By Sanho Kim.
Romanticism, like most artistic movements, can best be understood when juxtaposed with history. It was a time of uprisings and conflicts, of liberal thought and confrontation—and the winds of change swept away everyone and everything, from monarchies and governments to French farmers and salon owners. A new way of thinking and looking at the world was proposed; the shift revealed itself in the works of new artistic masters who broke out onto the scene, shocking the critics and their audience (mostly bourgeois, old masters, and nobles) with their new styles that approached art in a way that challenged all traditions.
Such changes can be tracked from the mass of altered techniques and change of focus, usually very manifest in most paintings, and best from the rivalry/rift between Gericault and Delacroix—two masters who are most representative of Romanticism. According to biographies of their lives, it can be easily deduced that while they were leaders of the same movements, they also were opposites. Gericault’s life was dominated by emotional tumult and misery; Delacroix enjoyed widespread support and praise, and his “Liberty Leading the People” still stands as the icon of not only Romanticism, but also of that era.
Gericault was a pioneer. “The Raft of the Medusa” was a complete shock to society, depicting a maritime tragedy that was hugely controversial at the time—a counterpart of the Korean Sewol incident, one may say. Even today, if it were announced that a major artist drew the victims of the Sewol incident in explicit detail and expressive finesse, the public would deem it quite shocking and disputable. His works, thus, must have been a challenge to the artistic world, in that their subjects were worldly, recent, and traditionally untouched, being usually deemed unworthy of, or too explicit for such aesthetic treatment.
Delacroix came right after him. His works were passionate, and yet not lavish. This can be easily understood through a look at the famous “Liberty Leading the People”. While the emotions and revolutionary sensations are indeed there, they are not expressed through great adornment. The spirit glows throughout the piece, yet the dead are at Liberty’s feet, and the great light, which glows triumph in the otherwise dark and dingy backdrop, is glorious, but not divine. Not as sharp and intense as Gericault, but still true to the new ideals and the passions of the era, Delacroix, one could confirm, like Liberty led the world to Romanticism.
However, it is important to note that “worldliness” and “social glory,” while evident among some masters, were far from the main tenets of Romanticism. While the movement does involve a lot of political incidents and human earthiness, it is defined by the ideals and spectrum that they contain, not by those elements themselves.
Caspar David Friedrich best represents this Romantic spirit, characterized by “the artistic liberation and expression of the wide range of emotions, passions, and ideals inherently available in the human mind”. His then-unorthodox landscape paintings not only are touching to the eye and the heart, but also provide much food for thought and deep contemplation. If you take a look at several of Friedrich’s works, you’ll be able to discover that most of those landscapes include the back(s) of one or several people, who, like us, are peering over the panorama. The structure allows us to (1) put ourselves into that person’s viewpoint, as if we were on that very site, feeling the winds brushing our faces and carrying smell of the open air, and (2) wonder what worries or thoughts are occupying that person’s mind.
If one thinks that all of this is a purely artistic matter, then one can’t be more wrong. Romanticism is more than technique or subject matter—one will find him/herself eventually guided, consoled, and encouraged by its passionate, glorious, yet humane spirit. People lost in helplessness, fear, or lethargy will find themselves contemplating their lives and how much weight they will bear. Romanticism, thus, is great food for thought. It is a still-burning vision. It is a channel of humanity’s most ideal and hopeful dreams. To quote Caspar David Friedrich: “I am not so weak as to submit to the demands of the age when they go against my convictions. I spin a cocoon around myself; let others do the same. I shall leave it to time to show what will come of it: a brilliant butterfly or maggot.”
The work of art itself is in the public domain for the following reason:
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