January 26, 2014 9:03 pm

A Dialogue with Nature: Romantic Landscapes from Britain and Germany, Courtauld Gallery, London – review

Watercolours, oil sketches and drawings trace a radical approach to landscape painting
‘Landscape with Cemetery and Church’ (1837) by Karl Friedrich Lessing©Morgan Library and Museum

‘Landscape with Cemetery and Church’ (1837) by Karl Friedrich Lessing

Standing before Caspar David Friedrich’s gloomy Romantic painting “Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon”, Samuel Beckett remarked “This was the source of Waiting for Godot, you know.” German Romantic art has swooped in and out of favour in the 200 years since Friedrich painted the movement’s iconic “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog” in 1818.

Friedrich died a penniless recluse in the mid-19th century, forgotten by a new materialist, industrialising generation. But Edvard Munch in the 1880s, then Max Ernst in the 1920s, rediscovered him, and expressionism and surrealism embraced and reinterpreted his lonely existential vision before he became a Nazi trophy artist, to be distrusted again after the war.

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Today, Gerhard Richter and Anselm Kiefer acknowledge a debt, and new interest in German Romanticism in Britain and the US is reflected by this show organised in collaboration with New York’s Morgan Library, to which it will travel in the summer. It displays 26 watercolours, oil sketches and drawings tracing the radical approach to landscape painting based on close observation, a resistance to idealising classical order, and the importance of an artist’s imagination, developed from the late 18th century to 1840.

Cloud and tree studies by Constable and Johann Georg von Dillis demonstrate the new zeal for drawing from life and charting natural phenomena; the impulse towards the Romantic sublime, suggesting terror before the power of nature, is showcased in John Robert Cozens’ airy watercolour “A Ruined Fort near Salerno”, Friedrich’s “The Jakobikirche as a Ruin” and Carl Philipp Fohr’s “The Ruins of Hohenbaden”. The visionary strand of Romanticism is wonderfully displayed in Friedrich’s glowing, intensely detailed “Moonlit Landscape”, in Samuel Palmer’s freer “Oak Tree and Beech, Lullingstone Park” and meditative drawing “Haunted Stream”, and in Turner’s late abstracting watercolour “On Lake Lucerne, Looking Towards Fluelen”. A final section of expansive, painterly landscapes directly compares Turner, in work inspired by his first visit to Germany, with Friedrich.

From Thursday until April 27, courtauld.ac.uk

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