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The Disapproval of Dehumanizing the Human as a Machine in Romanticism: Analytical Essay

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As people learned through decades artists create art which is about compatible providing an inspiration to themselves why they require being animatedly existent and taken as creators. Depending on the time period art was focused on different tendencies such as historical or inner self directions, although the one I am going to explore in my essay is the Western Romanticism movement. I aim to discuss three Romantic paintings by Caspar David Friedrich, Henry Fuseli and Théodore Géricault.

To begin with explaining the importance of the Romantic perspective for the human as a creature opposite to a machine I am going debate whether Romanticism really changed that view.

In the heart of the Romanticism lays the idea of emphasizing permitted freedom and primacy of the individual, and it is characterized by emotions, inner world and imagination. One of the most significant artists who shaped Romanticism was the German painter Caspar David Friedrich. ‘Friedrich’s paintings are strangely sadder and lonelier when they are inhabited by a turned figure than when they are empty. ‘ (Koerner, 161) In my opinion by quoting the Joseph Leo Koerner in this particular sentence it shows Friedrich’s ability to create a piece in which he makes the viewer to perceive the man as an object full of negative emotions such as loneliness and sorrow , but at the same time it offers the fact that the man is peacefully on his own wandering in search for answers. Commenting on Wanderer above the Sea of Fog(Fig.1), David Blayney Brown: ‘…and it is no accident that the poet, wrapped in thought on his mountain, recalls Friedrich`s alpine Wanderer (11) image of the artist in communion with the mysteries of nature and of his own inner life. The poet and the painter have climbed high to be closer to God who has given them these insights…’(26) He address the poet standing above fog and clouds as the supreme Romantic poet Thus William Wordsword. Brown also points out that the viewer can find a strong connection between the poet and the painter, compares the nature and how it reflects the soul of the artist itself. It shows his inner desire to reach the capability of being open to his feelings.

Figure 1 ‘Wanderer above the Sea of Fog’ (1818). Caspar David Friedrich. Oil painting, 94.8 cm × 74.8 cm. Kunsthalle Hamburg, Hamburg, Germany

Another famous painting by Friedrich Caspar was ‘Monk by the Sea’ (fig. 2 ).

Figure 2 ‘The Monk by the Sea’ (1808–1810). Caspar David Friedrich. Oil painting, 1.1 m x 1.72 m. Alte Nationalgalerie

According to Charles Sala ‘It draws a spectator`s gaze with its contained intensity and absorbs that of the strolling monk with its immaterial immensity. ‘ (129 ) The ‘Monk’ absorbs same energy as Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (fig.1 ). which is not essentially positive and its rather in a search of the same inner balance as the ‘Wanderer’. Fig. 1 can also be seen as an answer against to Neoclassicism. The Neoclassicism itself is focused on Roman and Greek features and strove to preserve the classical values such as the use of columns. Mostly it was concentrated on architecturally and political side, as well qualities such as balance and order. (Brown, 4 ) From my personal standpoint two of Friedrich’s paintings fig.1 and fig.2 are outstanding examples which indicate Romanticism as a development after the Neoclassical lack of emotional expression due to the materialism in the modern world. That also included interpreted response to the late Renaissance philosophical movement – Neo-stoicism which associates with characteristics such as firmness, endurance and equanimity. (Sellars )

Henry Fuseli was a Swiss painter which artworks often were associated as Romantic or Neoclassical, also shows psychological and sensual imagery within his canvas. (Myrone, 6 ) Clark writes about artist paintings that: ‘…they are concerned with the two great irrational fear and sex , both communicated through dreams.’ (64-65) Great example of this statement is one of his most famous works is The Nightmare (fig. 3 ) which shows sleeping woman in a nightdress, demonic creature sitting on her chest and horse like ghost in the back.

Figure 3 ‘The Nightmare’ (1781). Henry Fuseli. Oil painting , 1.02 m x 1.27 m. Detroit Institute of Arts

‘The Romantics believed that dreams were second life, lived on another plane; they connected the dreamer with eternal unities lost to the rational mind, and transcended time by recalling a spirit past or foretelling the future’ (Brown, 317 ) Brown refers to fig. 3 and specially the meaning behind the girl laying down near to her fears. It shows that by converting dreams into paintings the Romantics expressed not only positive emotions that were supposed to be felt during sleeping, but those which people rarely discussed about – negative ones. By using the contrast between the two dark creatures and the girl wearing white dress, Fuseli used a metaphor for how pure and untouched human slowly destructs itself because of its inner thoughts and the battle of its inner demons. It also questions if people were viewing the dreams as something that can give us access to other worlds or it could be a connection to human memories.

However Myrone interpretation on fig. 3 , the woman specifically is slightly different. ‘In contrast, The Nightmare has been read as a revenge-fantasy directed at Anna Landlord, the woman he had loved and been rejected.’ (Myrone, 70) Author of the quote stated that Fuseli created the artwork to reveal his personal story and declare it as a response to the rejection of the loved one. The Nightmare represents his fantasies about Anna Landlord that could be elucidated as sensual and erotical. Although connecting the figure in the painting as individual who attended in painter’s life could be an approach to link his deeper thoughts and the pain from his unrequited love to the dramatic composition in fig.3 . ‘Here, the woman is reduced to a limb and lifeless almost shapeless form, virginal in her revealing white nightdress , but yielding under the suffocating weight of the imp on her chest… ‘ Coming to agreement with Myrone who states that demonic creature on woman’s chest can be understood as the artist itself only confirms the theory that Fuseli’s painting as a form of revenge and way of pouring over his feelings from the emotionally painful experience into the figure of the woman. In my opinion the artist wanted to reach the pureness of his loved one, but representing him as a demon only led him to obsession, almost as if he took her spirit from the ‘lifeless’ body. As I presented The Nightmare could be interpreted with many theories but my assumption is that the first belief symbolize more clearly my thoughts on how Romanticism slowly started to change the view on dreams and nightmares in humans life, showing the individual as someone more vulnerable and exposed.

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Théodore Géricault was a French Romanticism painter, within the canvas of one of his rarest landscapes deployed a whole tragedy into masterpiece which became one of the major event of its day and he ‘proclaims the agony of desperate men lost at sea’ (Alhadeff, 45 ) – The raft of Medusa (fig. 4 ). The artwork mirror a real incident involving forty-nine passengers abandoned by their captain and followed by cannibalism due the tragic circumstances. (Clark, 185)

Figure 4‘The Raft of the Medusa’ (1818-1819). Théodore Géricault. Oil painting, 4.91 m x 7.16 m. Louvre Museum

‘We feel, as Géricault intended we should, that all humanity is a raft of desperate men, surrounded by the dead and dying, but suddenly united by hope.’ (Clark, 185) Kenneth Clark statement about fig.4 is clearly an example of supporting my thesis how each of the figures there were illustrated to show variety of emotions when the only thing left in their life is to hope, which is shown as the only savior in regardless of their situation. Within the painting there are variety of emotions in each of the figures, such as desperation (fig. 5 ), extreme anger (fig.6 ) and desire, praying for miracle(fig.7 ).

Figure 5 ‘The Raft of the Medusa’(Detail) (1818-1819)

Figure 6 ‘The Raft of the Medusa’(Detail) (1818-1819)

‘As one vindictive voice wrote, they had “forgotten God” and, since none were on their knees praying to the almighty, they ”all must die.” ’ (O’Mahony, qtd. In Alhadeff, 29 ) O’Mahony says that the ‘scapegraces’ whose were left alone even by God deserve their destiny, although on fig. 7 there is a noticeable rage in one boaters who sense that the whole crew is already left alone and that provokes disturbance rather than praying like as the rest of the survivors around (fig.7).

Figure 7 ‘The Raft of the Medusa’(Detail) (1818-1819)

‘The rescue vessel was barely visible, yet the castaway, signaling with colored bunting, hoped against hope the distant ship would not turn away from them.’ (Alhadeff, 45 ) This quote support my statement about fig 8, where the ship in the background represents faith and sailors who attempt to hold on it as their last hope for surviving.

Figure 8‘The Raft of the Medusa’(Detail) (1818-1819)

An interesting feature of the painting is that on fig. 4 it can be observed that theright half of the survivors are looking at the direction of the ship which indicates their expectations to be saved. On the other hand the left half had already been lost their desire for living, gave up on life and accepted their fate. Fig. 5 perfectly illustrate this miserable moment as one of the sailors is carrying his dead body’s companion.

By comparing fig.1 and fig3 which at first glance are unlikely to have something in common, I find one major similarity – we are unable to see they eyes. Even though we do see the woman’s face in The Nightmare we cannot really tell how she is feeling. Same goes with the Wanderer in Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. Both painters did not gave us the opportunity to view what are their true emotions, so instead that the viewer focus sight at the rest of the landscape and what is surrounding the individual, in search of answers. However if we take a look at fig. 4, it is entirely different environment. Not only we have more than one human figure, but the landscape is a combination of people which faces and eyes can be seen, and those we cannot. In The raft of Medusa as a result that the viewer can see some of men’s faces they could guess the rest of survivors’ emotions which seem to be uncommon in fig.1 and fig.3.

The use of the human figures in Western Romanticism was one of the main weapons to determinate the perspective that people were seen as a machine and nothing else. Its persistence completely changed the atmosphere in the indicated landscapes, the way artists associated the figures with nature and sometimes with the one hiding in them as well.

Annotated list of sources

  1. Alhadeff, Albert. The Raft of the Medusa : Géricault, Art, and Race. Prestel, 2002.
  2. Brown, David Blayney. Romanticism. Phaidon, 2010. pp.
  3. Clark, Kenneth. The Romantic Rebellion : Romantic versus Classic Art. J. Murray Sotheby Parke Bernet Publications Ltd, 1973.
  4. Koerner, Joseph Leo. Caspar David Friedrich and the Subject of Landscape. Reaktion, 1990.
  5. Myrone, Martin. Henry Fuseli. Princeton University Press, 2001.
  6. Sala, Charles. Caspar David Friedrich : the Spirit of Romantic Painting. Editions Pierre Terrail, 1994.
  7. Sellars , John. Neo-Stoicism. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, [Martin, TN] Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy Pub, N/A https://www.iep.utm.edu/neostoic/

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