Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Signs of absence

Joseph Koerner's book Caspar David Friedrich and the Subject of Landscape opened my eyes. It begins with an inspiring revision of an apparently bland painting of a few trees in winter. That would have been enough for me. But then it offers a useful summary of Romanticism. Its artists tended to have:
  • a heightened sensitivity to the natural world
  • a belief in nature's correspondence to the mind
  • a focus on the subjective
  • a passion for the equivocal, the indeterminate and the obscure
  • a desire to be lost in nature's infinity
  • an infatuation with death
  • a preference for night over day
It seems that the Romantics were incipient Goths.

But the book's length and intensity rather wore me down and I can't remember much of the middle. I was awoken from my intellectual slumber by Koerner's use, toward the end, of an essay by Kleist on CDF's famous painting The Monk by the Sea.

For Kleist the painting evokes feelings of the possibility of transcendence; a crossing over the sea. Yet Koerner says "the desire for passage remains unfulfilled", and Kleist "at once expresses and recuperates his loss through the discovery of life within signs of the absence of life":
Such things are not possible before the painting, and that which I should find within the painting itself, I have already found between me and the picture, namely, the demand that the picture made upon my heart, and the loss that the picture inflicted upon me. And thus I was myself the monk, the painting was the dunes, but that across which I should have gazed with longing - the sea - was altogether missing.
That phrase: the loss that the picture inflicted upon me. How strange that is to read, to hear somebody else express it - yet also absolutely familiar.

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