“Foolish human. Even if you would be so arrogant to try, from morning to sinking midnight, to understand the unknown afterlife, you would not unravel the darkness of the future.”
Like a true German Romantic, Caspar David Friedrich was asking the big questions with his painting Monk by the Sea. How significant can we be, as human beings, in the larger scheme of things? How can we ever know what comes after death, and should we even spend our time on earth trying to find out?
Monk by the Sea was a radical painting for its time in the early 19th century, because of its emptiness. All we see is a vast, cloudy sky with some seagulls and a beach with a tiny, contemplative monk. Heinrich von Kleist wrote: "since in its monotony and boundlessness it has no foreground except the frame, when viewing it, it is as if one's eyelids had been cut away."
Recent research and restorations at the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin have revealed that the canvas wasn’t always so empty, but showed a more classical composition: there were ships on the waves, and the monk was facing to the side instead of looking out to sea. Friedrich turned it into a more abstract, modern painting, and the first to show the Rückenfigur device he became known for.
In this meditative VR experience, the words of Caspar David Friedrich himself are heard, describing his work in a letter he wrote in 1811. “In front, an empty, sandy beach, then the stirring sea…”
You are on the sand, in the grayscale ‘underpainting’, in a responsive, ominous soundscape of wind and water. Seagulls fly around you. A bit further away is the monk, staring into the distance. Instead of just watching him from behind, you can approach and walk around him, although he will not acknowledge your presence. As you take your eyes off him to look around, he vanishes, leaving you alone on the endless beach. Was he ever there?
A seagull follows your gaze and leaves behind a trail of paint, allowing you to paint color into the beach and sky, turning the world into the image of Monk by the Sea we know today.
‘Monk by the Sea’ was made as part of the VR series The Master’s Vision, produced with Gebrüder Beetz Filmproduktion. The volumetric video of the monk was made in the studio of the Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz Institute in Berlin.
The room scale installation will be on display from April 5th 2019 in the painting’s home, the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin.
The 360° version is available now on the Arte website and in the ARTE 360 VR app.