Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The Monk by the Sea

Among the many fascinating readings in Harrison, Wood & Geiger's Art in Theory 1648-1815 are two versions of a short article on the famous Friedrich painting, The Monk by the Sea, which was exhibited at the Berlin Royal Academy of Art in 1810. These texts clearly show the style of two (possibly three) of the great German Romantic writers. The first is by Clemens Brentano (although 'it is likely' that Achim von Arnim 'contributed towards the composition'): a piece called 'Various Emotions before a Seascape by Friedrich', submitted to the Berliner Adendblatter journal, edited by Heinrich von Kleist. However, this version only appeared in 1826; in 1810 Kleist actually published a cut-down version re-written by himself. Brentano's original is light-hearted and witty, featuring various characters overheard discussing the painting. Kleist's version is much darker ('the painting stands there with its two or three mysterious objects like the apocalypse'); it is a voice instantly recognisable if you've read his stories (Penguin publish an excellent anthology).

Caspar David Friedrich, Monk by the Sea, 1809
Source: Wikipedia Commons

One thing the two articles share almost word for word is this memorable opening sentence: 'It is splendid, in infinite loneliness by the shore of the sea under a cheerless sky, to stare at a limitless expanse of water; in part, this is due to the fact that one has gone there, that one must return, that one would like to cross over, that one cannot do so; that everything belonging to life is missing and that one hears one's own voice in the roar of the tide, in the billowing of the wind, in the passing of the clouds and in the lonely cry of the birds; in part it is due to a demand which is made by the heart and by the withdrawal of nature...'


Bart said...

Interesting, the German version by Brentano is available on the internet

aurelia said...

The landscape evoked by Caspar David Friedrch in the 'Monk by the Sea' was also captured by Elizabeth von Arnim in 'The adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen'. According to Albert Boime, the monk is Friedrich himself walking along the chalk cliffs high above the sea. Elizebeth writes ‘once again I slowly walked through the trees to the cliffs. The highest of these cliffs, the Königsstuhl, jutting out into the sea forms a plateau where a few trees that have weathered the winter storms of many years stand in little groups. For a long while I sat on the knotted roots of one of them, listening to the slow wash of the waves on the shingle far below ... I watched the sunset-red fade out of the sky and sea, and all the world grow grey and full of secrets.’