The Life of a Mountain

As I mentioned in an earlier essay, I opted to attend aesthetics lectures at the university. It may seem a bit odd, yet for me it makes perfect sense. The primary of reason for attending those lectures is to understand more about the aesthetics, with particular relevance to landscapes. It took quite many lectures before we got to that point. After covering Kantian philosophy in brief, the lecturer shifted from Immanuel Kant’s aesthetics to German Romantic landscape painters, namely Caspar David Friedrich. He’s one of the heavyweights, if not the heavyweight, in landscape painting, so finally moving on to him was more than welcome. It also proved quite thought provoking.

I’ll try to keep this short, so no page after page after page close reading of something is in store here. I won’t even go citing anything, just what it was that was covered during the lecture. It might be a bit off here and there as I’m working on memory alone, except for a few notes I made at times. Anyway, it was established that Kant doesn’t really do metaphysics, or, to be more precise, it’s not that he doesn’t ask such questions, but sets limits to what can be known. This is the phenomena and noumena split. Kant has these three questions he wants to ask: what can I know, what must I do and what can I hope for? These have to do know with knowledge (epistemology), morality (ethics) and art (aesthetics). These investigated in ‘Critique of Pure Reason’, ‘Critique of Practical Reason’ and ‘Critique of the Power of Judgment’ accordingly. In summary of what was covered during two lectures, with regards to aesthetics, when we engage with it, epistemology and ethics are of no concern. At least according to Kant that is. You may wish to object here, but I’m going simply by what was presented at the lecture and working on a premise that Kant based his philosophy, not of someone else. Whenever I can, I try to understand someone on their premise, not mine, taking into account also the time and place. For example, as much as you might not like, say, Kant, I think it’s in bad faith not to try to put yourself in his shoes. Perhaps it’s better to put it this way, it’s not that he isn’t concerned with the other two, but that they are of limited concern, they just don’t apply as such. Anyway, back to the topic, the lecturer also pointed out that aesthetics is the culmination point for Kant. He has these limits, but it is possible to overcome them through aesthetics. When we engage in aesthetic judgment, there’s nothing to relate it to. What is the concept of beauty anyway? As there is none, we just take pleasure in our experience of whatever it is, say, a sunset or a vast ocean. It seems as if things have a purpose, that is that they have purposiveness. It’s not that we know that what we look at has a purpose, considering our limits, yet it somehow seems to be the case.

The focus of the lecture was, more or less, on Caspar David Friedrich, except for a minor excursion into explaining society and state as defined by Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau because they provided points of contrast to views on society and state as defined by Romantic philosophers, namely Johann Gottfried Herder and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Other tangents worth mentioning included a short introduction to pronouncing German names, such as Friedrich, and a language deprivation experiment conducted by Frederick II, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Another more lengthy excursion was provided on paper but not really covered in detail. It pertained to Wilhelm von Humboldt’s linguistics and philosophy of language. As things were being set up and people were taking their sweet time babbling, I was able to have a quick look. It seemed interesting. Definitely something that probably never gets covered or even mentioned on linguistics courses, well, that I can remember of anyway. The lecturer is in the continental tradition and a proper old school erudite, so it’s very him to provide such reading to the students. That’s the hallmark of his lectures, there’s all kinds of stuff that gets weaved into this and that topic, including various hilarious anecdotes that amuse the audience quite a bit. For example, he quickly covered a poem by Friedrich Hölderlin. I didn’t really get it. Anyway, the humorous bit was that knowing Hölderlin can come handy in social situations. If someone raves about, I think it was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (and someone else, but I just can’t remember), object to it and argue that others are nothing compared to Hölderlin. Anyway, the actual reason why someone like Humboldt probably doesn’t get covered anywhere is because anything German is considered as having bad rep, basically because of the events of 1930s and 1940s.

The first Caspar David Friedrich painting covered on this lecture was ‘Der Watzmann’ (The Watzmann). Just by looking at it (do look it up yourself), you see a mountainous landscape with tall snow capped peaks in the distance while other less tall peaks can be seen in the foreground. The gist of this is that the mountains are gradually taller as the distance from the supposed observer of this landscape. To be honest, it wouldn’t make much sense to do it the other way around as a foregrounded tall mountain would block the view to the other peaks. If we look as this on an as is basis. You see forms, triangles, that are the mountains placed in certain order. You can also see how the colors are used, the tall mountains being snow capped, whereas the others are grassy and mossy. Now, in an earlier lecture the lecturer objected to this kind of view of things, as this ooh, look at the shapes, ooh, look at the colors, reduction of it. He wasn’t happy that art is seen as lacking content, being relegated to mere form and color. He anecdotally pointed to some, possibly made up, example, of how someone was staring at a painting, attentively, only to wonder out loud if this small non-glossy part of the painting signifies something. He stated that it signifies nothing, it’s just how the paint on the canvas has deteriorated, having lost its glossy quality, becoming spotty on the surface when viewed under bright lights. With regards to the ‘Der Watzmann’, the lecturer told us that this is ‘sisäisten aaltoilevien voimien ulkoinen ilmaus’, translating to English as the exterior expression of inner wavy forces. The more apt translation would be speaking of apparition instead of exterior expression. The lecturer spent some time explaining that ‘ilmaus’ which, if my memory serves me correctly, he attributed it to Elias Lönnrot (after having some punsch). He explained in reference to art that it is not about how an artist sees something and/or knows something and then renders its appearance for us to see, but how the artist renders something sensible while at it, not knowing what will come of it. That’s why I used the word apparition in my own research, which has to do with an instance of something appearing, not what something looks like, as in appearance. You might be wondering what’s the deal then? ‘Der Watzmann’ is just some mountains, color and shape, if you will. Well, upon a closer inspection you’ll not only notice the difference in size and distance between the mountains and the differences in vegetation, but also how the mountains closer to the observer are more eroded. So, what’s actually presented by the author is not a mere pretty view, but rendering visible the formation of mountains. In other words, ‘Der Watzmann’ depicts the stages in the life of a mountain, its life cycle, in a single scene. Simply put, the lecturer thus pointed out that as Kant wasn’t into metaphysics, during this period in history, landscape painting is the engagement in metaphysics. So, you could say that aesthetics is profoundly metaphysical.

Another landscape painting that has more than meets the eye examined by the lecturer was ‘Kreidefelsen auf Rügen’ (Chalk Cliffs on Rügen). As the name of the painting suggests, the observer is presented with a view, but not of, but from the chalk cliffs. The observer is positioned behind three people looking the same way, downward the cliffs towards the sea. In the foreground, the three people wear clothing of different color. On the right, there is a young man in a green jacket. Next to him, in the middle, is an elderly man in blue clothing. On the left, is a woman in a red dress. The lecturer commented that like in religious paintings of the previous centuries, as covered during the lectures, it’s no accident that the young man wears green (hope), the old man wears blue (faith) and the woman wears red (love). Also, their postures, the young man looking at the sea, right at the edge of the cliff, the old man crouched in order not to fall and the woman pointing at red nearby flowers. In this painting the young man is future, the old man the past, the woman the present. The selection of woman as present the lecturer explained as having to do with how women were back then seen as tending to present matters, such as looking after children or cooking, neither things that make little sense catering to as something in the distant future or in retrospect. There’s also yet another thing going on here. As the scene is set, the cliffs mark the border of the canvas, gradually giving way to the sea and the sky towards to top part of the painting. Therefore there is a triangle. However, there is also another smaller triangle, at the bottom of the first triangle. There is a ship or a boat in each triangle. If you look closely, not just make notice of some boat, the boat closer to the observer is smaller than the one further in the distance. Okay, they could be of different size. However, the lecturer pointed out that this is intentional. Having only one boat wouldn’t do the trick. The juxtaposition of these boats, the one further away appearing larger than the one closer to the observer, results in a sensation of a vertigo when one views downwards at the closer boat. The same kind of vertigo you get when you actually gaze down from a cliff. Now, the issue is, of course, that if you look it at a computer screen or some picture on paper, it doesn’t really work. A downsized version of a nearly meter by meter painting doesn’t really do justice to the original. What else? The lecturer humorously commented on how the future oriented young man looks forward with great expectations, as young people generally do, often seeing things closer to them than they actually are, just like the second sailing boat in the painting. In contrast, the elderly have little to look forward to, always telling you stories of how things used to be. In summary, here you once again have something that has to do with the passing of time, albeit presented differently here. It has little to do with colors and shapes by themselves.

What else was there? A couple of other paintings were also covered, but not in such detail as these two. ‘Hünengrab im Herbst’ (Dolmen in the Fall or Cromlech in Autumn) was an interesting one. The lecturer explained that with fascination to chemistry to physics, the rock in the middle, as well as anything else tangible, is presented as such for the tangible things that we perceive. The less tangible, yet tangible, objects are tilted, swept by wind. In the background, there is this green and blueish swirl of light and darkness. It looks either like a sky in turmoil or, oddly enough, like mountains on both sides, with a valley in the middle, with clouds, the white parts, covering the sides of the mountains. The gist of this is that the solids are the parts that pertaining to physics. The wind and the swirl, the fluidity, pertains to chemistry. To make sense of this, beyond that, the solids are dead, whereas the fluidity, the movement, is life. So, as in life, you keep going, whereas in death everything becomes fixed, no longer moving.

I may have forgot something and/or remembered something incorrectly, but such can happen when working on memory and notes alone. I wanted to write this just to point out that landscapes are not necessarily empty of content. At least Caspar David Friedrich didn’t paint the ones covered here as hollow representations of the world, in order to invoke appraisal of what we see as simply beautiful or ugly. There’s more than meets the eye in these. You could say that they are supposed to be rather profound, metaphysical. I also wanted to bring this up because landscape painting, linked to the 1800s, tends to be flatly associated with the birth of nation states. Now, that said, I wouldn’t be surprised if this grandeur, this greatness, as rendered by, for example, Friedrich, was used for other purposes, not intended by the painters. Moreover, I wouldn’t be surprised if others went on to do more of the same, but in the service of those who saw potential in using art for certain desirable outcomes. It’s also worth noting that the lecturer only covered early 1800s with emphasis on one painter. Joseph Mallord William Turner was also mentioned in earlier lecture, but we didn’t venture there. So, don’t take this as some apologetic view on landscapes, but as an examination of them as depicted in the early 1800s.

Upon further reflection, after a bit more reading, I just keep wondering. It’s not that I fail to grasp Kant’s definition of beauty as something without a concept. I get it that it’s unlike with, say, that I like this beer (that I’m having) because I consider it as beer, not to mention a type of a beer, to be judged accordingly. I’m having this beer because I desire it, knowing what it is, and judging it accordingly I find it agreeable, whereas others might not. If I were to just have it, not even knowing what it is, that is to say put a label (the concept) on it, I’d be finding beauty in it in Kant’s terms. I know it’s a trivial example, but I kept wondering how it is with landscapes and landscape art. I’m fully aware what, for example, Friedrich does on those paintings as I’ve explained in detail. That said, does he manage to pull it off and depict beauty? So, when it comes to me, wondering about this, is it me who is ruining it by putting labels on it by analyzing it? Am I imposing concepts on it, turning beauty into agreeableness? Something tells me that’s the case. So, I guess, upon further reflection, maybe Friedrich isn’t putting labels on his work, that is to say working on a template, making things work according to a concept. Also, regardless of Friedrich, in Kant’s terms, is the issue with the aesthetics of landscape in imposing concepts upon it, not taking it as it is? To put it simply, am I, for example, judging a landscape according to certain criteria that I’ve imposed upon it, say, that the landscape depicts Finnishness, ruralness etc., or am I taking as it is, not judging it based on concepts that I and/or others have established. It’s quite mind-boggling really. So, in summary, something tells me that in Kant’s terms, the issue with landscape, as discussed by various landscape researchers, is that it’s a matter of agreeableness, not of beauty, considering landscape as a way of seeing is, in fact, a concept. We make that judgement according to what we consider agreeable. Now, by no means, does this mean that it’s merely subjective, I like this landscape over that, considering how antithetical that would be, having read plenty of literature on landscapes that tell me otherwise. In other words, what we consider subjective, that is to say merely agreeable, is, in fact, linked to collective identities. I covered this in another in which James Duncan explores people’s tastes on landscapes in Bedford, New York, so have a look at that until I manage to find the time expand on this.


  • Friedrich, C. D. (c. 1818). Kreidefelsen auf Rügen.
  • Friedrich, C. D. (c. 1820). Hünengrab im Herbst.
  • Friedrich, C. D. (1824–1825). Der Watzmann.
  • Kant, I. ([1781/1787] 1998). Critique of Pure Reason (P. Guyer and A. W. Wood, Trans.). Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.
  • Kant, I. ([1788] 2015). Critique of Practical Reason (2nd ed., M. Gregor, Trans.). Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.
  • Kant, I. (2000). Critique of the Power of Judgment (P. Guyer, Ed., Trans., E. Matthews, Trans.). Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.