Paint Misty For Me

Although the German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich (born in 1774) worked mostly in the early 1800s, many of his pictures are about as 'fin de siecle' as you can get. End of the day, end of life and, maybe - if all these paintings about wandering through Gothic ruins and mountain aeries don't bring about communion with Nature itself - the end of civilization. Dead for 150 years, Friedrich is the perfect painter for these troubled times: he lets a few rays of hope shine through his portents of doom.

Friedrich has been, however, hard to come by outside Germany (the only American museum to own a painting is the Kimbell in Ft. Worth, Texas). Now the spirit of glasnost (albeit sinking like a Friedrich sun) has produced a succinct show, "The Romantic Vision of Caspar David Friedrich: Paintings and Drawings from the U.S.S.R.," through March 31 at New York's Metropolitan Museum. All but one of the nine paintings in the show was acquired by the Russian royal family during Friedrich's life (there are also 11 delicate drawings on view). Present are his two largest surviving works, "Moonrise by the Sea" (1821) and "Morning in the Mountains" (1822-23), but none of his melancholic biggies - like "Sea of Ice" or "Abbey in the Oak Forest." Still, Friedrich is best in small doses, and this one is the right size.

He was born in a small town on the Baltic Sea and, after studying in Copenhagen, settled in Dresden. Eventually, he became a professor at its academy. Goethe was an early admirer of Friedrich's work but the painter was criticized by others, on both religious and esthetic grounds, for turning landscapes into religious meditations. The rest of Friedrich's career became a gentle downhill slide. He was neglected and bitter at the time of his death, but his reputation was revived at the beginning of this century. It grew until the Nazis held him up as a prophet of German nationalism, an unfortunate endorsement that caused a postwar sputter which lasted until the 1960s. Art historian Robert Rosenblum, Friedrich's most ardent American admirer and re-rehabilitator, writes in the show's catalog: "He might well be credited as the first to capture the sense of total human isolation before the numbing mysteries of transitory life on earth." Detractors like conservative critic Hilton Kramer think Friedrich is at best the best of a bad lot of murky German Romantics, who couldn't hold a brushstroke to contemporaries like Turner, Goya and Delacroix.

The problem modern viewers have with Friedrich is that he, like Salvador Dali later, doesn't seem to do much with paint itself, except to smooth it over and over until it's been sheened into an uptight rendering that's somehow supposed to communicate the ineffable. That leaves everything up to the iconography - a Freudian version of "Total Recall" in Dali's case, and a kind of Sierra Club Valhalla in Friedrich's. On the other hand, Friedrich is so uncorrupt a craftsman, so earnest a seeker, that he puts simply everything into every square inch of his pictures. The bright sky in "Morning" subliminally glows with five times as many subtle color variations as a lesser painter would have included. And the watercolor "Ruin on the Schlossberg" (1828) has the kind of affectionate fidelity you'd expect from an artist who walked the 35 miles from Dresden to the site.

Having first appeared at the Art Institute of Chicago, this little exhibition will be disassembled after it closes at the Met. The fragility of old paintings and the enormity of insurance premiums being what they are, it's likely that seeing Friedrichs in the foreseeable future will require trips to foreign museums. That in turn means that Friedrich will remain something of a cult figure on this side of the Atlantic, held dear from afar by both kinds of painterly romantics - those moved by the vast mysteriousness of a Rothko color field and those haunted by the explicit loneliness of Andrew Wyeth's "Christina's World." But for the steelier eye, there's even more, and it resides right in Friedrich's workmanship. God, or whatever it was he was looking for, is in the details.