the void & “the abbey in the oakwood”

In 335 BC, Aristotle wrote his Poetics, the earliest surviving work of dramatic theory. In his discussion of tragedy, he introduces readers to the ability of art to induce catharsis, a concept that has persisted in the enquiries of later philosophers such as Kant, Burke, and Freud. Aristotle also distinguishes his aesthetic theories from those of his teacher, Plato, by writing of the innate quality of beauty in an object: its “symmetry, harmony and definiteness”, and the presence of beauty in the physical world, able to be produced by man, rather than, as Plato believed, existing only in a higher, unearthly plane (Eco 2004, pg. 50). By the 18th century in Europe, two distinct artistic and philosophical movements had developed in opposition to each other. The Enlightenment represented a shift in thinking towards humanism, privileging human achievement and self-determination over religious institutions. In response to the Enlightenment’s tenets of science and industry, the Romantic movement emerged, in pursuit of “a beauty uncontaminated by ideas of modernity and progress” (Eco 2004, pg. 308). Where the Enlightenment sought to rationalise nature, the Romantics instead sought in it a spiritual and emotional experience. Romantic art expressed a preference for wild, natural landscapes, capturing vast, rugged mountain ranges, tempestuous seas and misty moors, which they used allegorically in their attempts to define the infinite and indescribable spiritual world beyond (Kuzinar 1989, pg. 73). This essay will examine, in particular, the work of German Romantic artist, Caspar David Friedrich, The Abbey in the Oakwood (1809) through the lens of Aristotle’s aesthetic theories, which provide a framework to evaluate both the effect of proportion and harmony within the piece, as well as the cathartic impact of the sublime upon the viewer.

Among the foremost Romantic painters is German artist, Caspar David Friedrich, noted for his work that combines religious iconography with wild and mountainous or barren landscapes. The Abbey in the Oak Wood represents an evolution in the theme of ruins in art: where the Renaissance celebrated them for their allusions to history, and the Neo-classicists aimed to reinvent and modernise them, the Romantics embraced them for their incompleteness and decay, their surrender to “the wild vegetation that covered them,” (Eco 2004, pg. 285). The Abbey in the Oak Wood is one of a number of studies that Friedrich completed of the Eldena Abbey, picturing the monumental ruins in a twilight gloom, amongst a copse of oak trees. At their base, a party of monks lead a funeral procession. In Aristotle’s Poetics, he postures that “The chief forms of beauty are order and symmetry and definiteness, which the mathematical sciences demonstrate in a special degree,” (Aristotle in Marshall 1953, pg. 229). This sense of proportion and order is evident in Friedrich’s painting, which Calhoon describes as possessing a “compulsive symmetry,” (2005, pg. 637). The ruins occupy the painting’s central vertical axis, with the umbral twilight shadow creating a horizontal axis that divides the canvas into balanced sections of light and dark. The oak trees that surround the abbey on either side are arranged relatively equally in height and number, creating balance. Marshall (1953) comments, however, that in Aristotle’s preference for the “appropriate” the artist is given a choice: the artist can choose the appropriate, which is satisfactory, but can also reject it and pursue “wild, uncontrolled creativity,” (Marshall 1953, pg. 231). This is apparent in The Abbey in the Oak Wood. Where the painting aligns with Aristotle’s preference for harmony and symmetry, it does so perhaps ironically, eliciting a dynamic, rather than “static, harmonious beauty” (Eco 2004, pg. 313). Where the Abbey possesses an appropriate symmetry, it is now crumbled in ruins, and while the trees are distributed evenly around it, their blighted branches give in to Romantic formlessness as they twist towards the sky.

This idea of formlessness was among the chief concerns of the Romantic painters, who used their art allegorically as they attempted to capture a sense of the incomprehensible “other” that lay beyond the visible world. This exploration of the “other” was born of a new age of travel, in which the paradigm of the 18th century shifted from one of conquest to one of savouring the pleasure and experience of new lands (Eco 2004, pg. 282). In particular, the Romantics sought the sublime experience of infinity that accompanied the wild places of the world.  Friedrich evokes the sublime in the scale of his painting – where Burke defines the beautiful in terms of smallness, the sublime “dwells on great objects, and terrible,” (Burke 1998, pg. 28). The ruins tower over the monks below, just as the oaks tower over ruins, suggesting a triumph of nature over civilisation, as “man struggles to adapt to nature and control it,” (Civitavese 2014, pg. 1061). Friedrich’s rendering of the diminutive monks makes them almost indistinguishable from the blackened tombstones amongst which they stand, which heightens the sense of the insignificance of humanity in the face of the looming void. 

            In Aristotle’s Poetics, he addresses the purpose of tragedy as producing “the pleasure which comes from feeling pity and fear,” (in Eco 2004, pg. 281), for example, the fear one might experience when encountering the power of a stormy sea, the precariousness of a cliff-face, or the vast sense of the unknown that awaits beyond a gauze of fog or cloudy sky. In Burke’s seminal text on the sublime, he answers the question of how terror can be pleasant by detaching the subject from the cause of fear (Eco 2004, pg. 291). Aristotle thereby postures that by experiencing tragedy or terror from a safe distance, the viewer undergoes a catharsis that allows for a release of their repressed desires, fears and sympathies in a manner that is “harmless instead of harmful,” (Marshall 1953, pg. 231). The effect of the sublime is therefore to bring into view our “limited knowledge and limited power over our own circumstances,” (Gupta 2010, pg. 65) by connecting us with the overwhelming. In Friedrich’s painting, the horizontal arrangement of the painting directs the gaze of the viewer. Where most of the detail occurs in the lower half of the painting, the effect of the sunset renders this lower half in shadow, leaving only the tree tops and the stone arch clearly visible and pointing to the endless void above. The scene of The Abbey in the Oak Wood occupies a liminal space between past and present, day and night, blurring the boundaries of the temporal space the painting occupies and imbuing it with a sense of the fragility of human life and potential for death. Aristotle describes tragedy in similar terms, as describing not what does happen, but what might happen (Gupta 2010, pg. 62).Friedrich’s painting serves as a convergence of opposites. The Abbey in the Oak Wood both invokes and rebels against the classical idea of beauty, employing Aristotle’s ideals of harmony and symmetry in its composition, but subverting them in its depiction of a decaying ruin amidst the wild and formless oak trees. By analysing the painting through the lens of Aristotle’s theories of aesthetics, we grow to understand the tension between pleasure and terror that occurs upon viewing the sublime. Friedrich releases the tension of a confrontation with our own mortality by focusing not on the human subjects below, but instead directing the gaze to the sky above, attuning the eye to consider the barely perceptible world that exists beyond our own (Calhoon 2005, pg. 648).

By Felicity

art, fiction, poems, reading, flights of fancy

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