ART / The north face of painting: Andrew Graham-Dixon scales the heights of Friedrich and notes the tendency of Swiss artists to make molehills out of mountains

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The Independent Culture
Orson Welles, in The Third Man, took a famously dim view of Swiss culture: 'In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed - and they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace. And what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.'

The National Gallery's new exhibition, 'Nineteenth-century paintings from the Oskar Reinhart Foundation', is among other things a belated attempt to prove Welles wrong about Swiss culture. Exhibit 11, Henry Fuseli's Jealousy, is strong evidence in the case for the defence. Emerging from swirling vapours of liverish copper green and red the colour of dried blood, vapours through which a sickle moon sickly shines, portending lunacy, four figures are seen to writhe and struggle. Less like human beings than horribly animated worms, they are the involuntary exemplars of Fuseli's less than cheerful view of relations between the sexes. A male figure (or what passes for a male figure, in Fuseli's anatomically disturbed, boneless art) grapples with a swooning and buxom maiden quite unawares that, behind him, a bare-breasted maenad armed with a pair of daggers is about to stab him in the back.

Fuseli, Switzerland's most violently morbid painter, referred to such pictures as 'poetical painting' and claimed Michelangelo as a source of inspiration. They are, in fact, among the first attempts in Romantic art to paint the seething internal world of obsession. Fuseli was not a great artist, and his painting never rose above an over- literal mimicking of the visual conventions of Romantic theatre, its heightened expressions and melodramatic gestures reminiscent of Coleridge's remark, on watching Garrick play Macbeth, that it was like seeing Shakespeare performed by lightning. But he remains nastily fascinating. He spent most of his life in this country and Hazlitt described him, memorably, as 'a nightmare on the breast of British art'.

Oskar Reinhart, a rich Swiss industrialist from Winterthur who spent much of his life public-spiritedly forming an art collection to bequeath to his native town, probably felt he ought to have at least one Fuseli, simply because Fuseli was Swiss. But one was enough. Reinhart patriotically preferred another strand of Swiss Romanticism: the alpine view, whose practitioners, aiming to awestrike with their cloud-capped visions of mountain scenery, saw in Switzerland a pure and primitive place and a refuge from the corrupt and corrupting advanced societies of the West. The guiding influence on his collecting habits was presumably the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau: the man who put Switzerland on the cultural map of Europe and who can be said to have invented nature worship in its modern form.

The Swiss jingoism of the Swiss collector may explain the proliferation of works by Caspar Wolf, a late 18th-century topographical artist whose work oscillates between beetle-browed geological accuracy and rose-tinted sentiment. His Footbridge over the Lutschine near Gsteig manages to combine both traits. It presents a characteristic Wolf wilderness, a place of rushing water, glacier-hewn boulders and straggly pine trees with, looming beyond, the constant threat and beauty of great mountains. The inclusion of two diminutive peasants, silhouetted against a blank patch of white sky, amounts to a small but pointed affirmation of nationalistic pride: this is Rousseau's Switzerland, nation of noble savages, the last corner of the civilised world where man still exists in uncomplicated harmony with nature. The exhibition contains rather too many pictures of this kind and after a few galleries some viewers may find themselves in sympathy with John Constable, who found the solitude of mountain scenery oppressive.

But Reinhart's collection is not restricted only to Swiss art, and this is the true source of its interest. Above all, this show amounts to a rare opportunity for audiences in this country to see the work of the greatest of all German Romantic painters, Caspar David Friedrich. Friedrich brought to landscape painting a depth of feeling, a mysticism and a yearning for transcendence almost entirely absent from Swiss art.

Friedrich's pictures, of Gothic spires or ship's masts silhouetted against darkening sunset skies, of the vastnesses of nature, are shot through with a Christian symbolism torn between melancholy and hope. Every ship is a reminder of the transience of life, every distant spire a sign of potential redemption. But what is so touching, in the end, about his paintings, has nothing to do with the emblems he included in them and everything to do with his handling - his conjuration, within the two dimensions of art, of a limitless, melting sense of infinite space.

The finest of his works in this exhibition is a watercolour, Landscape in the Riesengebirge. It looks, at first glance, like rather a literal picture, but is really a dream of disembodiment and of self-incorporation into the infinite, a picture that unmakes itself to the point of abstraction, that unpicks the threads of its own literalism, in its recession from foreground to background. Grassy meadows, almost every leaf delineated, lead up to a patch of silvery water, up again to hills turned into almost abstract shapes that seem to pulse and heave, in Friedrich's light, and, finally, up to a vibrant, empty, aching sky. This is a work of art about transfiguration which achieves, itself, a form of transfiguration of the world through art.

However imperfectly, this exhibition serves a reminder that there was, indeed, a great school of Northern Romantic painting in the 19th century. The British should hardly need reminding of this, but the fact is that most people in this country still tend to think of modern painting as, essentially, the product of a Southern and Catholic European aesthetic. The National Gallery's own holdings of 19th-century painting - despite the recent and much welcome acquisition of a picture by Friedrich - certainly give that impression. But there is a powerful strand of Northern and Protestant painting which, leaning towards pantheism and expressing itself in a fascination with the large and empty spaces of nature, the enormous simplicities of Northern and Alpine scenery, may be said to predict many of the preoccupations and effects of the artists of this century. The humming emptiness of Mondrian, of Rothko and of Newman are part of this Northern, Protestant history.

The reasons for the forgetting of the importance of this Northern axis in the history of modern painting are complex, and may have much to do with the understandable desire of Americans and American artists to view the works of the New York School as entirely independent and original creations. The Nazi fondness for Northern Romantic landscape art may also be partly responsible. The National Gallery exhibition quietly suggests how uneven and amnesiac the judgements of art history, and the preconceptions of art historians, can be. It does not quite demonstrate the greatness of specifically Swiss painting. But it does bring the Northern Romantic artist out of the shadows of neglect. It establishes him as, in his way, the Third Man of modernism.

(Photograph omitted)