Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 6, 2021
Nina Amstutz Caspar David Friedrich: Nature and the Self New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2020. 280 pp.; 82 color ills.; 36 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780300246162)

Nina Amstutz opens her new history of Caspar David Friedrich’s landscapes boldly, with the same painting with which Joseph Leo Koerner began his now-canonical Caspar David Friedrich and the Subject of Landscape (Yale University Press, 1990): the 1828 Trees and Shrubs in the Snow (Galerie Neue Meister, Dresden, Germany). Many of her arguments are efforts to give body to Koerner’s formal insights and to ground his observations more fully in the discourse of Friedrich’s time. Koerner’s ekphrasis is commonly cited as some of the best visual writing in the discipline, and Amstutz admirably keeps pace in a book whose premise rests on the identification of fleeting hieroglyphic forms within Friedrich’s “re-presentation” of nature. (Amstutz frequently uses the construction “re-present” to underscore Friedrich’s active role in the process of finding subjective truth in empirical observation.) Some of the highlights of Caspar David Friedrich: Nature and the Self include extended descriptions of lesser-known works, enlivening the images beautifully reproduced in this volume. Amstutz focuses particularly on the late landscapes, which she seeks to distinguish from Friedrich’s earlier practice and consider alongside contemporaneous scientific and artistic inquiries into “the place of human beings in the larger compass of life and matter” (5).

Amstutz demonstrates great breadth in her inclusion of a range of sources from the natural sciences. One of her goals is to recover a Romantic period eye, a mode of looking that continually invested nature with deeper significance and actively sought out affinities between the human and the natural worlds. For Friedrich, these affinities often became literal, formal analogies between figure and tree or hand and rock. Whether we see the splotches of red in Trees and Shrubs in the Snow as spilled blood from severed arteries may depend on our ability to see as the Romantics did, a view of nature that, Amstutz suggests, “is almost unimaginable to us today” (17). Amstutz anticipates objections to her speculative readings, arguing that the paintings are themselves speculations, not intended to be fully resolved. She tells us that no one discourse can fully explain the work (150), and yet the Friedrich she gives us maps so neatly onto the Naturphilosophie she is interested in that we might be forgiven for thinking that he does, indeed, reflect the scientific inquiry of his time.

In chapter 1 Amstutz moves from an analysis of the physiognomy of Friedrich’s 1810 self-portrait (the first, she claims, to explicitly mark out an artist as a landscape painter via his facial features) to a discussion of the physiognomy of the earth’s surface, eliding the distinction between landscape and self-portraiture in the process. This conclusion sets the stage for her subsequent discussions of the artist’s ability to find himself in the natural world.

Next the author expands Koerner’s suggestion that Friedrich implied the presence of the viewer in his scenes to say that he instead “naturalized the body into the landscape itself” (61, emphasis in original), which comes to mean that in a watercolor revision of Chalk Cliffs on Rügen (original ca. 1818, Museum Oskar Reinhart, Winterthur, Germany), he replaced the human figures with anthropomorphic trees (Chalk Cliffs on Rügen, 1825 or later, Museum der bildenden Künste, Leipzig, Germany). That the trees were already present in the earlier version—and that the chronology of the two is uncertain—is less important than the potential to evoke a communion with nature in keeping with Novalis, Philipp Otto Runge, and other of Friedrich’s Romantic contemporaries.

The third chapter investigates a perceived analogy between the form of the tree and the human vascular system, at once a trope of Christian symbolism, evidence for a Romantic correspondence between the body and the vegetal world, and the source of the aforementioned observation of blood at the base of Friedrich’s shrubs. The fourth chapter similarly takes up anatomical references, finding the longstanding self-portraiture motifs of the artist’s hands and eyes reconstructed as landscapes with hovering suns as pupils and rocky protuberances as thumbs. Finally, in chapter 5, Amstutz pursues a Romantic conception of death in life, including a grimly thorough account of the process of bodily putrefaction that she then reads into the gaseous vapors emanating from decomposing pine needles in Evergreens by the Waterfall (ca. 1828, Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany).

These chapters each stand alone nicely, something that makes them useful for teaching but somewhat repetitious for the reader of the whole book. We read multiple times about Johann Kaspar Lavater’s physiognomy, Romantic hieroglyphs, and Friedrich’s dictate that “the painter should not only paint what he sees before him but also what he sees within him” (14, 84). But the layering here also prompts an experience potentially like that of Friedrich himself, according to Amstutz, in his engagement with nature—coming close to the essential insight, nearly grasping it, and then having it dissolve away again. The repeated revelation that Friedrich’s central aim was “the search for and discovery of the self in nature” (167) begins to mount until her final chapter, in which she shows us how we continue to find ourselves in the world around us.

The book is lavishly illustrated, in keeping with the highly visual argument, and particularly valuable is the collection of scientific illustrations that echo and augment Friedrich’s own compositional devices. Amstutz has culled a wide range of nineteenth-century sources to assemble a kind of atlas of visual thinking on the correspondence between humans and nature, from eyes blooming like flowers to the arboreal structure of our nervous system. Marshaling so much visual culture could have made for a book less about Friedrich and more about a proto-ecological visual culture. Indeed, given the ample evidence that Friedrich drew on contemporary conversations, in some ways we are left wanting to know what Friedrich added to the discourse and what the particular contributions of art, the process and practice of artmaking, brought to Romantic science.

Amstutz identifies two payoffs for her patient inquiry, beyond a better understanding of Friedrich’s late oeuvre. The first is an alternate lineage of modernism, one that sidesteps the French narrative (but that remains mostly European and male, with Frida Kahlo cited as an intriguing exception); Amstutz sketches out an arc of artists whose work manifests links between artistic and organic processes. The second is a fuller connection between today’s bio art and Romanticism’s earlier inquiries, an echo of Mark A. Cheetham’s Landscape into Eco Art (Penn State University Press, 2018). Drawing on Jane Bennett (Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Duke University Press, 2010), she proposes that embracing similitude with nonhuman nature might result in more empathy with the environment.

Yet to fully engage with contemporary conversations around ecological thought, one would want more on two aspects. One is the question of materiality. Aside from a few slight references, we hear little of Friedrich’s pigments, grounds, inks, and oils—materials that made his work fundamentally different from that of the men of letters with whom he is compared, and that may have offered affinities with nature beyond the morphological. A consideration of materials could also have gestured toward what remains inaccessible and unassimilable to human perception, opening up a discussion of difference and incommensurability in addressing environmental issues. Still, like seeing an image of a face in a rock—a practice that says more about ourselves than the rock—Amstutz’s book ultimately speaks most tellingly to our current moment of environmental crisis and our desperate need to find (again) a home in nature.

Kelly Presutti
Assistant Professor, Cornell University