The Monk by the Sea
A reflection on Casper David Friedrich's Monk by the Sea (1810)
There is nothing quite as captivating as a painting that controls a room. It commands the space it occupies, and you can sense it. This effect is heightened when you see a work you have long admired before you’ve seen it in person, from only being able to gaze at it through the bright pixels of your computer screen.
Recently, I visited the wonderful city of Berlin, where I explored its prized Museum Island, filled with artifacts from all over the world. Enchanting as it all was, it was inside the Alte Nationalgalerie where I found a painting that immediately gave me the feeling I described above: Caspar David Friedrich’s The Monk by the Sea. As soon as I stepped foot into the room, I felt its presence. All the other Friedrichs seemed not to matter, and it was the Sea’s waves that drew me in.
Now I knew seeing this painting was going to be an experience for me; I tend to place intense emotional significance on art and I become overwhelmed with emotion in front of many works--namely, Mark Rothko--but this particular experience was far more compelling than ever expected.
The Sea was painted sometime between 1808 and 1810, and just as its title suggests, the painting depicts a monk standing on a sandy beach next to the sea. However, this monk is miniscule and the sea makes up about an eighth of the painting, so what do we really see here? Friedrich has in fact painted a monk and the sea, but he has more so painted an excess of wide-open space, which makes up what the viewer would consider the foreground and much of the background. This is a little strange; most works before this one have a definite subject which more or less fills the entire canvas, so why has Friedrich painted all of these clouds, in brightness and in darkness?
Many search for meaning in the clouds, they look pensively at them just as the monk does. However, for me, it seems that the absence of space is really what Friedrich is looking to depict.
A friend recently asked me the difference between a void and an abyss, and I determined that a void was an expansive absence of space, while an abyss was also profoundly expensive, but it usually was a space filled with some kind of material. Friedrich has painted an abyss of the sea beyond--we see that it begins at the shore but there seems to be no end, just as we may see in real life--but he has also painted a void in-between the viewer and his subject. As close as I got to the Sea, there was this impenetrable chasm that kept me out. I could hear the waves on the shore beckoning me closer, but I could not walk towards them. Friedrich trapped me in the void, and left me as contemplative as the faceless monk before me.
Still, like a Rothko, the blues seemed to engulf me and I was frozen in Friedrich’s Sea. I had never felt this void in any landscape. Though I’m sure he didn’t mean for me to be trapped in his expanse, I was, for a few minutes, trapped in that room.
You never really know how a piece of art will feel until you fully experience it in person. My suggestion is that you go and search for whatever meanings you find.