Although the Milwaukee Art Museum has a fantastic collection of German art, one of the things I wish we had is a painting by Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840).
Friedrich is one of the most important German artists from the Romantic period of the early 19th century, and his paintings are showstoppers. A deeply religious man from the Protestant North, Friedrich believed that both landscape and human creativity revealed God’s truth and beauty.
Combine this sentiment with artistic talent, and you have powerful and fascinating paintings rich in symbols and atmospheric effects. Here you can see some examples of Friedrich’s paintings at a Boston College website.
But, as I said, for the time being the Museum’s permanent collection doesn’t include a painting by Friedrich. There is no need to entirely despair, however, because we do have two works on paper by Friedrich. One of them, The Woman with the Raven at the Abyss, is on view right now in the exhibition Framing a Decade (on view in the Koss Gallery through April 3, 2011). This work alone is worth a visit to the show, but there are so many wonderful things included in the exhibition (and all of them in our Collection!) that you will walk away amazed. Although he had a lengthy career, Friedrich’s printmaking output was limited to eighteen etchings and four woodcuts. The designs for the woodcuts were cut into the blocks by Friedrich’s younger brother, Christian Friedrich, who was a cabinet-maker.
Most likely meant to illustrate a book of Friedrich’s own poems, the woodcuts were never published, and only a few impressions of each survive today. The Woman with the Raven at the Abyss is one these rare woodblock prints.
The work is quite small, so you have to stop to look closely. A woman stands at the edge of a chasm, with bare mountain peaks in the background and dead and dying trees nearby. The woman has stopped walking just in time to keep from falling into the abyss, holding the broken trunk of a tree that looks like it could be tumbling off the edge. She has turned to face the viewer. Could this interruption be the only reason she hasn’t gone into the abyss with the tree? The raven, always an ill-omen, caws at her from a branch.
The scene’s desolation reflects both the woman’s internal turmoil and possibly also that of the artist. The rough and expressive lines, emphasized by the texture of woodblock printing, accentuates this feeling. It is clear that the external world mirrors internal thoughts. It is a powerful image!
Remember that works on paper are not on view permanently in order to keep them from fading, so take the opportunity to view this fantastic Friedrich woodblock print while you can. It returns to storage April 3.
Catherine Sawinski is the Assistant Curator of Earlier European Art. When not handling the day-to-day running of the European art department and the Museum’s Fine Arts Society, she researches the collection of Ancient and European artwork before 1900.