The following article is from our May 2006 issue.

Glimpses of Mystery In a Sea of Fog. Essen's Folkwang Museum reinterprets Caspar David Friedrich. By Stefan Lüddemann

Caspar David Friedrich has always been considered the quintessential German Romantic painter. A new exhibition at Essen's Folkwang Museum explores a possible secret message hidden in the artist's religious Romanticism. It turns out Friedrich was linked to the Freemasons.

Caspar David Friedrich painted a world of moonlit church ruins, mountains shrouded in mist and lonely wanderers silhouetted against the expanse of nature. Few artists are as representative of Romanticism as Friedrich (1774-1840). And perhaps no artist apart from Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) is quite so typically German: dreamy but determined, imaginative yet precise.

To his contemporaries, he was also the epitome of melancholic genius. "He is surrounded by a thick, gloomy cloud of spiritual uncertainty," wrote the doctor and painter Carl Gustav Carus in 1829. In 2004, this view was supported by Carsten Spitzer, a psychiatrist at the University of Greifs­wald, Friedrich's hometown. Spitzer said he believes Friedrich suffered from severe depression, citing recurring periods of inertia, one suicide attempt and feelings that the artist himself described as "dreadful weariness."

But Hubertus Gassner, the curator of the Essen exhibition and a respected art historian, is intent on dispelling the clichés of Friedrich as a heartsick Romantic, dreamer and hopeless case. "Caspar David Friedrich thoroughly worked out the composition of each of his pictures," Gassner says.

Earlier interpretations have always remarked on Friedrich's way of combining mysterious light effects, lone seekers and mystical natural images with precise geometric structure. But Gassner is not satisfied with this analysis. He adds a provocative new theory to our perception of Friedrich's art. He believes the artist incorporated the Freemasons' worldview into his paintings as a kind of secret message.

This is particularly interesting given that Friedrich is considered not only a prime representative of German Romanticism, but also the embodiment of an artist inspired by religion. His "Cross on the Mountain" backlit by the rising sun and, above all, his "Tetschen Altar" (1807-08), which will be shown in the exhibition, seem destined to be interpreted as signs of Christian beliefs.

But Gassner calls the painting a "Freemason's picture" and also provides new interpretations for some of the artist's other subject matter. "Life as a path of discovery, the concept of traveling; of wandering the world," says Gass­ner. "Those are all central issues for Freemasons." He points to new research showing Friedrich had contacts with the Freemasons' lodge in Greifswald. According to Gassner, Friedrich's university drawing teacher, Johann Gottfried Quistorp, was a member of the lodge. The curator believes it was Quistorp who introduced Friedrich to the "Swedish system" of Freemasonry. At the time Friedrich was a student at the university and Greifswald was Swedish territory.

But the new light the exhibition hopes to shed on traditional perceptions of Friedrich is based on more than just an association with the Freemasons. Gassner says we should not consign the artist to the fog of Romanticism. The curator believes Friedrich's work was actually a forerunner to modern media art. He points out that Friedrich often combined images from various times of day in one painting; that he even linked several transparent pictures with specific pieces of music, and that he painted entire series of some of his best-known subject matter.

"It was almost like filmmaking," Gassner says. In addition to showing Friedrich's paintings in 17 chapters, Gassner has enhanced the exhibition with works by living artists that not only echo some of Friedrich's themes, such as scudding clouds or women seen from the back, but also employ video as an art medium. The overall effect is to lend the Romantic artist an undreamt of air of modernity. Friedrich may have painted his legendary landscapes with a slow and detailed hand in a sparsely furnished studio reminiscent of a monk's cell, but his artistic imagination was quite modern.

Visitors to the Essen museum will have a unique opportunity to appreciate Friedrich's art. The exhibition brings together a collection of his most famous works the like of which we will probably never see again in one place. It includes true legends of art history such as "Chalk Cliffs on Rügen" (1818), the "Tetschen Altar," "Wanderer above the Sea of Fog" (1818) and "Sea of Ice," along with about 70 additional paintings and 120 drawings.

Despite the loan of valuable paintings from Berlin, Dresden, Hamburg and St. Petersburg, even this vast exhibition is missing two works, for which Friedrich's contemporaries had the highest praise. "Abbey in an Oak Forest" (1809 to 1810) is missing and so is the work which is perhaps more closely associated with the Romantic period than any other: "Monk by the Sea" (1809 to 1810). Hendrik von Boxberg, the exhibition's director of publicity admits that "Berlin simply refused to lend us those works."

Still, this is the most comprehensive Friedrich exhibition since the retrospective in 1974 to mark his 200th birthday. That show was mounted in Dresden and Hamburg, which is where this exhibition will be headed come autumn.

- Stefan Lüddemann heads the culture section of the daily newspaper Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung.


"Caspar David Friedrich. The Invention of Romanticism"

Folkwang Museum, Essen, from May 5 to August 20, Tue. through Sun. 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Fridays until midnight; www.cdf-ausstellung.de; www.museum-folkwang.de.