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Artistic resurrection

Posted on 28 April 2011, 13:06

It’s in Room 41 at London’s National Gallery should you wish to see it. It hangs there small and easily missed, separated from the Van Goghs and Cezannes by a 30 second walk – and about 50 years.

It was at an office lunch that I got into conversation with a colleague called Flavia who’s in marketing and strategy. Our paths don’t often cross but in a free-flowing chat over a couple of hours and much pitta bread, we discovered a shared love: the work of Caspar Freidrich, a German artist who straddled the 18th and 19th centuries.

One of my favourite paintings of his is Winter Landscape. I used to have a print of it but it was lost, with much else, when my home was flooded; and like a friend with whom we lose touch, I’d never quite got back in contact. But sitting there in the Greek restaurant my interest was re-awakened when Flavia told me that this painting was in the National Gallery – in Room 41.

Caspar Freidrich (1774 – 1840) was the son of a soap and candle maker who spent most of his life in Dresden. ‘Art is infinite; finite all artists’ knowledge and ability,’ he said and his appeal for me is that whatever he paints, the infinite is always there but quite continuous with the finite. The horizon becomes the mountains becomes the trees becomes the land on which the viewer stands in contemplation.

Winter Landscape (below) is one of his more obviously religious paintings, with echoes of his Lutheran upbringing. Set in deep mountain snow, amid a small cluster of evergreens is the cross and crucified Jesus. Looking up at him is a crippled man who sits with his back to a rock – and in the icy foreground, two discarded crutches. At first view, it’s a bleak scene: against a harsh and unforgiving landscape, two men familiar with grief face each other in a relationship of shared suffering. But Freidrich did not want to end the story there. Closer inspection of the canvass reveals the first tentative shoots of grass breaking through the snow; and faint in the background, we see a cathedral emerging from the mist against the pinky sky of eternity.

winter landscape

Friedrich had some early success in his life. Well regarded by his peers, the Russian royal family even brought some of his works. By 1820 however, he was out of fashion and unable to sell a painting; and after his death, he entered an oblivion of disregard. He was crucified first by the contemplative nature of his art – so out of step with the industrialising 19th century Germany; and later by association with the Nazis who used his works to promote themselves in the 1930’s. Freidrich the artist was truly dead and buried.

Today, however, his reputation is restored in a resurrection of delight in critics and public alike - drawn to the vulnerable transcended by grandeur and things close blessed by the big horizon.

I do like a good resurrection. 

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The joys of being useless

Posted on 19 April 2011, 15:29

‘There’s a lot of it about,’ said the woman at the bus stop, and I nodded sagely. We do all seem to be ill at the moment, or at least avoiding someone who is.

My particular dose was a respiratory infection, though I didn’t know it at the time. For three weeks, I was coughing like Russian writer, but without their book sales, and it all seemed slightly unfair. I was delivering on my various writing commitments, but a temperature arrived with dull precision every afternoon and evening and then I was fit for nothing and no one.

Finding a doctor before Christmas was a Herculean task in itself, and as ever, we must fight for these things when feeling at our weakest. But finally, in a small corner of a busy A&E department, I discovered an out-of-hours doctor service and the prescribed antibiotics did the rest: health restored. Not before the medic had told me, however, that all cough mixtures were a complete waste of time, and that the best thing to drink with a cough is water.

But the fact is, I had some good times when ill. On one level, it’s a nuisance, having to ring people and cancel engagements, whilst wondering if perhaps you’re fit enough to attend. And then there’s the inability to plan or promise anything, as a day of sickness, becomes a week, and then one week becomes two. How long, O Lord? But shining like a beacon in the darkness was a wonderful sense of uselessness. As I collapsed day after day, I felt like a complete passenger in the world, unable to contribute to the voyage and with no desire to do so. Nothing I had previously set my heart on had any meaning, and it was all very liberating.

I remember long ago being haunted by ‘The Stature of Waiting’ by WH Vanstone. If my memory serves me correctly, it compared the active and challenging life of Jesus before his arrest in Gethsemane and his passive acceptance of circumstances afterwards. His behaviour was suddenly different. Implicit, if not explicit, was a theology of uselessness; an acceptance of holy futility as circumstances changed. If we ever link our value and place in the world with being useful, I suspect we become a danger to ourselves and others.

One of my sweetest memories is of an old man at the end of summer. In his youth, he’d been active and applauded, creating so much in the eyes of the world; but these days, things had changed. He pottered about the allotment, un-pressed by time, happy to rake one or two leaves from his borders and ponder the weakening summer sun. It was a uselessness which shone as bright as anything achieved in his life.

So I’m better now, but there’s something about my illness I don’t want to leave. Energy has returned and I’m running again, seeing people again – but let me retain the liberating truth of my uselessness.

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“Life After Death – The Communicator” by Paul Beard – If the telephone rings, naturally the caller is expected to identify himself. In post-mortem communication, necessitating something far more complex than a telephone, it is not enough to seek the speakers identity. One needs to estimate also as far as is possible his present status and stature. This involves a number of factors, overlapping and hard to keep separate, each bringing its own kind of difficulty. Four such factors can readily be named. Read here
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