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Traveler in a Sea of Fog

Collection: 
Kunsthalle, Hamburg

Elizabeth Prettejohn argues that Friedrich’s Traveler exemplifies Kant’s idea of genius:

 "Kant argued that genius involved making a work that was not limited to fulfilling its basic concept or intention, but that also expressed what he called aesthetic ideas. This bridged the gap between the making and the experience of the work of art, for the aesthetic ideas would suggest or stimulate a multitude of thoughts and reflections, thus encouraging the free play of imagination and understanding in the mind of the observer of the work. An artist might paint a mountain landscape that could be judged acceptable according to determinate criteria for illusionistic representation; such a work would realize the artist's intention to paint a landscape of a certain kind. But Friedrich's Wanderer above the Sea of Fog goes above and beyond merely realizing its intention. It is a work of genius in Kant's sense, for it stimulated the observer's mind to range freely over the widest variety of further musings - about pictorial space, human perceptions of space, or natural space, for example; about the relationship of human beings to nature, the spiritual dimensions of a sublime experience, or the presence of the divine in nature; about the unseen facial expression of the figure, his possible alienation from society, or his intellectual mastery of the scene before him (and us). Kant has often been accused of being a 'formalist', of concentrating on the formal features of objects to the neglect of their sociopolitical contexts. But there is no hint, in his discussion of aesthetic ideas, that we ought to limit our musings, in the contemplation of a work of art, to formal considerations. In response to the Friedrich, we may wish to think about a variety of non-aesthetic issues...Any of these trains of thought would be compatible with the free play of mind so long as they did not stop short at a cut-and-dried conclusion. More importantly, when taken together they demonstrate the inexhausitbility of the thoughts and feelings to which the picture may give rise. Thus they exemplify the aesthetic ideas which, for Kant, distinguished the work of genius: 'I mean that representation of the imagination which induces much thought, yet without the possibility of any definite though whatever, i.e. concept, being adequate to it'."

Elizabeth Prettejohn, Beauty and Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 58-9.

 

About the Artist

Born: Greifswald, Pomerania, 5 September 1774
Died: Dresden, 7 May 1840
Nationality: German