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Today (February 5th) is “National Wear Red Day” yet another phlegmatic pseudo-holiday in the short-yet-ever-so-long month of February. However there is a great fundamental truth buried in National Wear Red Day. Aside from working out day and night or becoming a multi-millionaire celebrity, wearing red is one of the few things you can do to make yourself more attractive to potential mates (I am just assuming that you are a classical human being–if you are a futuristic cyborg, or an alien lifeform, or a super-intelligent animal of some other sort, please, please, please leave a comment, even if its a thousand years from when I write this).

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I am somewhat foreshadowing next week’s theme, but primates are the most colorful mammals. For monkeys and apes and hominids, colors carry all sorts of highly-charged hierarchical, social, and physiological messages. At a conscious level, we may be only dimly aware of these signifiers, but they apparently come through loud and clear to our endocrine systems. Administrators at dating sites report a 6% boost of positive replies to people wearing red in their profile pictures. Scientists and psychologists have found similar results in experiments which query men and women about the attractiveness of photographs of people of the opposite gender.

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The power of wearing red extends beyond the bedroom to the business and sports realms. Teams that have red uniforms have been demonstrated to have greater likelihood of victory (although I shudder to imagine how statisticians figured that out). The power of the not-very-imaginatively-named “power tie” is well known (at least anecdotally). Even in battle, red seems to have once conferred an advantage. The troops of great empires have had a way of wearing red garb (although, admittedly, advances in gunnery and tactics seem to have greatly negated–or reversed this trend). The Roman legions wore red. The British redcoats uh, wore red. The Chinese super-lucky national color is red. Kelly Lebrock wore red. So ignore how stupid it sounds. Shrug off your inhibitions (and your national reticence to take orders from a day of the month) and wear red.

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Unless You are Steve Seagal

In our explorations of the concept of “gothic” we have touched on the reemergence of interest in medieval form which affected the romantic movement of the 19th century (here are links about how this happened in literature and architecture).  Aside from a cursory mention of the Pre-Raphaelites however, we have not touched deeply on how gothic aesthetic forms affected painting.

Abtei im Eichwald (Caspar David Friedrich, 1810, oil on canvas)

Enter one of my favorite romantic painters, Caspar David Friedrich (September 5, 1774 – May 7, 1840), a tempestuous German whose tragic early life drew him towards haunting gothic landscapes.  Friedrich painted melancholy scenes of emptiness and ruin: humans inhabiting his landscapes tend to be dwarfed by ancient trees, sharp mountains, and abandoned medieval buildings (or, worse, they are absent altogether).  By showing how trifling people are in the face of time and nature, Friedrich hoped to highlight what is sublime about existence.  He often painted cemeteries and winter landscapes and he has combined these two themes in Abtei im Eichwald (“The Abbey in the Oakland”) which portrays Eldena Abbey, a Cistercian Abbey in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern destroyed by Swedish troops during the Thirty-Years War.  Insect-like mourners struggle through a snowy churchyard dominated by a great gothic arch.  Although the trees are barren, the church is broken, and the land is literally dead, there is an exalted dignity to the great abbey which ruin has somehow enhanced.

Huenengrab im Schnee (Caspar David Friedrich, 1807, oil on canvas)

Friedrich came back to this theme again and again.  Another winter cemetery work Hünengrab im Schnee (“Dolmen in Snow”) lacks even the bleak notes of Christianity which suffuse Abtei im Eichwald.  The canvas shows a prehistoric barrow covered in snow beneath ancient black oak trees.  The leafless trees and the snow on the grave of a millennia-dead Mesolithic king, give an impression of lifeless bleakness, and yet as always with Friedrich (and indeed with romantic aesthetics) the tension in the work draws the eye and leads to philosophical meditation.  Even in the stark frozen tableau there is still a struggle against hopelessness.  Friedrich always found a way to show the triumph of haunting beauty which is transcendent over darkness.

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