winter, in which snow drifts against the gravestones of long-forgotten peasants, or a lone wanderer atop a rocky precipice, contemplating a fog-shrouded rocky landscape. Friedrich’s reputation has had its ups and downs. He was practically ignored for years after his death, and his religious paintings have been accused of kitsch. Those pesky Nazis clasped him to their stinking bosom, praising the "German spirit" of his art. But after all that, he still speaks to me.

I have never been disappointed by the Museum Folkwang before, and I wasn’t now. Yes, I know what you’re asking: "What’s a Folkwang?"  There are probably a million reasons they can’t do this, but the Folkwang should change its name. People assume it is a peculiar little collection devoted to, err, Folkwangs, or the 16th-century Bohemian glass sculptor Hans-Joachim Folkwang. But no, the Museum Folkwang is a big, fascinating museum of modern art right in the heart of Essen, Germany, which will be Europe’s cultural capital in 2010.

Essen is part of the industrial Ruhrgebeit. Industrialists tend to become very rich, then they tend to collect art, and then they give it to nearby museums after they die. This has been very good for the Folkwang. It boasts an impressive and diverse permanent collection from the 19th-century onward. The highlight is an almost unrivalled collection of German expressionists, but there are also well-chosen van Goghs, Dalis, surrealists, Dadaists, and a few impressionists. It’s all housed in a purpose-built museum complex which isn’t very exciting, but is easy to navigate and also boasts a nice outdoor cafe.

The exhibition (G), which is subtitled "The invention of Romanticism," is thoughtful and unobtrusive. It’s laid out in 13 rooms, loosely organized along thematic lines, but also with a chronological component. The themes include Friedrich’s use of geometry, religious subjects in his painting, and types of Friedrichian landscapes. It highlights many aspects of Friedrich’s art that were unknown to me, including his wonderfully vivid, finely-detailed sketches of family members, done while he was in his 20s, and his preparatory sketches.

The trees and rocks in Friedrich paintings are all rendered with meticulous realism, yet also seem have their own personalities; sometimes brooding and impassive, sometimes bold and questing, sometimes eerie and treacherous. The exhibition shows you the effort and contemplation required to achieve these effects. There’s nothing quite like the way Friedrich handles light, when he’s in top form. A glorious brooding valley-landscape featuring ruins at dusk captures perfectly that brief stage of sunset in which objects themselves seem to glow in the dying light.

Toward the end of his life, Friedrich — always an extremely intense and metaphysical chap — began to lose touch with reality, and his works became progressively more otherworldly. He began a large cycle of paintings dealing with allegories of music, and also experimented with painting on transparent media, which could then be illuminated by a candle placed behind them. His aim was to combine these paintings with music, which the Folkwang does to wonderful effect, choosing a composition for two glass harmonicas(!). The effect is indeed eerie and fascinating.

All in all, a lovely experience. If you get the opportunity, pay Caspar — and Essen — a visit.

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