Walkers above the sea of clouds
Wer aber sind sie, sag mir, die Fahrenden, diese ein wenig / Flüchtigern noch als wir selbst’.
‘But tell me, who are they, these wanderers, even more transient than we ourselves.’ Rainer Maria Rilke, The Fifth Duino Elegy
The other day I dropped into Kehoes, and who should I see propping up the bar but Caspar David Friedrich, the celebrated German painter. There was an almost empty glass of Guinness in front of him and he was looking rather melancholy, so I offered to buy him another. Friedrich gratefully accepted, and then told me he was in Dublin to see an exhibition by the artists Walker & Walker at the Royal Hibernian Academy. In fact, he had just returned from the gallery, and said he was currently in the process of drowning his sorrows. Now, as it happens, I know Walker & Walker and decided to tell Friedrich as much, and so next moment I found myself sitting in the snug with him. Friedrich began by explaining what it was that had put him in such a gloomy mood.
Caspar David Friedrich: Whenever art moves me I become melancholy. It is a sign that the work has soul.
Simon Morley: Melancholy? But do you never feel happy after seeing good art?
CDF: Ah you speak of joy. Yes indeed. The world is deep, as they say, but deeper still is joy. But first it is necessary to traverse the vale of tears.
SM: Cheer up, Caspar. Surely life can’t be that bad.
CDF: Bah. What do you know?
SM: (Embarrassed) What did you think of the references made by Walker & Walker to your work?
CDF: I was flattered of course. It is not everyday I visit an exhibition which so generously pays homage to my greatness. You know, I often wonder what kind of work I would be making now. I mean if I was not…retired.
SM: Did you recognise the setting of the Walker’s film.
CDF: Of course. Lake Konigsee has not changed. Unlike Dresden, my former home. Where my house once stood is now a sad patch of grass in front of an ugly block of flats. But I suppose the Elbe has not changed. Rivers, mountains; these are eternal…. If I was still making art perhaps it would look like these gentlemen’s. I certainly feel that the medium of film is something I would try.
CDF: Because film is an enormous challenge. It pretends to be a transparent eyeball showing us the world.
SM: I don’t understand.
CDF: It is a very seductive lie. The problem, in my opinion, is how to bring to film an element of self-referentiality. This, I feel, the Walker’s achieve by their act of doubling.
SM: You are referring to the doubling of the man. The echo?
CDF: Precisely. Doubling implies the absence of an original. The absence of an origin. The copy speaks of the nominal, not the essential.
SM: The nominal?
CDF: The contingent. The culturally constructed. There is no essence. There is only language.
SM: But don’t you always strive in your work to evoke the transcendence of language? Surely your work is all about the grasping of an essence behind appearances. I thought you were a Platonist. Isn’t your work about access to a ‘gnosis’, to knowledge of the inner meaning of things? To the really real? I mean, you’re a mystic, aren’t you?
CDF: A failed mystic, perhaps! If I were truly a mystic I would not have bothered making paintings! Art is about mediation. It is conceptual. Certainly I had insights. I have often spoken of seeing with the ‘inner eye’. By this I mean that artists have a choice. They can paint what they see before them in the fullness of appearances, and in so doing seek to ignore themselves, or they can depict an analogue for their own experience of self-consciousness. I do not mean that the ‘inner eye’ reveals the real. On the contrary, it reveals only their own reflection. Their own echo.
SM: But the essential enigma of the Walkers’ film remains. The words - ‘Beyond which lies darkness…Beyond which lies silence.’ The stone. The boat. The mountains. The double. I’m sure you are aware that the Walker’s are identical twins.
CDF: Mein Gott! I had no idea! Really? (Thinks for a moment) This explains much. An identical twin must have a very intimate awareness of the absence of the original.
SM: What lies on the other side of darkness?
SM: Not death?
CDF: Joy in death.
SM: And the sublime? Isn’t this an important experience in your work? Surely the experience of the sublime is about loss of boundaries – a kind of breaking of the mould of language in order to spill us into the infinite. Isn’t it about loss of self?
CDF: Of course the experience of sublimity could be described as you do. But in itself art cannot be sublime. It canrefer to the sublime. It can evoke it. But it cannot be it. This is to confuse art and life. When I present the viewer with an image of a vast empty oceans, or a sea of clouds, I am seeking to trigger a memory of other more replete paintings with which my own minimal works can be compared. It is a comparative method.
SM: You mean we see your paintings in relation to other paintings?
CDF: Yes. And these days we also see them in relation to other artistic media. The point is that what at one time appears sublime in a painting when seen in relation to what comes later will quickly seem merely beautiful. It is the nature of the sublime always to be transformed into the beautiful by history, by the development of modern art. Compared to that American artist James Turrell, for example, my work is beautiful, not sublime. This, I am sure, is why Walker & Walker do not make paintings.
SM: What did you think of their model based on your Wanderer above the Sea of Clouds?
CDF: I was charmed. I felt quite nostalgic. This is my most famous work, you know.
SM: Yes. I believe it is in the museum in Hamburg.
CDF: Have you noticed how often this painting has been used in reproductions. I have seen it in numerous and often bizarre contexts.
SM: It is clearly an iconic work.
CDF: Yes indeed. But it is far from the kind of heroic image many people take it for.
SM: Tell me something about this motif - the man seen from behind. It is so important in your work, and also in the work of Walker & Walker. Have you seen the life-size model they made based on the wanderer in your famous painting?
CDF: Yes. The wanderer is me. And, by the way, I might add that the very name of these Irish artists implies such a figure. After all, a ’wanderer’ is really just a ‘walker’, is he not? SM: You mean it is you who stands looking out over the sea of clouds?
CDF: Of course. The painting says that you must see me before you see the clouds and the mountains. The infinite. The sublime.
SM: Why is this important?
CDF: Because I want you – the viewer – to be aware that you are too late. I am there before you. Art, culture is there before you. So it is only possible to experience through a mediation. Through my work of art.
SM: You are talking of our fundamental belatedness?
CDF: Yes. Perhaps you know Poussin’s painting Et in Arcadia Ego in the Louvre? It is like that. The shepherd traces the inscription on the tomb that speaks of an Arcadia - a Golden Age, a paradise, an Eden, a Shangri La - and he simultaneously discovers that he is the figure of death of which the text speaks. The shadow of his hand traces the shape of a scythe upon the tomb and marks the word EGO - ‘I’. For my awareness of death means that I bring death to Arcadia. Knowledge of death cast its shadow across all earthly pleasures and poisons them. The figure in my painting - me - is the figure of death, a memento mori . He is self-consciousness. He is memory.
SM: You make me think of Rilke’s First Duino Elegy: ‘…and already the knowing animals are aware that we are not really at home in our interpreted world.’
CDF: Ah yes. ‘und die findigen Tiere merken es schon, / daß wir nicht sehr verläßlich zu Haus sind / in der gedeutetn Welt.’ Or how about this from the Eighth Elegy: ‘Nur unsre Augen sind / wie umgekehrt.’
SM: ‘Only our eyes are turned backward.’ Or this, also from the Eighth: ‘Never, not for a single day, do we have before us that pure space into which flowers endlessly open.’
CDF: ‘Wir haben nie, nicht einen einzigen Tag, / den reinen Raum vor uns, in den die Blumen / unendlich aufgehn.’ Magnificent!
SM: But do you mean that this feeling of belatedness, of coming too late to the fullness of being, is a specially modern malaise?
CDF: Yes. To be modern (and I do not care for the modish term postmodern) is to be conscious, as no other men have been so conscious of the way in which we are always represented. Of how we are always a copy. We cannot use language and believe it shows us the real. It is not transparent. It is opaque. Art is opaque. It is not experience. It is about experience. It is not the experience itself.
SM: This must be the meaning of the echo in the Walker’s work. As the story is told in Ovid’s The Metamorphosesthe maiden can do no more than repeat the last words of the many phrases she hears, so when Echo sees Narcissus wandering through the lonely countryside and falls in love with him she hides in fear and longing and then can only repeat the last words of whatever he says. At first, all goes well. ‘Is there anybody here?’ Narcissus cries, and Echo answers, ‘Here!’. ‘Come!’ he cries, and she replies ‘Come!’. But when Narcissus finally sees Echo in the flesh, he flees from her, for he is destined only to be able to love himself. So, in despair, poor love-sick Echo becomes wrinkled and wasted, and her bones turn to stone so that only her voice remains. Since then, she has hid in the woods and mountains.
CDF: (shaking his head sadly) Poor Echo and poor Narcissus. They cannot initiate or even experience the fulfilment of love because they are trapped in imitation and reflection. Ovid seems to be saying that we can never have what we most desire - blissful union - because we are nothing but simulacra.
By now we were both at the bottom of our glasses of Guinness. I felt Friedrich had briefly become quite loquacious. I even thought his melancholy had lifted a little. But now, suddenly, he looked anxiously at his time-piece and rose and said:
‘Is that the time? I must depart! It has been a pleasure to talk with you. I very much look forward to seeing Walker & Walker’s forthcoming exhibition, and wonder which of my works will inspire them next. But before I go please allow me to leave you with some more Rilke: ‘Hier ist des Säglichgen Zeit, heir seine Heimat. / Sprich und bekenn. Which, I believe, would translate as follows: ‘Here is the time of the sayable, here is its homeland. Speak and bear witness.’ Auf Wiedersehen, Herr Morley.’
© SIMON MORLEY. London. November 2004.