Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Abbey in the Oakwood, by David Caspar Friedrich

The Abbey in the Oakwood
The painting I have chosen is The Abbey in the Oakwood (also called Abbey in the Oak Forest or Abbey among Oak Trees), by Caspar David Friedrich. It was painted between 1809 and 1810 in Dresden and it was first exhibited together with the painting The Monk by the Sea in the Berlin Academy exhibition in 1819. After the exhibition, both pictures were bought by King Frederick Wilhelm III of Prussia for his collection.
It is an oil painted on canvas, whose dimensions are 110.4 x 171 cm. Nowadays, this painting, together with The Monk by the Sea, is hung side by side in the Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin.

This painting represents an abbey surrounded by some oaks. Friedrich drew inspiration from the ruins of Eldena Church, which is located near Greifswald, where Friedrich was born. A cemetery can be distinguish, where there's a group of people with their back to the viewer, who maybe are monks, walking to the abbey's gate. Several tombstones can be distinguished as well.

The monks’ retinue is going toward the gate of a ruined Gothic church in the centre of the painting. The people, some of whom are carrying a coffin, have their back to the viewer, something very common in Friedrich's paintings. Their walk is only illuminated by two small candles.

The abbey is obviously in ruins because some cracks and breaks can be seen on its walls. Over the abbey, there's a lancet window in disrepair, with many broken grilles and where no glass remains. In front of the abbey's gate there's a crucifix.

The cemetery, located in the foreground, is desolated and not well-tended. It has many crooked, sunken tombstones which don't follow any order. There's an open tomb, besides some withered plants.

There are some oaks located to the right and left of the abbey. They are leafless, twisted and bare and they reach up to the sky. This means that it's winter, because a slight layer of snow is covering the cemetery (the ground is white, but it seems to be grey because of the light) .

There's an oak forest surrounding the cemetery. The abbey and oak trees are very detailed, but past a certain point in the foreground, trees are not much visible and the forest is thick, dim and blurry. A faint crescent moon appears in the sky.

The painting is divided into two parts, separated by a horizontal line of fog: the lower part is immersed in the darkness, while the upper part is more illuminated and lighter, representing a sunrise or maybe a sunset. But some oaks and the abbey break up this horizontal line, emerging from the dark land to the bright sky.

This bleak landscape can transmit that nature is eternal, but what man creates is transient: the abbey and the tombs have become damaged with time, but the moon continues to appear after so many years.

The subject of death is present in the gloomy retinue and the graves and it’s related with what Friedrich had lived from his childhood: his mother died in 1781, one year later, his sister Elisabeth died of smallpox; his brother Johann drowned while he was trying to save Friedrich, who had sunk below the ice in 1787, and in 1791, her sister Maria died of typhus. Even Friedrich attempted suicide around 1801 and later, in 1809, his father died while Friedrich was painting The Monk by the Sea. All these events make the importance that death had in his works understandable.

Friedrich wanted to create a religious feeling through landscapes. Dualism appears in his landscapes: the body and the soul, the earthly and the spiritual side. He usually represented the human in the foreground (where the people are located) and the divine in the background (where the landscape appears).

Friedrich was a very religious person, as well as his father, who was a strict Lutheran. So, from a religious point of view, this painting can be interpreted as a symbol of faith in the beyond. The abbey's door could be a symbol of moving on after this life: once you have passed through the grave yard and gone through the door we are supposed to be in the afterlife. The visionary gleam of the heavenly realm is completely detached from the earthly regions, which are still sunk in darkness. This sky brightness represents the only optimistic thing in this bleak landscape.

The retinue is going to enter the abbey, leaving the darkness of the earthly life behind them, to go to the beyond, to the immortality, to the divine paradise. Besides, the snow represents winter, which embodies the Christian idea of resurrection.

On the other hand, The Abbey in the Oakwood could have a political sense: it is an expression of grief at the loss of a great past. Oaks are the German trees par excellence and, even, they were the emblem of Germany between the 18th and 19th centuries. For that reason, the oaks and the old abbey can symbolize the glorious German past, being patriotic symbols. Friedrich, as many other compatriots, showed off their patriotic and political commitment, which had appeared due to Napoleonic occupation of Germany. Besides, Eldena Abbey may well have had a personal meaning for Friedrich, as it was destroyed during the Thirty Years’ War by invading Swedish troops, who later used bricks from the abbey to construct fortifications. Thus, the funeral becomes a symbol of "the burial of Germany's hopes for resurrection". But, as the monks are moving away from the open tomb, it can mean that the Germans have to leave behind them the death and the destruction the war had provoked.

From 1807, Friedrich usually painted the human beings, with their back towards the viewer, hiding their face, and they are usually located in the center of the painting. In this way, Friedrich manages to achieve that the viewer doesn't get distracted with the face of the anonymous character, but he or she can identify himself or herself with them.

Caspar David Friedrich is considered to be one of the most important German Romantic painters. He mainly developed landscapes (nature was a symbol of all the divine and true things), with Gothic ruins, cemeteries, knotty trees, at night time and with cold atmospheres, which transmit a sensation of sadness and worry. Romantic artists preferred this type of gloomy landscapes. Friedrich, unlike other painters, was inspired in real landscapes that he had seen before, giving realism to his paintings.

Romanticism gave much importance to individualism, creativity and originality, so that's why Friedrich didn't paint upon request, but he was inspired by the imagination. Besides, this style also gave priority to feelings.

The Monk by the Sea
The Monk by the Sea was first conceived as a companion piece to the Abbey in the Oakwood, and it is not uncommon in Friedrich's work to find paintings paired together, despite their different theme, coloring and composition.

The theme of The Monk by the Sea is the tiny figure of a man set against a big, natural landscape divided into three horizontal zones of color. The tiny figure of a man, which is robed in black, is visible from behind, being this man the only vertical component in the picture. The broad expanse of sea and sky emphasize the insignificant figure of the monk and infinity becomes the true subject of the painting. In the knowledge of his smallness, the man, in whose place the viewer is meant to imagine himself, reflects upon the power of the universe.

Upon closer examination, one finds these two paintings to be less distinct than they superficially appear. The gloomy sea with the monk meditating on life and its limits, about death and what follows, is not dissimilar from the dark and dismal scenery in this piece, clouds of fog rising, the open doorway to death (the open grave) and the procession of the monks through the portal of the abbey to the shining light of eternity. This painting is most definitely rooted in this world, pointing to the world to come.

Both paintings possess the spiritual quality for which Friedrich was famous and it is the combination of his interest in depicting nature (because of its relation to God) with a Christian approach to life what helps us understand the meaning for which Friedrich was striving.

I have chosen this painting because of the colours Friedrich used (I really like black colour) and because I’ve always liked such gloomy landscapes. I like observing all the details that have helped me understand the painting better and the contrast between the dark, pessimistic foreground and the luminous background. I’ve enjoyed knowing the meaning of the painting and discovering a bit of Friedrich's life and feelings too.

Here you have other Friedrich's paintings:

Two Men Contemplating the Moon

Woman before the Rising Sun
These are two paintings of other German Romantic painters:

Artists resting at the mountain, by Johann Christoph Erhard
 Ruins of the Altenberg Cathedral from the southwest to the moonlight, by Caspar Joohann Nepomuk Scheuren  

retinue: séquito, comitiva
coffin: ataúd
crack, break: grieta, fisura
lancet window: ventana ojival
in disrepair: en mal estado
grille: verja, reja
well-tended: ordenado, organizado
crooked: torcido
sunken: hundido
withered: marchito
leafless: sin hojas
bare: desnudo
to reach up: levantarse
dim, blurry: borroso,
faint: apenas visible
bleak, gloomy, dismal: deprimente, sombrío, lúgubre
transient: efímero, pasajero
grave: tumba, sepultura
to drown: ahogarse
the beyond: el más allá
gleam: brillo resplandor
heavenly: divino, celestial
realm: reino
detached: distante, indepeniente
grief: pena, dolor
to show off: presumir, alardear
commitment: compromiso
knotty: enredado
tiny: pequeño, minúsculo
robed: togado, que lleva toga
to strive: esforzarse

1 comment:

Paqui Pérez Fons said...

Hello Roxana,

I've directly corrected some small mistakes I didn't find before: optimistic and pessimistic as adjectives. Optimist ans pessimist are nouns.

You deserve 10 points! Very good work.

One last advice: as there are many new words, you could add the glossary for the readers. See you!