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Current time:0:00Total duration:3:46

Video transcript

(lively music) Steven: When we think of 19th Century landscape painting, we so often think of an artist painting plein air, that is, painting outside, before the landscape, but that wasn't always the case. In the work of Caspar David Friedrich, his paintings were studio paintings. They were inventions, to a very great extentent, and that's certainly the case of The Lone Tree. Beth: Right. He did studies outside, in pencil, and then would compose a painting in his studio. Steven: It makes sense that these would be studio works because Friedrich was using landscape to portray deeper ideas, deeper meanings. Beth: This symbolic landscape includes a lone tree. Steven: And what a tree it is: gnarled, anthropomorphic. Beth: It's brooming towards its bottom, and we can see a shepherd underneath it, gazing at his flock. As it rises up, it seems to struggle, as though its top has been blasted off by lightning or a terrible storm, and it's struggling to just eck out a few leaves towards its top. Steven: It stands like a lone sentinel. It is ancient. Friedrich is creating this contrast between the ephemeral state of that shepherd, that one man's life, what, 70-80 years, as opposed to the thousand-year-old tree that had stood here through wars and storms. Beth: We're certainly meant to look at the top of that tree, the utmost beam part, where Friedrich has parted the mountains and given us an expanse of blue sky. That's the place where Friedrich directs our gaze. Steven: Is it me, or am I seeing a kind of cruciform? Organic, but nevertheless, a reference to the cross. Beth: I think that's very likely there. And we see a church rising above a small town. Steven: But that church is tiny compared to the cathedral that is this tree. Beth: That is, nature. Steven: Friedrich is pointing us to a kind of older spirituality. It's so interesting, when we think about traditional or [classisized] landscapes, say from the Baroque, we might think of the work of Claude Lorrain, who had so carefully constructed a kind of system or formula for the representation of landscape in which trees function as a kind of curtain that is pulled aside to draw us into a deeper landscape, that is, trees frame the image, they frame the deep lanscape. Friedrich has done the reverse here. He's made the tree the main protagonist. The open spaces function as the frame for the tree. It is this move away from classisizing, although I do want to note that the idea of the shepherd and the sheep is very much a classical element that we might find in a Claude. Beth: But it's also a Christian element, a shepherd and his flock. Steven: Finding shelter under that ancient tree. But, even given that cruciform, there's a sense that maybe this tree is even older, that it has a primordial spirituality. Perhaps it had witnessed the Druidic traditions. This tree is the link back to a past that is awe-inspiring in its ability to resist the forces of nature, the forces of man, the march of time. (lively music)