Friday, April 25, 2014

This is a story about Caspar David Friedrich and me

Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) was a German Romantic painter who inspired many later artists, including those of the American Hudson River School, the New England Luminists, and lots of Russian painters. (His work also, by the way, was the inspiration for the painted mountain backdrops of the recent movie "The Grand Budapest Hotel"!)  A year or two ago I saw a reproduction of his ink wash and pencil drawing called Owl on a Grave, from 1837.  It's actually rather unsettling, but certainly captures the imagination, and seems to validate the view that Friedrich's work is full of melancholy and loneliness.  BUT - it is also deeply romantic, in the original sense of the word, i.e., "validating intense emotion as an authentic source of aesthetic experience...especially that which is experienced in confronting the sublimity of untamed nature and its picturesque qualities" (Wikipedia).

Caspar David Friedrich:  Owl on a Grave

OK, now on to me!  I kept thinking about Friedrich, and when we were in Maine last October I was struck by the number of tiny weathered graveyards all over the state, many right next to the road between the farms or houses, and some in old town centers next to churches. Many date from the Civil War, which seems like it took place a long way from Maine, but of course it didn't. These little cemeteries are now peaceful old places, a bit melancholy to be sure, but truly meditative and romantic (see definition above). I especially liked the small Meeting House Cemetery right in the middle of Bar Harbor, on Mount Desert Island. I read all of the inscriptions that were still legible, and found one gravestone that I thought was especially evocative - on the grave of Captain Stephen Higgins, who died in 1862, aged 58 years. It had a lovely gothic arch, and was a bit distressed with a crack across the stone, deeply stained by hard winters. Carved above his name was a beautiful anchor, which of course refers to his occupation, but is also the symbol of hope.

Very different from Friedrich's German wooden grave marker, but I had in mind a different owl, and a different mood, too...

Captain Higgins' gravestone became my focus, and I imagined it in a slightly more rural setting than Bar Harbor, with a rising moon in the distance and a barn owl perched on the stone, just waking up. I borrowed the twilight palette of the painting from yet another 19th century German artist, Oscar Shultz.  I'm calling it Dusk.

My "owl on a grave" is not frightening at all, but quietly tranquil in its natural habitat, waiting for the dark, to fly. 

Dusk, gouache on rag paper

Framed Dusk
I'm using Dusk for the image on my publicity postcard for East Bay Open Studios in the first two weekends in June.  Come see me and my paintings at the Jack London Market Hall with over 50 other artists (but not Caspar David Friedrich, alas.) 

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