Letter from Europe

Landscapes of the imagination: the places of Caspar David Friedrich

Issue no. 2024/2

Picture above: Landscapes under stress - the Harz Mountains in Germany (photo © Arkadij Schell / dreamstime.com)


Over almost 20 years of hidden europe we published many articles focusing on art and landscape. Paul Scraton reflects on landscapes of the imagination in the work of Caspar David Friedrich.

Dear fellow travellers,

This year Germany celebrates the 250th anniversary of the birth of the painter Caspar David Friedrich, perhaps best known for his haunting landscapes of coastlines, forests and mountains, usually at dawn or dusk. Throughout the year there are exhibitions commemorating the Romantic artist’s birthday, and right now it is the turn of the Old National Gallery in Berlin with a collection titled Unendliche Landschaften or Infinite Landscapes.

Among the crowds waiting patiently to see The Monk by the Sea or Abbey among the Ruins, and Friedrich’s landscapes of the Harz and Elbe Sandstone Mountains, the Baltic coast and the forests of German folklore, it is hard to imagine that he was pretty much forgotten in the years following his death in 1840. Rediscovered in the early years of the 20th century, the response to this year’s anniversary events, including the crowds clamouring for a glimpse of his paintings on a weekday afternoon, suggests that his work continues to resonate to this day.

“Where does the human being stand in relation to the world”, the exhibition queries. If this was the core subject of Friedrich’s work, it is a question that, in a time of climate emergency, is perhaps more relevant than ever before.

But to truly answer the question, maybe we need to leave the grand museum halls and the paintings behind, and head out into those very landscapes that Friedrich was exploring for inspiration two centuries ago. In Greifswald, a handy walking route takes you through the city to the locations of some of his most famous works, including the ruins of Eldena Abbey. In Dresden, a walk out from where he lived to the flood meadows of the Elbe offers a vision of a landscape familiar from Friedrich’s work but also one now changed by irregular rainfall patterns and ever-longer periods of drought.

Or how about the Harz Mountains? These spruce forests were captured by the brush of Caspar David Friedrich to represent an idea of home and belonging for a German nation that did not exist at the time he was painting. Today, whole swathes of the hillside forests have been destroyed by dry spells, warm winters and the feeding frenzy of the bark beetle. In the half-light of morning, the slopes of the famous Brocken mountain are a ghostly vision of bare and broken trees, and they speak to our relationship with the world just as the remains of Eldena told the story of the Reformation and the Thirty Years’ War back when Friedrich was a child.

What do the ruins of the Baltic shore and the ravaged forests of the Harz mountains offer the painter or the traveller today? A symbol of transience or of how we destroy what we once held dear? And what would the Caspar David Friedrich of today choose to paint, to explore where humans stand in relation to the world? He’d surely return to familiar haunts, those infinite landscapes, which continue to speak to us as they spoke to him all those years ago.

Paul Scraton


With each edition of the Letter from Europe we are making more articles from the 70 editions of hidden europe magazine available to read in full, for free on our website. You’ll find our latest selection in the sidebar (or below if using a mobile).

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