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Graduate Book Review: Joseph Leo Koerner: Caspar David Friedrich and the Subject of Landscape

The title of Joseph Koerner's ambitious and intriguing analysis -- Caspar David Friedrich and the Subject of Landscape -- does not do justice to the scope and content of his survey, nor does it reflect the very novel approach Koerner takes in writing about Friedrich's art, his environment, and his reception. Koerner does present an insightful critique of landscape as both subject and expression of Friedrich's unique Romantic vision, but he also delivers thoughtful commentaries on many more aspects of the Romantic movement in art, literature, and society at large, ranging from interpretations focusing on Friedrich's use of geometric symmetry and perspective to the artist's personal expression of religion through art and symbolism. Particularly successful are Koerner's detailed explications of two important works by Friedrich, the Tetschen Altarpiece (or Cross in the Mountains ) of 1808 and the Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog from 1818; Koerner uses these works as focal points for his arguments regarding subjectivity, Romantic art criticism, and the development of Friedrich's peculiar style. On the whole, Koerner's analysis is striking in its well-grounded and often surprising readings of particular works, and in its coherent assessment of the artist's "unique" character among nineteenth-century German artists.

Koerner begins his examination by a direct confrontation and addressing of the reader, a rather presumptuous moment which proves itself by virtue of the author's very personal interpretation: "You believe that, because this is a painted scene, it is somehow for you, and that insignificant nature, represented, will have a bearing on your life." [1] In fact it is Friedrich's own experience to which Koerner directs his attention. Friedrich's art, Koerner explains, is Erlebniskunst, the art of experience, and it is his own inner world which Friedrich so strikingly reveals on the canvas. Even the modern viewer feels the Eigentümlichkeit , the peculiarity of these scenes, and to Friedrich's contemporaries, such a break from traditional modes of representation was cause for discussion and even outrage.

Friedrich's "empty" canvases are seen by Koerner in socio-historical as well as art-historical terms: as a reflection of the artist's own spirit in touch with the political moment, but also as an expression of contemporary views on the very nature of art and art criticism. In this light, Koerner attempts to show Friedrich's differences from his predecessors, which he finds primarily in the artist's use and treatment of landscape. Landscape in Friedrich's paintings takes on, under Koerner's discerning eye, the character of a journey, of the search for that which is hidden and may never be found. Thus the great spires of the floating cathedral of the Winter Landscape with Church (1811), while clear to the viewer, remain hidden to the exhausted figure in the snow, dwarfed by the branches of the fir tree and its wooden cross. The importance of the almost hidden for Friedrich's landscapes -- that which is 'sensed' without being known -- leads Koerner into a succinct review of Romanticism's greatest tenets: the importance of becoming rather than being, the paradoxical need to discover an 'original' truth, the subjectivity of personal experience.

These concepts find their artistic fulfillment in Friedrich's Cross in the Mountains , a work which Koerner regards as sparking the public debate around a new subjectivist approach to art criticism. After a brief recounting not only of the work's mixed form as sacral and secular art but of its "hybrid creation" as well, Koerner goes on to elaborate and explicate the altarpiece's contemporary reception. Using Ramdohr's censorious 1809 critique of Friedrich's work as a springboard, Koerner shows that the classicistic approach to viewing art was able to point out the peculiarities and "failings" of Friedrich's art according to traditional standards, but was unable to embrace these aesthetic differences as the source of Friedrich's uniquely appealing character. Romantic apologists, however, recognized that it is precisely because of these 'broken rules' that Friedrich's art approaches the sublime; its reliance on a system of symbol and allegory that resists definitive interpretation is, in fact, its mark of greatness.

This particularity, this uniqueness, this eccentricity: all of it is summed up in the German Eigentümlichkeit . And in Friedrich's self-portraits, themselves the very essence of characteristic difference, Koerner discerns the beginnings of the artist's inward focus; here the eye becomes the "mediator of the inner self." After a fairly traditional recounting of biographical elements -- Friedrich's schooling and the influence of contemporaries, most notably Kosegarten -- Koerner then documents, with a series of fascinating but often loosely connected interpretations of significant works, the "heightened inwardness" that becomes apparent in the mature Friedrich.

Returning, then, to the Cross in the Mountains , Koerner attempts, as he puts it, to reveal the "sign" by "reading Friedrich's landscapes against Romanticism's semiotic master-term, the symbol," [2] i.e. to discover the 'system' behind Friedrich's often confusing use of religious, geometric, and cultural symbolism. Koerner again takes up Ramdohr's 1809 critique, in what seems to be a belated apologia of Friedrich's genius. He proceeds to rework critical perspectives by analyzing Friedrich's use of space and symmetry (or the lack thereof, i.e. Kunstchaos ) as an indicator of symbolic meaning, and comes to the conclusion that, as befits the Romantic project itself, the distinction between image and meaning has become a tautology, for "true art is what it means." [3] Koerner compares Friedrich's use of allegory to that of his contemporary Runge, and examines both artists' incorporation of religious elements in their works. In the end, he posits, what Friedrich's mountaintop cross signifies is not a rebirth of religion, but rather its death and transfiguration into art; his Christ is a "Rückenfigur viewing the landscape that shall replace His altars." [4]

This Rückenfigur , though, deserves further consideration, and Koerner fortuitously obliges, tracing older uses of the figure as mere ornamentation or as a portrayal of the artist himself up to Friedrich's innovative placement of the figure: no longer witnessed in the act of making or even casually observing, Friedrich's Rückenfigur takes on the vital role of experiencing, partaking in the scene and in the art itself. Unlike his predecessors', Friedrich's figure is integral to an understanding of the work and plays an active role in it. One need only imagine the landscape in Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog without the critical position of the Rückenfigur , who not only directs our gaze but changes it, makes it unstable. Koerner's exquisitely detailed reading of Friedrich's great painting culminates in the contention that the figure, "as figure of self," is in fact "Nature, man, and human history together," and that the "experiencing self is both foregrounded and concealed." [5]

Koerner relates his interpretation of the Wanderer to those of Friedrich's contemporaries, and then touches upon the artist's later development and works, noting that, with time, Friedrich's momentous searching landscapes were felt to be passé, even when the old categories of landscape painting as heroic or pastoral had long since been abandoned. It is in view of these later works that Koerner also senses the Rückenfigur to be a marker of "pastness" -- a moment of déjà vu , the sight of the Other, a Doppelgänger who both sees and is seen, or even, as Friedrich himself indicated, the political 'demagogues' whose moment had passed. Friedrich's Wanderer , as indeed his art, travels in the purgatory between the infinite and the bounded, the timely and the timeless, the past and the future.

Koerner's analysis is, without doubt, striking -- both as a work of German cultural history and of art scholarship. Clearly written by a Germanist, the work integrates numerous references to personages, literature, and politics of nineteenth-century Germany, and approaches at times the tone of a course reader. By no means, however, does the writing preclude a less specialized readership, for most of these references are effectively and concisely explained, without the slightest hint of condescension. At the same time, Koerner's ability to analyze and interpret artistic works in such great detail is remarkable, making this book ideally suited for use in a wide range of academic contexts.

Koerner strikes a satisfying balance between original interpretation, socio-historical context, primary source references, and even mention of modern critical scholarship. Only in the extensive confrontation with Ramdohr's critique does he seem to lose sight of his original purpose, and he appears to want to partake, as Friedrich's apologist, in a 180-year-old debate. This is, of course, necessitated by an apparent failure in the modern art world to properly 'appreciate' Friedrich's works, but Koerner chooses wisely not to dwell on such issues in his text. Indeed, his arguments are concise, coherent, and for the most part utterly convincing. His approach is novel: rather than a biographical summary, a chronological assessment, or even a thematic categorization, he presents a clear thesis -- Friedrich as Romantic artist, poised, like the Rückenfigur , over the brink of German cultural history -- and develops it in two clear sections drawing on two main works as well as numerous supporting examples. Fragmentary both by choice and by necessity, Koerner's work lacks a conclusion, but allows an appreciation of the whole.

Although the prose is often dense and inscrutable, Koerner's arguments shine through, due to his steady progression of examples and the fundamental cohesion of the text's structure. His use of the second person at the beginning is effective, if admittedly daring; throughout the text he makes an effort to include the reader in his thoughts and reasoning. After becoming accustomed to this inclusion, it is rather disconcerting to be faced, at the beginning of Part III, with the impenetrable first-person account: "I see into the canvas as if into a wood." [6] Perhaps wishing to emphasize the difference between the indefinite protagonist of the Cross in the Mountains , who could be the "you" of Koerner's opening, as contrasted with the well-defined yet still anonymous Rückenfigur of the Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog , this shift in person is nonetheless jarring and somewhat confusing.

Koerner leaves a few relatively minor questions unanswered. After discussing at some length the importance of the Countess von Thun-Hohenstein for the genesis and subsequent fate of the Tetschen Altar , Koerner postulates that the presence of both this altarpiece and an engraving of the Sistine Madonna in the Countess' bedroom (these works in a bedroom, no less!) is significant and indicative of the period's views on the role and place of art. What he fails to consider, however, is the Countess' own role in this decision -- why would she place these two particular works in her bedchamber? A more detailed analysis of the Countess herself, her views on art, and any influences on her decision would certainly make a fascinating addition to Koerner's account, for it seems clear that she could be a key to understanding the "real and fictive vicissitudes" [7] in artistic reception of the era.

So too would Koerner's analysis benefit from greater detail in his discussion of gender roles in Friedrich's paintings. He casually notes that "male and female viewers inhabit separate spheres" [8] in several of the artist's works; yet when discussing Kleist's essay and the commentary between the 'Man' and the 'Lady,' Koerner makes little mention of the very different gender roles being ascribed to each. Certainly a full-fledged examination of Friedrich's portrayal of women (and men) is beyond the scope of Koerner's argument, and in fact has little to do with most of his examples, but in certain situations it seems as though he is begging the question and never answering it.

In general Koerner has, with this book, contributed a great deal to the modern understanding of Caspar David Friedrich. He has produced a text that can be read by art historians, Germanists, and lay persons alike; this is no small accomplishment. His concise overview of Romanticism and Romantic art is integrated successfully into the structure of his analysis, and his strategies of original argumentation as well as of writing style are refreshingly new. His arguments are sound and often display brilliant leaps of logic and imagination, making his otherwise dry prose a pleasure to read and enjoy. His book is truly worthwhile, and leaves the reader looking forward to more.


(1)  Joseph Leo Koerner, Caspar David Friedrich and the Subject of Landscape (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), p. 7. [return to text]
(2)  Koerner, p. 96. [return to text]
(3)  Koerner, p. 141. [return to text]
(4)  Koerner, p. 148. [return to text]
(5)  Koerner, p. 194. [return to text]
(6)  Koerner, p. 159. [return to text]
(7)  Koerner, p. 53. [return to text]
(8)  Koerner, p. 217. [return to text]

Written and © Nancy Thuleen in 1996 for Art History 352 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

If needed, cite using something like the following:
Thuleen, Nancy. "Graduate Book Review: Joseph Leo Koerner: Caspar David Friedrich and the Subject of Landscape." Website Article. 23 April 1996. <http://www.nthuleen.com/papers/AH352koerner.html>.