One of the greatest paintings in the history of German art (and, indeed, the history of art in general) has got to be Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer (The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog) by Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840). The painting depicts a man, facing away from the viewer toward the foggy precipices before him with cane in hand. The absence of the face, an element which instantly pulls the viewer in, forces a look toward the man’s surroundings and perhaps his thoughts. The picture is one of introspection and connection to nature. Friedrich was the foremost painter of the Romantic movement in what is today Germany. A portrait of the painter by Gerhard von Kügelgen gives us an image of the man who all too often left the human face out of his own pictures — a man with an intense gaze.
Though Friedrich painted human beings in a rather humble manner, within larger natural contexts, the inside of a person’s mind is clearly dominant. One can almost see the painting as a proto-Jungian analysis of the artist as creative explorer looking forward into the vast unconscious within him — the connection to the primordial element of nature which transcends the existence of even the human species. In that sense, the painting is not only an introspection but an integration of the vastness of nature with civilized modern man.
“The growth of the mind is the widening of the range of consciousness, and … each step forward has been a most painful and laborious achievement.” -Carl Jung, Contributions to Analytical Psychology (1928)
Another key feature of this painting is solitude in nature. The focus of the image is a single individual with his back turned to the viewer, alone amongst the rocks. As the viewer, we get a glimpse of the vast expanse from behind but no signs of humanity (other than the man) are present. Solitude clearly influenced Friedrich, as can be seen from his own words, as recorded by Russian poet Vasily Zhukovsky in 1821:
“I must stay alone and know that I am alone to contemplate and feel nature in full; I have to surrender myself to what encircles me, I have to merge with my clouds and rocks in order to be what I am. Solitude is indispensible for my dialogue with nature.” -Caspar David Friedrich
The painting of the wanderer above the sea of fog is a work of creative exploration and internal integration, an artistic expression of a higher self — the supreme wisdom of total integration which forms the basis for real individualism. The fully integrated individual constitutes a higher man — what Friedrich Nietzsche would later call an übermensch (‘overman,’ ‘superman’) who is able to transcend his mere humanity.
“I teach you the overman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?… All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood, and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man? What is ape to man? A laughing stock or painful embarrassment. And man shall be that to overman: a laughingstock or painful embarrassment. You have made your way from worm to man, and much in you is still worm. Once you were apes, and even now, too, man is more ape than any ape… The overman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the overman shall be the meaning of the earth… Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman — a rope over an abyss … what is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end.” -Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra’
In this sense, Friedrich’s painting is a case in which the artists truly preceded the philosophers. That which was articulated brilliantly in Nietzsche’s work was already being explored in paint. Friedrich was a Romantic, not an existentialist and his metaphysical views differed in key ways from Nietzsche but both men explored elements of the same general theme — the essence of what it means to be truly human. What are we left with as viewers of this wanderer above the sea of fog? An image of man dressed in dark colors, linking him more with the darkly-colored crags against the backdrop of grays and whites. In short, we are left with an artistically rendered interpretation of Daoism Yin-Yang symbol — integration of opposites into a balanced and harmonious whole.