I went on quite a journey with this painting as my thoughts and personal interpretations shifted and changed like the eternal flowing of the mist.
A man dressed in formal attire stands at the apex of a rock gazing out at the uncertain world before him. The world is whipped into a foaming tongue lashing at the rocks, disappearing into the mist-strewn background. It is uncertain whether the man is gazing out at mist covered mountains or perhaps a tumultuous ocean. Is this oil painting( by German artist, Caspar David Friedrich) an encounter of the sublime? We do not know. The mystery comes from the ambiguity, we do not see the Wanderers face so how can we determine or speculate what his expression is? Is he terrified, horrified, staring stoically or impassively. Does he feel like he is the commander of all he surveys? Does he feel like a God as he gazes out at this fearsome landscape?
There are several ways in which this image can be interpreted.
- Awe. The appreciation and fascination of the sublime and natures unrivalled power.
- Terror. The Wanderer stares in sheer horror (one theory of the sublime is that it is a feeling of terror but in a positive, such as the thrill of fear such as standing at the edge of a precipice waving your foot into oblivion. It is not certain that you will fall and die but it is still a possibility which sends the body into fight and flight response.
- Control – Standing in a powerful pose, acting as a God or conqueror.
Personally, my initial feelings were that his body language was not attributed to that of fear, but more of control. One foot is raised higher on the rock, in a commanding pose, almost like he was addressing his troops, spurring them on with a motivational speech, preparing a battle cry; the landscape is his army. He is placed in the foreground, central everything points to him being the dominant element. There is such a sense of power in this image, the way the sea seethes over the rocks, whipping through the man’s hair, though this is the only true indication that the sea is creating any effect on him.
It is interesting that the rocky precipice the man stands on is believed to be part of the Kaiserkrone in the Elbe Sandstone Mountains, Saxony, Germany. Kaiserkrone means ‘imperial crown‘ Perhaps if my theory that the Wanderer is not as such as a wanderer but a conquerer, then this is symbolic of his possible thoughts, that he has dominium over the landscape. Man, has played a part in both the formation and destruction of the plateau, perhaps this painting bears homage to the Eternal struggle between man and nature to conquer and destroy.
Yet the more you review this image, looking past its face value, I don’t think there is such a dominant possession here.
My perceptions of the painting changed as I researched Romanticism, the art movement that revolutionised art, music, poetry, in fact in the age of the Industrial revolution Romanticism rose up, every aspect of life was altered by Romanticism and therefore it can not really be called an art movement more so, a revolutionary movement. There are some who believe we still live in an age with the effects and elements of Romanticism. Romanticism was inspired by the sublime, awed by an appreciation of nature, finding a way expressing oneself, it was about photographing what was inside rather the exterior of life.This image is a powerful representation of the sublime.
The more I looked at the image and the more I read about Romanticism my thoughts shifted like ripples in a pool reaching out to new ideas and exploring new paths, I feel the image isn’t so much about conquering nature, as more standing in awe at the vast creation before us, the majesty, and how small and insignificant we feel when we compare ourselves to the natural world. This can be seen in Thomas Cole’s paintings of the sublime, I studied one of his paintings earlier in the course, Ox Bow Lake, and analysed how he’d included himself. The inclusion of small figures in a vast scene is something that is very typical of Cole’s works and also Friedrichs, for example the below image, Chalk Cliffs on Rügen. We see the scale of nature compared against man and again there is contemplation and appreciation from the figures who have their backs turned. Creating a sense of ambiguity. The fact that the Wanderer too, has his back to the viewer allows an intimate look into the world, to look beyond the figure and to the nature, the appreciation of it which is what Romantics would have wished.
“To be a romantic is to take the side of nature against industry, it’s to prefer a daffodil to a viaduct, a tree to a factory, at the moment when huge swathes of Britain are being covered in the often monsterous new cities that are making new cities reach.” William Wordsworth.
The ambiguity of the figure allows a connection but the viewer is able to explore new vistas, new meanings, perhaps finding their own symbolism. The figure acts almost like a photographic full stop allowing the eye to rest on the figure, explore the vista and so on.
Friedrich experienced a terrible encounter with the sublime as a child. He and his brother were skating on a frozen part of the Baltic but the ice gave way and he was plunged into the cruel waters. As he fought for his life his brother tried to rescue him and tragically died. Friedrich was targeted by depression and tried to slit his throat on one occasion. With this in mind could the image be interpreted as an almost spirtital realm, is he looking out thinking of his lost brother, trying to reconnect through nature and the sublime. Is this a portrayal of a man about to end his life?
Friedrich was adamant that “self-expression had to be associated with physical and spiritual isolation.” and he himself was fascinated and in awe of nature, beautiful vistas and isolated landscapes. This is just as the Romantics intended nature and the psyche to be viewed as. Others saw it as a “spectator who cannot intervene, (who) looks at the turbulent and unpredictable of the natural world.”
Those are my personal opinions of Wanderer in the Mist yet as beauty is in the eye of beholder, so true is the meaning or intepretation of a work of art. The viewer acts as an element in the painting, they are just as much as part of the art as the painting itself. A painting is just a piece of pigment on canvas without a viewer. There is a quote about this but I can’t seem to find it. Just like the most complexing and infuriating books or tv programmes, if something is left ambigious then one can speculate and speculate as seasons change and worlds shift but we will never know. Perhaps that is where the beauty lies, we will never know but that doesn’t stop us from exploring.