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Caspar David Friedrich - Two Men Contemplating the Moon

by Thyra Guenther-Lübbers

Magic, melancholy, perhaps even meditation takes hold of us and we immerse ourselves in a painting by the greatest German representative of Romanticism, Caspar David Friedrich. It is easy to identify Friedrich's works as his own, as they always emanate a somewhat mystical, melancholy, but in any case also an infectious mood, to which the viewer's ego must position itself, if it wants to stay longer in front of the work. The works are interactive in their own quiet way, although they were created at a time when the exchange between the work and the viewer was nowhere near as important as it is today. Even the rather small format of the painting is meant to entice the viewer to come closer. Both spatially and mentally.

That Caspar David Friedrich was at work here is also revealed by the back view of the persons depicted as well as the embedding of the "setting" in a dramatic-looking landscape. The present setting can be located on the northwest shore of the Tollensesee, in the Harz Mountains or on the steep shore of Rügen. The back views, typical for the artist, always ensure an anonymization of the sitter and invite the viewer once again to identify himself with the depicted figure. Friedrich directs the viewer's gaze directly to the pictorial personnel through the guidance of the hiking trail as well as the huge boulders flanking it on the right and left. The two male figures dressed in so-called "German costume" seem to be on an evening walk and philosophize about the waxing moon as well as the evening star depicted to the right of it. The clothing was executed by Caspar David Friedrich in a blue-gray hue. While one figure, in which some see a self-portrait of the artist, leans on a walking stick, the other, which is possibly supposed to show August Heinrich, a student and friend of Friedrich, leans with her right arm on the shoulder of the figure with stick. They are standing on a stony path in front of an indicated slope. Evergreen spruces can be made out on the other side of the slope. The men themselves are framed by branches and twigs. To their right is a half uprooted, moss infested, almost dead oak tree that seems to be held up only by a huge boulder. To its left, again, stands a green spruce.

The picture, seemingly composed with only a few grips, allows two levels of interpretation: a political as well as a religious one. For the political one, the work must be understood in its time of origin. In the course of the restorative Congress of Vienna (1814/15), the so-called Carlsbad Resolutions were passed in Carlsbad in 1819, which in summary prohibited any liberal or national tendency in Germany after the time of Napoleon Bonaparte. The oak tree as an original German symbol could consequently stand here for the hope for a nation state, which is slowly but surely dying. Friedrich's pictorial personnel properly dressed for the substantiation of this theory, escapes from society and daylight to catch a glimpse of light in the truest sense of the word through the waxing moon, which in stark contrast to the oak is to be interpreted as a bearer of hope. In favor of this theory is the fact that the moon is positioned centrally in the picture and also above the implied abyss and attracts the attention of the viewer by its very bright appearance in the night scene. Since the artist was also very religious, however, a religious interpretation also makes sense. According to this, the rotten oak would stand for everything pagan, which the Christian religion has overcome with its savior Jesus Christ, who in this case is present in the picture through the rising, waxing moon.

Friedrich's work consequently leaves us not only with a magical and melancholic feeling, but also with a sensitization to the metaphorical.

Caspar David Friedrich - Two Men Contemplating the Moon

Oil on canvas, 1819/1820, 33 x 44.5 cm, Galerie Neue Meister, Dresden


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