Caspar David Friedrich - Chalk cliffs on Rügen

by Stephan Franck


The chalk cliffs of Rügen, as they were once depicted by Caspar David Friedrich, have only been preserved in parts in their picturesque form as witnessed by him. But this picture is so well known that many people can immediately conjure up the image of the romantic-looking view with the chalk cliffs towering up pointedly in their mind's eye.

The pictorial memory does not deceive us. As viewers, we step into a wondrous spectacle of nature's worship. Like a maelstrom, the viewer's eye is drawn over the three people, a woman on the left edge and two men, out over the fairytale-like chalk cliffs to the sea. Successively, our gaze glides along the rocks. In between, a small boat jostles for position and a clearly outlined sailing ship is slightly off center. The view is framed by spreading treetops.


As simply structured as the painting may seem, the art historical interpretive authority over the Winterthur painting is lost in countless controversies. This results directly from the structure and composition of almost all paintings conceived by Friedrich, in which the viewer, in addition to the pictorial staff, plays a very essential role. For the artist constructed various narrative structures on top of each other for the "viewer" and connected them with his own desire. This oscillates from a deep religious attachment to nature to a philosophical-political statement that has not lost sight of the social upheavals since the French Revolution.


The motif of looking into the distance, for example, is an expression of a sensual perception of space that we commonly misjudge as "romantic" at this point. However, there is another dimension of the painting - that of abstraction . Caspar David Friedrich put together his picture as a composition , that is, from three views. In this way he created an environment that cannot be precisely determined topographically and thus corresponds only to an approximate reality. But that's not all: the sea already shows the formal language of abstract painting and makes Friedrich not only a painter of Romanticism , but also a pioneer of modernism.


Caspar David Friedrich - Chalk cliffs on Rügen

Oil on canvas, 1818, 90.5 x 71 cm, Museum Oskar Reinhart in Winterthur