Old masters, new loves

Alexandra Pirici on Casper David Friedrich's "Moonrise Over the Sea"

Foto: Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13290421
Foto: Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13290421

Caspar David Friedrich "Mondaufgang am Meer", 1822

Artists are pilgrims. There are works to which they always return. Alexandra Pirici is drawn to Caspar David Friedrich’s painting "Moonrise Over the Sea" at the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin

I know the work for a long time but only saw it live recently. With digital reproductions you always tune your online search options to look for the larger image file and it was beautiful to see it live in its small scale and fragility: a glimpse into this calm, extended moment that moves you but does not attempt to overwhelm.

"Moonrise Over the Sea" – the version from 1822 on view at the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin depicts two young women and a man sitting on a rocky shore with their backs to the viewer, looking at the sea at moonrise, two ships sailing seemingly towards the shore but still far away in the distance. One woman holds the other over the waist, in a sort of embrace that could be a mother’s or a close friend’s. The small group could be a family but not necessarily.  

I spent some time with it recently at the Alte Nationalgalerie and wondered why I am so drawn to it today. Within the current apocalyptic imaginary and discussions around the Anthropocene, impending climate change and what might seem like an increasingly dire socio-economic and political situation on the short term, Friedrich's work might be understood as a moment of pause for beauty and possibility for peace. It felt like a glimpse into our fragile entanglement with our surroundings – humble human subjects looking at the calm vastness of the sea at sunset/at moonrise, the dark settling in, a moment of passage from one world to another. What would these ships bring? When we now think of the sea, one also cannot wave away the images of sinking refugee boats and the tragedies of forced migration (both in the present and throughout a horrifying history of slavery). The painting does not make me want to wave these images away but to see the resolve, to imagine and bring into existence a future where the shores are welcoming and the sea is warm and anybody can watch it in owe but with calm again, mourning the absurd loss of so many lives but also having surpassed the sea as a border. The sea is no longer an obstacle or a grave. We look at it to see the possibilities are endless and they belong to everyone.

I think there is something comforting and soothing in this particular painting also because, as opposed to probably the most famous or the most circulated of Friedrich’s works – "Wandered above the sea of fog", there is nothing that could be perceived as confrontational. Nature is on our side – and the two women and one man seem to look at it with hope. There is expectancy but not anxiousness. There is nothing to be gained from the moment as a personal advantage; one can only share it, be part of it. And just as a funny note, since I mentioned Wanderer above the Sea of Fog – a metaphor for man’s modern condition, looking at nature not only while being detached from it but also from the defiant posture of a (male) conqueror: the postcards they now sell in the museum shop at Alte Nationalgalerie only show a detail of "Moonrise over the Sea", the painting is edited, zoomed in, so that the man in the group is actually cut out of the frame and only the two women remain looking at the horizon. I sent one to my grandmother and one to my mom.

I make work that cannot be hung on the wall, so formally there aren’t many similarities between Friedrich's paintings and my practice but one of the previous works that I made together with Manuel Pelmus, "Public Collection of Modern Art", included an enactment of Caspar David Friedrich's "Wanderer above the Sea of Fog". The performer would embody the "Wanderer" and place herself in front of a wall – so that the natural horizon depicted in the original work would now disappear and be replaced by an obstacle, an end. I guess Moonrise Over the Sea would need a different correspondence – here there seems to be nothing to struggle with, nothing to exploit after conquest. I have yet to make a work that could hint at the moment of calm and belonging that the painting projects. But hopefully it would find ramifications and multiply in a larger work to be made collectively at this moment of sunset. And while a new moon rises, you would leave the rocky shores in the painting walking so silently and with such care and awareness, that quoting Pauline Oliveros "the bottoms of your feet would become ears".

This is the original version of a text that appeared first in German language on the February issue of Monopol