I went down a little rabbit hole on the Internet this morning, as has been known to happen on occasion. (A-hem. Cough! Cough!)
Wikipedia featured this image on its home page today:
View from the Artist's Window by Martinus Rørbye (Source)
I had to look into it because paintings like this have a tendency to annoy me—painted in 1825, it's clearly a fastidious copy of the image in a camera obscura. It even reproduces, somewhat, the tonal qualities and slightly faded colors of a lens image on a groundglass. Although that must have been a sensational and cutting edge technique at the time, presaging the shock of reality that representational photography was soon to make on the consciousness of the world, it's just another example of photorealism now. Albeit a pleasant and historically significant one, particularly if you are Danish. Isn't it beautiful?
But it's not how people see; it's how a lens sees.
Compare it to this work by Eugene Delacroix painted in the same year, 1825, "A Mortally Wounded Brigand Quenches His Thirst":
That's not lens vision, although we can possibly imagine a model striking that pose in the studio as the painter paints by eye.
Schjeldal and Rørbye
However, from there, one thing led to another, and soon enough I came across "Lonely Men of the Nineteenth Century" by the critic Peter Schjeldahl, from the May 2, 2011 issue of The New Yorker. He mentions Rørbye, but basically the article is about Caspar David Friedrich, the greatest painter of the movement to which Rørbye belonged. First, Schjeldahl calls Romanticism "the first distinctly modern movement and, it seems to me, the default setting of Western sensibilities ever since," which is a great line. Then, in passing, we are treated to this:
Friedrich proves that an experience of the capital-“S” Sublime—the idea of malign beauty, then in vogue—doesn’t require a storm in the Alps. It needs only a sense of external reality that is not other to the self but, rather, otherizing. Variants of the effect abound in the arts of the past two centuries. It is cranked up to a steady state of panic in Kafka. It is becalmed but ubiquitous in Edward Hopper. Most of all, it has engaged innumerable photographers and filmmakers. Take Robert Frank’s classic, devastating shot of gauzy curtains blowing in a window that overlooks a grimy mining town: the good news of beauty laced with the bad news of being stuck in Butte, Montana. Come to think of it, any camera might function as an inanimate avatar of Friedrich—analogous to a brain being invaded wholly, exclusive of thought, by the uncanniness of the not-oneself.
Isn't that great? Cranked up to a steady state of panic in Kafka, becalmed but ubiquitous in Edward Hopper. Nailed that. Makes me want to go immerse myself in Caspar David Friedrich's work, for one thing. Might be appropriate as I soldier on with Melville!
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Chris Y: "All that, and gotta love the lucidity of Peter Schjeldahl—this from a review of Richard Prince’s Instagrams in 2014—'Possible cogent responses to the show include naughty delight and sincere abhorrence. My own was something like a wish to be dead—which, say what you want about it, is the surest defense against assaults of postmodernist attitude.' You can’t really forget a line like that…."
David Dyer-Bennet: "I kind of love the idea of a color photo from 1825! We don't get to see the objective photographic view of what happened that long ago very often. Of course, we don't know that the painter didn't in fact alter things. It was pre-Photoshop, but not pre-Artist, and artists are always suspect :-) ."
"Just a few weeks back I stumbled into a Caspar David Friedrich moment on an outing and couldn't resist this selfie called 'Was nun, Caspar?' [What now, Caspar?]"
Andrew Molitor: "When I see a reference to Frank's picture of Butte, I always check to see if the writer has really looked at the picture. Nobody ever seems to mention that the mine headframe in the distance appears to be engulfed in flame.
"Well, it's probably steam, but it's still dramatic as hell. That photo has always struck me as a guy seeing something dramatic out his window, and shooting it with the far-to-wide lens he has mounted. The white-engulfed headframe in the distance is the beating heart of the picture, even so small. It's graphically important, as well as, to my eye, the obvious 'subject.' But people always drone on about the dreary town and the curtains."