Editor’s Note: In anticipation of the recently announced CIVA Biennial Conference 2019—Are We There Yet, we are pleased to announce the re-launch of our regular (biweekly) blog which will engage the same theme from the varied perspectives of our member artists and friends. Please enjoy this first installment by artist and pastor Greg Holmes.
I had not heard of Caspar David Friedrich until art school. Friedrich was a German Romantic landscape painter whose work now rarely appears in art history surveys. But to me, as a young college student wrestling with my faith, my art, and the elusive, confusing union between the two, I found a kindred spirit in Friedrich.
Painting in the early nineteenth century, Friedrich took his melancholy landscapes in a decidedly mystical direction. I have read historians refer to him as a “painter of spiritual landscapes” (a term I particularly love). One gets the distinct impression while looking at a Friedrich landscape that there is much, much more going on than meets the eye.
Friedrich draws upon the cold and forbidding landscapes near where he lived. He also seems to rely heavily upon symbolism and misty, atmospheric perspective to draw viewers into a more reflective consideration of the world around them. But, perhaps the most notable and effective tool that Friedrich uses in many of his paintings is the ruckenfigur (the figure’s back). Usually, when a figure is placed in a landscape, the figure itself becomes the focus. But when the figure’s back is turned to us our brain seems less interested in focusing on the figure; instinctively, we turn our attention toward whatever the figure is looking at. This happens naturally. The figure does not draw attention to itself; it draws the viewer into a journey of her own—into the landscape, deeper into the mystery or adventure of his world. In a very real sense, we begin to identify with him or her. The figure becomes our guide as we see what she sees, as we experience what he experiences.
Perhaps the most famous of Friedrich’s figures is his Wander Over a Sea of Fog (1818). This solitary figure surveying the ominous and mysterious landscape ahead has no doubt inspired generations of movie poster artists who likewise wish to convey the same sense of identification. In each instance, whether in cinema or in Friedrich’s paintings, the artist desires that the viewer not exalt the hero but rather identify with the hero so as to experience the mystery, or challenge, or adventure on their own.
The work of Caspar Friedrich has influenced me greatly as I reflect on my own role as a pastor within the Body of Christ and as a Christian artist within a wider culture. Like many of us who labor in the realm of faith and art, I too tend toward exhaustion and impatience. Sometimes my own personal journey seems to be at a standstill. I go through long periods when it seems like my artwork is going in the wrong direction. I wonder what it’s all for and whether I will ever make it to my destination as a Christ follower, pastor, and artist (whatever that destination is). Sometimes I wonder if I am going anywhere at all. If I think about it too long it can make me sad and discouraged.
But, the ruckenfigur reminds me that my own personal journey is not the only journey that matters. In every role that God has placed me I have been given the incredible privilege to play a part in the lives of others. We who live in relationship with other people get to have a profound impact in the lives of those closest to us. We who are Christ followers get to participate in the body of Christ. We who are artists get to speak into the lives of individuals and into the shaping of our culture. In each of these instances we have the unique opportunity to draw others deeper into the mysteries of love, grace, and redemption. Our own honesty, questions, and vulnerability help others grapple with questions of their own. Our own failures and courage feed the sense of longing and adventure deep in the hearts of those around us. As Christ-followers and visual artists, our work in the world finds its greatest meaning when it flowers in the mind and spirit and personal journey of another.
As I long for a sense of destination (or at least progress) in my own personal struggle, I have come to realize that having a part to play in the stories of others is a destination all its own. This messy and imperfect laboring is where God wants me. It’s where God wants us. It’s a noble calling. As artists, that’s where God has us now. We may long for a future and far-off “there” for our work, our careers, our life, and our relationships. But, I think God would tell us that we are “there” already.
Greg Holmes is a studio artist and serves as the Communications Pastor at Chase Oaks Church in the north Dallas area. He and his family live in Allen, Texas.