A Major Caspar David Friedrich Show Brings the Underserved in From the Cold

To mark the German Romantic’s 250th birthday, Hamburger Kunsthalle highlights contemporary responses to the artist’s pensive oeuvre

BY Edna Bonhomme in Exhibition Reviews | 24 JAN 24

Like many people who love to hike, I have retained my faith in the softness of the dewy earth; I revel in the halting silence and unrushed creations that envelop the landscape. ‘Kunst für eine neue Zeit’, or ‘Art for a New Time’, at Hamburger Kunsthalle is currently the most comprehensive exhibition featuring David Caspar Friedrich’s works. But to my surprise, it was not his paintings of mist-furled mountains that caught my eye but the work of another in which I saw a version of myself reflected.

Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840) Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer
Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer, c.1817, oil on canvas, 95 × 75 cm. Courtesy: Stiftung Ham­burger Kunstsammlungen and Hamburger Kunsthalle; photograph: Elke Walford

Standing four metres tall, Kehinde Wiley’s The Prelude (Babacar Mané) (2021) is somewhat incongruous with the 19th-century canvases typically on display in the Kunsthalle. Based on Friedrich’s The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818), Wiley used a digital photograph to inform his oil painting and, provocatively, replaced the iconic (white) explorer with a Black male figure adorned with cornrows. Most noted for his presidential portrait of Barack Obama, Wiley is skilled at depicting a panoply of melanin-rich people in art historical contexts, yet seeing his solitary figure standing proud in a German institution still feels like an extraordinary event.

Kehinde Wiley, The Prelude, 2021
Kehinde Wiley, The Prelude (Babacar Mané), 2021, installation view. Courtesy: the artist, Stephen Friedman Gallery, London and Rennie Collection, Vancouver; photograph: Fred Dott

Wiley is one of twenty contemporary artists featured in ‘Kunst für eine neue Zeit’, an exhibition commemorating Friedrich’s 250th birthday. In conjunction with nearly 200 pieces by Friedrich, the exhibition surveys how artists have depicted people in nature. Retrospectives are often predicated on an artist’s arc, the engine that drives their creativity, perhaps because their brilliance sets them apart from others. But this exhibition aims to go beyond that. Instead, it is a declaration of man’s place in nature, underpinned by grace, alienation and provocation.

While the exhibition celebrates a ‘great’ artist, it is also a relentless engagement with contemporary actors who have responded to Friedrich’s work, including Japanese photographer Hiroyuki Masuyama, whose depiction of a Nordic shipwreck evokes Friedrich’s The Sea of Ice (2007); and feminist video artist Ulrike Rosenbach who walks over a print of Mountain Landscape with Rainbow (1809–10). These artists embrace and critique Friedrich’s work through photography, sculpture and painting, while placing his work within a European enterprise.

Ulrike Rosenbach, Die Einsame Spaziergängerin
'Kunst für eine neue Zeit', 2023–24, exhibition view, Hamburger Kunsthalle. Courtesy: Hamburger Kunsthalle; photograph: Fred Dott

When Friedrich was born, in 1774, his hometown on the Baltic Sea, Greifswald, was a dominion of the Swedish crown. Although he spent most of his life in Dresden, he was educated in Copenhagen and briefly lived in Berlin. His movements reflected a period when political subjects of German-speaking lands were not portentously bound to the idea of a nation-state; instead, they found themselves moving between European empires.

Painting came rather late to Friedrich; he only began creating works in his mid-thirties. What distinguished him from his contemporaries was his departure from ecclesial subjects and awareness of the astonishing beauty down on Earth. According to the exhibition text, Friedrich once surmised, ‘I must stay alone and know that I am alone to contemplate and feel nature in full; I have to surrender myself to what encircles me; I have to merge with my clouds and rocks to be what I am.’ 

Selbstbildnis mit aufgestütztem Arm, ca. 1802
Caspar David Friedrich, Selbstbildnis mit aufgestütztem Arm (Self-portrait with raised arm), c.1802, pen and pencil on paper, 26.7 × 21.5 cm. Courtesy: Hamburger Kunsthalle and Kupferstich­kabinett; photograph: Christoph Irrgang

Walking through the exhibition, there was always a danger of being overcome by Friedrich’s melancholic early works, such as Selbstbildnis mit aufgestütztem Arm (Self-portrait with raised arm, 1802) – a drawing of the young artist, possibly dismayed, most likely bored. Then there are the images that simmer with pathetic fallacy, such as Morgennebel im Gebirge (Morning Mist in the Mountains, 1808), a subtle but sweeping scene of a mountain shrouded by clouds. ‘Here is coldness, impetuousness, dying, and despair’, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once remarked on the artist’s work. These early works and remark reveal Friedrich’s beginnings as an artist who was most concerned with expressing the modern person’s disillusionment with and alienation from the world.

When you’re frigid, the sluggish body seeks rest or engages in refusal. Both Friedrich and those responding to his work show that there is a possibility to flourish despite the biting cold. As Wiley told the National Gallery in London in 2021, ‘Painting is more than a pretty picture on a wall; it is something that we espouse, something that points out to the world, something that, at its best, communicates our virtues.’

Kehinde Wiley (*1977) The Prelude (Ibrahima Ndiaye und El Hadji Malick Gueye), 2021
Kehinde Wiley, The Prelude (Ibrahima Ndiaye and El Hadji Malick Gueye), 2021, oil on canvas, 3.9 × 3.1 m. Courtesy: the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London

As part of the exhibition, Wiley’s arresting six-screen installation, Prelude (2021), draws the viewer in to an ecstatic event: Black people frolicking in a glacial fjord, smiling while surrounded by a thicket of snow. The setting is elevated by a languorous orchestral score arranged by composer and cellist Niles Luther. The overture, and occasional recitations from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s philosophical essay, Nature (1836), complement the cast’s reflective play. In Prelude, Black people’s presence in a tundra-like environment is an unbounded promise of freedom and joy. Serenity on display. What it reveals is a radical contingency, one what white hegemony would not care to admit: Black people, when given the chance to exist, are majestic.

Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840) Der Mönch am Meer, 1808–1810
Caspar David Friedrich, Der Mönch am Meer (The Monk by the Sea), 1808–1810, oil on canvas, 1.1 × 1.7 m. Courtesy: Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin; photograh: Andreas Kilger

Over the past several years, communities of colour have asked if they too can cherish the German Black Forest, the French Pyrenees or Swiss Alps. Can we pierce through the luscious foliage and be seen as people worthy of grace and dignity? 

Although Friedrich’s work primarily expresses the conditions of the modern Western man, the deep enquiry to find oneself in the world is a universal pursuit. This echoes in the works of the artists who are also reckoning with nature’s beauty and danger, even those who have historically struggled to locate themselves in it. Intensely fervid about his craft, Friedrich once noted, ‘The artist should paint not only what he sees before him, but also what he sees within him. If he sees nothing within him, he should also refrain from painting that which he sees before him.’

Kunst für eine neue Zeit’ is on view at Hamburger Kunsthalle until 1 April 2024.

As part of the Caspar David Friedrich jubilee year celebrations, Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin will show Unendliche Landschaften from 19 April–8 August, followed by two further exhibitions in Dresden under the title Wo alles begann’ at Kupferstich-Kabinett (24 August–17 November) and The Albertinum (24 August–5 January 2025).

Main image: Caspar David Friedrich, Mondaufgang am Meer, 1822, oil on canvas, 55 × 71 cm. Courtesy: Alte Nationalgalerie; photograph: Jörg P. Anders

Edna Bonhomme is a historian of science and a writer based in Berlin, Germany. Her work has appeared in Al Jazeera, The Atlantic, The Guardian, the London Review of Books and elsewhere. Her forthcoming book explores contagion in confined spaces.