Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, by Caspar David Friedrich, 1818

The painting shown above makes me stop, look, and ponder.  No doubt, that’s because ideas are powerfully  suggested, but not resolved.

  • I see isolation, but not loneliness.
  • There’s purposiveness, even though the man is stationary, although we are given no clue as to what his purpose might be.  And despite the fact that the artist’s title of “Wanderer” implies that he did not mean to suggest purpose.  (Obviously, I think that the viewer is entitled to interpret what he sees independently of the artist’s intent.)
  • And there is something about the fog.  It has a sense of fluid motion (aided by the movement of the man’s hair) — at first, it looked like a waterfall — that contrasts with the solid immobility of the rocks and mountains, suggesting (to me) the conflict of the temporal and the eternal.
  • Finally (for now), there’s the prominence of the man’s profile: large, powerfully done in black, and centered in the painting.  Yet,  even given that foreground prominence, the man does not dominate the scene.  The eye starts with him, then wanders all over the painting (perhaps it’s the viewer who’s the wanderer?), before coming back to the man and what he might symbolize.  And we know that he actually is very small in relation to everything else that we are seeing.  (Man’s smallness in relation to nature was a theme for Friedrich: see, e.g., Monk by the Sea.)  So why is the man positioned so prominently in this painting?

This is not meant as anything serious, and certainly isn’t art criticism.  The point is quite simple: some art is suggestive and makes me contemplate meanings in it.  Some doesn’t, often because it is too blatant in its message (see almost anything produced in Germany in the late 1930s’ to mid-40’s), or because it is so abstract that it does not push my contemplation button.  No doubt, there’s more to it than just those simple extremes.  Someday, I’m going to try to define what pushes the contemplation button, and why.

I wonder what others see in Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog.