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Monastery Graveyard in the Snow (Caspar David Friedrich, 1819, oil on canvas)

Monastery Graveyard in the Snow (Caspar David Friedrich, 1819, oil on canvas)

Here is a painting appropriate for the grim depths of winter. This is Klosterfriedhof im Schnee (Monastery Graveyard in the Snow) painted by the melancholy master of German romanticism, Caspar David Friedrich (whose foreboding works keep appearing on this blog). The melodramatic work highlights the transitory nature of all things. All that remains of a once grand Gothic abbey is the soaring arch of the nave which hovers ghostlike in the center of the composition. Around the ruins are vast oaks reaching out broken limbs toward the church like desperate spectral worshipers. Not only are the trees ancient, gnarled, and denuded by winter, but one also senses that they are not healthy oaks (a tree surgeon would probably shake his head sadly at their prospects). The abbey grounds have been transformed into a cemetery and the monks trudge through the necropolis like tiny insects dwarfed by the desolate trees, the headstones, and the abandoned church. Monasticism was on its way out in Germany when Friedrich painted this, and it is deliberately anachronistic. The monks too may be ghosts.

There is a final meta-layer to this vanitas painting. As you have noticed, the photograph of the work is black and white. This is because it is an old photograph which was taken before the painting itself was destroyed in an American air raid on Berlin during the chaos of 1945.  The lack of color suits both the composition and the theme: one imagines that Friedrich might appreciate the irony, if he were not himself gone, like everything in this painting and the painting itself.

In previous posts I have written about the great German romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich who came to prominence and fame at the beginning of the nineteenth century.  Unfortunately for Friedrich, art is fickle.  As he approached his middle years, the melancholy and dramatic realism which was his specialty fell out of fashion.  His patrons abandoned him and his art became even more bleak and pessimistic (which did nothing to help his sales). Although fashion abandoned Friedrich, his genius did not desert him: his works became more somber and metaphysical, but their lonely beauty and solemn majesty also became more pronounced.

The Oaktree in the Snow (Caspar David Friedrich, 1829, oil on canvas)

The Oaktree in the Snow (Caspar David Friedrich, 1829, oil on canvas)

Here is a picture from 1829 of a denuded oak tree standing alone in the snow.  Although leafless and broken the tree is still magnificent.  The artist has painted the dark tree looming up into an indifferent sky above the viewer.  The desolate winter landscape accentuates the bare branches and gnarled trunk of the tree which seems to strive against the cold grasp of winter–and even against time itself.   There is a paradox to this work: the very emptiness and plainness of the composition awakens an imagined spring within the heart of anyone looking at the picture.  Sadly, for Friedrich, spring was never to come again: his work did not regain its popularity in his life (and a stroke in 1835 robbed him of his ability to paint with oils). Yet The Oaktree in the Snow is a triumph—a fully realized painting of existential complexity in the simplest and boldest of compositions.

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