In Caspar David Friedrich’s most famous painting, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818), the German Romantic artist depicts a young, aristocratic-looking man in a green overcoat as he stands atop a jagged rock, taking in a misty, high-altitude scene of mountains and cliffs. The image shows a moment of ultimate self-reflection in the vein of Immanuel Kant—a privileged man working out his interior feelings through exterior Romantic symbolism. The fog parts for him, but only just so, revealing not verdant hills and lush forests but dense mountainsides and jagged rocks. The man is at once a master of the universe and entirely subservient to it: even from high above, he can only see a challenging sliver of what he might otherwise think he controls.
Today, Friedrich’s painting has a postcard feel about it. It has been so distilled to its narrative essence of soul-searching and travel that the actual strokes, the artistic style, cease to matter. Instead, it functions as a symbolic stand-in for European Romanticism and ideals of wanderlust at large. It is a historical guidepost that acts as the hinge between the late eighteenth-century German Sturm und Drang (“storm and stress”) movement, which manifested in visual art as scenes of storms and shipwrecks representing the awesome power of nature’s irrational destruction, and the later Romantic depiction, which, as in Friedrich’s painting, with a silhouetted figure allowed the viewer to read the natural scene as representative of a subjective internal human state.
The Prussian natural scientist Alexander von Humboldt, the English poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, and, later, the French Realist Gustave Courbet and his compatriot symbolist Paul Gauguin were all central to philosophizing, writing, or painting about travel as a way of opening up the soul. Wanderlust, to them, was inherently existential: new physical pathways opened new pathways within the mind. A geographical pilgrimage permitted a pilgrimage within the self.
“Wanderlust,” an exhibition on at the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin until September 16, takes on this history of travel and self-searching, showcasing a hundred and twenty works by the aforementioned artists as well as those by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Emil Nolde, Otto Dix, and Johan Christian Dahl, among others. But with this show—with its interest in showing the clever, symbolic ways self-discovery has been depicted—it’s worth looking at the alternative value of evoking rather than depicting these feelings of reflection.
Indeed, should art be about showing a person as he experiences a feeling or about finding a way to actually create that feeling in the viewer? The time and resources involved in existential soul-searching have long been a privilege afforded only to a select few. So how, one wonders while walking through the exhibition, might art reach everyone? How might wanderlust become visceral and universal rather than selective and distanced?
Wanderlust is, historically, a German idea. Wandern, meaning to hike or to roam, and lust, of course, meaning to desire, began not as a leisure activity but as a serious existential exercise of going out into nature in order to go into oneself. The Romantics believed this is where happiness and self-contentment could be found. The Germans of the eighteenth century, especially, were enamored with Italy for its natural landscapes, but German men with the time and the means for long hikes tended mostly to traverse their own country’s varied landscapes, from the Rhine Valley to the Harz Mountains to the Elbe Sandstone Mountains, which straddle the Czech Republic nearby.
At the time, hiking in Germany was akin to participating in a Parisian salon: a marker of status and intellectualism. Courbet painted himself as a trekker in The Meeting, or Bonjour Monsieur Courbet (1854) and Gauguin, in homage, also painted himself as one in Bonjour Monsieur Gauguin (1889). Jens Ferdinand Willumsen depicted his wife hiking in a long skirt in A Mountain Climber (1912). Hiking was closely aligned with the Enlightenment—a form of serious internal and external self-improvement.
But wanderlust was also closed off to most people. Like the French flaneur, what was artistically recorded was the activity of a privileged class—predominately white artistic and intellectual European men. Given its narrow focus on European Romanticism, the exhibition is unable to fully approach wanderlust in a democratic way. What would have elevated the show, and given it a more coherent and forward-thinking argument, would have been to juxtapose the Romantic ideal with the American abstract expressionist creation of these same kinds of experiences.
Take Barnett Newman, one of the prototypical American abstract expressionists and a famous (or infamous, depending on who you ask) philosopher of art, who believed that the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European painters—the Romantics and symbolists especially—should have been searching within what he termed “a sublime context,” rather than in the objective world of nature. The Romantics, he believed, were forever caught up in the wrong question—“whether beauty was in nature or could be found without nature”—when the real question had nothing to do with “any concern with the problem of beauty and where to find it.”
“The failure of European art to achieve the sublime is due to this blind desire to exist inside the reality of sensation (the objective world, whether distorted or pure) and to build an art within a framework of pure plasticity (the Greek ideal of beauty, whether that plasticity be a romantic active surface or a classic stable one),” he wrote in his 1948 essay, “The Sublime is Now.”
What Newman explicitly proposed in his philosophy and implicitly proposed via his “zip” paintings—in which solid fields of color seem to give way to other dimensions as a strip or strips of different colors runs through them—was a fundamentally new way of unlocking the self. Newman, and American abstract expressionists more generally, wanted to recreate a feeling for the viewer rather than merely representing another person having that feeling, as the Romantics did.
One of Friedrich’s other well-known paintings is Monk by the Sea (1809), an oil painting with a very similar composition to Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. In Monk by the Sea, a figure—apparently a monk—overlooks an inky, blue-green sea from a vanishing patch of land, the clouds rolling in towards him, the sea expansive on the canvas. Compare it, as Robert Rosenblum did in his 1961 essay “The Abstract Sublime,” to Mark Rothko’s Light, Earth, and Blue (1954), which takes away the figure in the frame and distills the land and the clouds and the roaring sea into blocks of colors, which bleed into one another. Rothko’s work provides a distilled vision of the view that the monk sees in Friedrich’s painting and attempts to evoke the same feeling the monk seems to have. By simplifying the scene and capturing its essence rather than its realist specifics, Rothko places the viewer not on the threshold of the infinite as Friedrich does but, crucially, within the infinite. Rothko’s painting is more direct and more visceral, and, as a result, it also becomes more democratic in nature. Anyone can have the experience the monk has on the edge of the world simply by looking at the Rothko.
Similarly, in Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950-51), the viewer is placed on the precipice of a red void. The painting is, as Rosenblum writes, “as terrifying, if exhilarating, as the arctic emptiness of the tundra; and in its passionate reduction of pictorial means to a single hue (warm red) and a single kind of structural division (vertical) for some one hundred and forty-four square feet, it likewise achieves a simplicity as heroic and sublime as the protagonist of its title.” The directness of the abstract expressionist work leaps beyond the Romantic ideation of wanderlust to place the viewer within the awe, rather than as a spectator to it.
Even Kant, upon whom the Romantics so largely staked their artistic philosophies, predicted the necessity of abstract expressionism’s directness. In his 1790 treatise Critique of Judgment, Kant wrote, “The Beautiful in nature is connected with the form of the object, which consists in having boundaries; the Sublime is to be found in a formless object, so far as in it, or by occasion of it, boundlessness is represented.”
The art of the future is boundless, and so is its potential for wandering. The German Romantics found the divine; the American abstract expressionists created it. Not everyone can travel, but anyone can sit in front of a canvas, an image. To wander no longer requires one to have resources; instead, it is universal and should be depicted as such. No matter how much we travel—no matter which mountains we hike or which cloud-swept vistas we position ourselves in front of—it is only an internal openness to change that will ever really allow it to enter us.
One generally assumes that the man in Friedrich’s Wanderer is having a kind of religious or existential experience standing high above the clouds, but there is also no way to tell. So too, if one goes to MoMA to stand in front of Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis in the wrong mindset, one may feel absolutely nothing. No matter the scene or the artwork, no matter what is in front of us or where we are, it is ultimately up to us how we react. Travel, geography, physical movement—these Romantic ideas of existentialism hold far less sway over our internal being than we’ve long thought. What most matters, rather, is how we’re made to feel, how we choose to feel, and how we allow ourselves to feel.
“Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or ‘life’,” Newman wrote, “we are making [them] out of ourselves, out of our own feelings.”
Cody Delistraty is a writer and critic in Paris.