Friedrich’s Mountain, Botched Romance

Sarah Cameron is a multi-award winning painter and photographer with an MFA from the Slade School of Fine Art and a BFA from Edinburgh College of Art. At the time the pieces for this website were painted, she was working on representations of the human-nature relationship. She was particularly interested in the perceived boundary between human beings and nature, Romantic tropes around nature, and the feminine sublime.

Friedrich’s Mountain, Botched Romance plays with Romantic tropes of the sublime and the relationship of human beings to nature. The “botched romance” in the title tempts the viewer to imagine stories around the painting: is the viewpoint that of a jilted lover, standing in the prow of a boat on their way to lick their wounds in a lonely coastal or island retreat? Or is it the romance of an idyll in nature that has been botched? That shack looks like it’s falling apart. To someone like me, who works on late 18th and early 19th century German literature and philosophy, the phrase recalls the subtitle of Friedrich Schlegel’s 1799 novel Lucinde: Confessions of a Blunderer. This highlights the painting’s engagement with Early German Romantic tropes of the alienation of human beings from nature, each other, and themselves, the inconclusiveness and experimental nature of attempts to encounter or construct these things, and the inevitable collapse of these inadequate attempts.

The mountain in the background is based on Der Watzmann, a mountain depicted in Caspar David Friedrich’s 1824 painting of the same name. In Friedrich’s paintings, and in other illustrations of the sublime from this period, the viewer tends to be situated within nature, surrounded by overwhelming crags, hillsides, forests, icefields or other signs of nature’s power. Here, however, a smooth body of water separates the viewer from the mountain, which is reduced by distance to an indistinct but pretty shape in the background, the jagged edges of Friedrich’s original softened by light and distance. There are still signs of nature’s power in the painting: towards the right of centre, a wave crashes against a rock; mist is forming on the left of the picture and reaching out towards the viewer; and the sunset creates gigantic patterns in the sky and on the water. These are all, however, rendered unthreatening by distance and by the peaceful atmosphere of the painting.

In the centre of the image, some kind of human construction huddles on the coast, beneath the mountain. Ugly and dilapidated, it could hardly be further from the grand examples of classical architecture often portrayed in landscape art from the modern and early modern periods, or from the once-great buildings that form the ruins in paintings by Friedrich and other Romantic artists. In this painting, human beings are an ugly intrusion into the beauty of the natural world, inhabiting a flimsy shelter that clings to the edge of land.

One of the most interesting material aspects of the painting is the blank patch of canvas in the centre. Although it’s difficult to see in the reproduction, the white spaces of the building are not painted; they are left bare to show the prepared canvas behind: there is “a hole in the middle” of the painting (quoting the artist). With this in mind, it’s possible to view the sky, rather than being behind the building, as a stretch of canvas, lifted up at two points over the shack like the roof of a tent. The human habitation is not so much a construction as a gap in the world, a hole through that can be looked through; a space in which something else can be. In my interpretation, this is the space of the human mind: an intrusion into the world by a creature that regards itself as not fully of this world – a position, this painting suggests, that it can only tenuously maintain.

Sarah Cameron’s paining Friedrich’s Mountain, Botched Romance plays with Romantic tropes of the sublime and the relationship of human beings to nature.

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