It was my very first day of classes my freshman year at Oberlin College. I was feeling more than a little bit intimidated and the fact it was pouring enough to soak the bottom of my pants wasn't helping. I'd come to Oberlin intending to be a Sociology major and my very first lecture at 8:00 a.m. that first day was by a new sociology prof who had never taught before. He was pretty dreadful as a lecturer and I was feeling the balloon of my enthusiasm for my college experience begin to deflate just a little.
Oberlin had a strict series of required courses one had to take outside one's major. Figuring I'd get at least one of them out of the way early so I could concentrate later on on my Sociology, I had signed up for Art History 101, a world art survey class. So braving the downpour once again I marched across the College Square and entered the schools largest lecture hall and sat down for the second lecture of my college career. The prof decided to make his first presentation an overview of some of the art we'd be seeing that semester. One of the slides was of the above painting by Friedrich, an artist I'd never heard of or seen before.
Years earlier when I was growing up on the shore of Lake Ontario just outside Rochester, NY, one of our favorite winter games was playing on lake's ice. Ontario gets rough from the steady wind that beats down out of the northwest from Canada. In winter the waves burst on the shore ice and spray little droplets high into the air before they land again on the ice and freeze. Gradually the ice formations grow higher and higher until a massive surreal moonscape evolves. Imagine Salvador Dali working on a giant scale as an ice sculptor and you get the idea. Best of all, often caves and tunnels under and through the ice would open up from the constant freezing, thawing and refreezing. Visually it was completely over the top. No kid under 10 could resist it.
Friedrich's painting depicts giant blocks of ice seizing a shipwreck, no doubt intended as showing nature's tragic side. Friedrich loved darkly romantic themes. But to me the painting seemed a delightful evocation of my old childhood frozen playground. I remember thinking the slide of this particular painting was the best the art historian showed us that day. And I left the class thinking maybe Art History was going to be a lot more interesting than I'd thought.
It wasn't until November of that first semester that I realized my impressions from the first two classes that first September morning were more significant than I'd realized. No, the decision to chuck the Sociology major and dive instead into becoming an artist wasn't fully formed yet. But we could see the first little cracks in the ice were starting to form.
Above is another great Friedrich winter-scape, and below is still another. This is an artist who reveled in the solemn poetry of winter.