If you weren’t painting gargantuan mountains, wizened old trees, crumbly Gothic ruins – darling, if you weren’t painting with theatricality – the early 19th-century wasn’t having you. Stiff, unengaging classical scenes had died a death when Enlightenment philosophy gave a thumbs up to direct sensory observation – and only then did European landscapists truly ditch their indoor affectations, pack up their boots and easels, and head for the hills. The time had come to see nature as it really was; these new, more faithful representations could be forgiven a little artistic license, too, if the aim was to greater enthral, bewilder or even terrify an audience. For John Constable, for instance, a cloudy sky was not merely an assembly of fluffy things, but a veritable ‘organ of sentiment’ when painted just right.
If the word Romanticism has become all but synonymous with poetry and poetry only, it’s not necessarily because kids these days don’t know any better. The multitude of thinkers who instigated this complex movement included one Edmund Burke – who, for all his revolutionary tendencies, was not alone in pooh-poohing the ‘ludicrous’ efforts of painters to elicit through painting the same emotional responses sought by poets. Of landscapes it became voguish for critics to make impatient appeals to the effect of, ‘why not just go and see the real thing?’
Two hundred years later and the Courtauld has an answer. It showcases a selection of its lesser-known works from 1760-1840, which dismiss any notion that art was the inferior medium of the age – so too the notion that radical, modern painting arose only during a later, Impressionist era (from which it has a world-famous collection).
Pervasive myths to bust. Considering also the historical oddity that British and German works of this kind have been seldom displayed in such a manner (let alone together in the same room), Romantic Landscapes has mountains to climb in more senses than one. The New York Morgan Library and Museum contributes the splendid German works, some of which require a little salvaging of reputation. Take the underrated Caspar David Friedrich. His Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog has been commandeered for the front cover of every last Shelley edition under the sun. But his terrific other pieces, as viewable here, were beloved of the Nazis and still get little airing in the UK.
Finally, then, we may see how similar were the nations’ aesthetic tastes. Consult the composer Felix Mendelssohn’s sketchbook, or Turner’s illustrations for Lord Byron’s epic poem Don Juan – these side projects show their creators’ faith was to a philosophy, not to any single media or representational ‘language’.
There emerges a truth which is traceable through to a modern Brit’s almost masochistic enjoyment of, say, a menacing Wagner overture, an unsettling Fritz Lang film, or an Angela Merkel state visit: terror is the shared language. Remember John Martin’s popular Apocalypse retrospective at Tate Britain in 2011, full of wonderful widescreen melodrama? The likes of Carl Philipp Rohr’s The Ruins of Hohenbaden are here to prove that a Romantic painting needn’t be big to be clever – as long as it captured the devastating, ‘sublime’ power of the natural world. Karl Friedrich Lessing’s Landscape with a Cemetery and a Church is a positively malevolent picture, capturing as it does a big, gnarly tree seemingly rising from the underworld to swallow up the titular graveyard. These were the first horror fans all right, and we suspect both Brits and Germans alike will be pleased to discover this wasn’t a weirdness peculiar unto themselves.
By James FitzGerald
A Dialogue with Nature: Romantic Landscapes from Britain and Germany is at the Courtauld Gallery, Somerset House, until 27 April 2014. Tickets £6 / £5; Mondays (including public holidays) £3. Free at all times for under 18s, full-time UK students and unwaged.