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Wanderlust: a typically German concept

Stefan Dege ad, ct
May 9, 2018

Artists may not have invented hiking but during the Romantic Era, nature played a large role in their art. A show at Berlin's Old National Gallery looks at how wanderlust inspired artists like Caspar David Friedrich.

Gustave Courbet's painting Wanderlust shows three men hiking
Image: Musée Fabre de Montpellier Méditerranée/Frédéric Jaulmes

Wanderlust is one of those German words with such a specific meaning, it's been adopted into English: a joy ("lust") or passion for hiking. The German term "wandern" specifically means "to hike," and not "to wander" off course.

That pleasure of hiking is captured in numerous paintings from the Romantic Era; 120 of these works are now on display at Berlin's Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery) in an exhibition centering on the German love for wandering through nature.

On loan from museums across Europe and North America, there are works by Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Auguste Renoir, Carl Spitzweg, Gustave Courbet, Paul Gauguin and Emil Nolde. The biggest highlight is undoubtedly Caspar David Friedrich's famous Romantic painting, "Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog" (roughly 1817) from Hamburg's Kunsthalle.

Caspar David Friedrich painting shows a man looking out at a mountainous horizon
Caspar David Friedrich's painting "Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog"Image: SHK /Hamburger Kunsthalle/ bpk/ Elke Walford

Friedrich is well represented in the exhibition which seems to ask: Why did so many artists of the Romantic era love hiking in beautiful landscapes? Where did they hike? What kind of impression did these hikes leave on their work?

The answers may be found in the show, which opens May 10 and offers discounted admission prices for members of the German Alpine Hiking Club. 

Read more:Masterpieces Revisited: Wanderer above the Sea of Fog

Out in the untouched wilderness

The Romantics were passionately in love with nature. What they sought out in the beautiful landscapes they painted was a mirror of their own inner self; solitude was seen as a key to one's own inner cosmos. The most popular destinations of German Romantic painters were the Harz mountains, the island of Rügen and the Elbe Sandstone mountains of the "Saxon Switzerland." These untrodden paths and watercourses inspired them to produce paintings, copper engravings and sketches.

August Renoir painting shows people hiking through high grass
A path through high grass in August Renoir's "Chemin montant dans les hautes herbes" (1876/77)Image: Musée d‘Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt

"We are considering the notion of wandering on two levels," curator Birgit Verwiebe said. "In one way, we're looking at the actual movement through nature, the courage to set off on an adventure and allow new experiences to come to you. But we are also looking at wandering as a metaphor for the search for life's meaning." 

Wandering, the German word for hiking, gives people a new rhythm. It acts as a means of relaxation, of winding down, which allows for a new understanding of self and the world.

Karl Friedrich Schinkel painting shows a view of mountains between a rock arch
Karl Friedrich Schinkel's work "Rock Arch," ca. 1818Image: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie/Jörg P. Anders

Many artists recognize this wandering as symbolic for the journey that people undertake through life. That is something that can be seen reflected in the motifs: the paths, the wide-open spaces, the gorges, the summits, the river-crossings, the stop for a rest.

Gustave Courbet's (1819-1877) painting "Bonjour Monsieur Courbet" from 1854 is one example of this. He, along with his patron, are immortalized as proud wanderers. In Ferdinand Hodler's "Tired of Life" from 1887, the traveler has come to an end, as seen in the shape of an old man crouching exhausted on the ground.

Jens Ferdinand Willumsen
This work by Danish artist Jens Ferdinand Willumsen (1912) depicts a woman who loves hikingImage: Statens Museum for Kunst, Kopenhagen

Hiking becomes en vogue in the 19th century

With its solitary male figure high atop a rocky peak, Caspar David Friedrich's oil painting "Wanderer Above the Sea of ​​Fog" is still regarded worldwide as a symbol of German Romanticism. In opposition to this is Jens Ferdinand Willumsen's "Mountaineer" (1912) on loan from the Copenhagen State Art Museum, which represents women's emancipation.

Neither the migration of peoples nor the traditional grand tour of young nobility, nor the pilgrimages, nor the artisan's journey nor even the movement of refugees are addressed in the show. Instead, the museum turns its gaze to the unguided hike through nature.

Around the year 1800, with the slogan "Back to nature!" French-speaking writer and philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) and Goethe's Sturm und Drang poetry, hiking became fashionable. It remains that way today.

A good reason to set out on your own pilgrimage, to the Alte Nationalgalerie on Berlin's Museum Island, for the exhibition "Wanderlust - From Caspar David Friedrich to Auguste Renoir," which runs through mid-September.



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