Saturday, February 18, 2012

A Transcendent Experience - Philipp Otto Runge's Morning

Philipp Otto Runge, Morning, 1808
(Hamburger Kunsthalle)

"A man should hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture everyday of his life, in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in the human soul."
- Johann Wolfgang Goethe

I have been obsessed with Philipp Otto Runge's Morning, ever since I first heard of it in a German Romanticism class.  I think there was something about it that resonated with what I was familiar with in Islamic manuscript painting.  The style and symmetry of Runge's composition, the expressive use of  color and elements from nature, and especially the frame, all added to the similarities  between the two traditions in my personal opinion.  I should probably admit that most of these observations may be a bit cursory and although the painted frame reminiscent of Islamic illuminations is an integral part of the painting in Morning, it is interpreted in the Renaissance tradition, as validating this as a work of art or the open window to the world outside.  

Philipp Otto Runge believed that the natural world was the key to the divine and used the allegorical meanings of landscapes to describe his individual reflections on the world and religion.  Morning was the preliminary oil sketch for a group of four paintings Tageszeiten,  representing the times of day as the revelation of Christian symbolism in a landscape setting. He envisioned this creation of a curious mysticism to be experienced in a Gothic-style room accompanied by music and poetry readings; this would be a place of reflection where instead of looking at the traditional representation of religious figures, the individual would be looking at natural elements that are representative of them.

Philipp Otto Runge's belief in Pantheism is explained through his northern German upbringing, the early Pietistic influences in his life, and a Nature mysticism.   It seems, from an early age he expressed a desire to create a symbolic landscape.  In Morning he has created a perfectly symmetrical composition with Aurora standing in the midst of a breaking dawn, holding a lily that opens up to the sky looking like it is spurting out little angels.  The  baby Jesus lies on a green field of vegetation symbolizing creation, with two putti's reaching out to him.  The outside border is a beautiful rendition of salvation from sin, the soul coming out of the darkness of the underground to reach up to heaven. Runge depicts sin in the form of an eclipse taking place at the bottom of the frame, and the puttis trapped in the red amaryllis below-ground as being prisoners of earthly sin. In the middle of the frame putti are freed from the amaryllis and reach up to go into heaven with all the other angels.  Little angel faces cover the top part of the frame like little puffs of clouds. 

L'Aurora - Augusto Ratti (copyist/dealer) after Guido Reni, [ca. 1858]Oil on wood panel
(Government of Ontario Art Collection)
Otto Georg von Simson, in his paper Philipp Otto Runge and the Mythology of Landscape, makes the connection between Runge's thoughts on the inadequacy of "historical composition" and the desire "to find words or signs or something else by which to express his innermost feelings" by quoting a letter written by Runge:
     "Already in Raphael's work there is much that is not purely historical, in his Sistine Madonna the well-known figures apparently merely symbolize a feeling (Empfindung) and after him nothing really historical has been created: All beautiful compositions incline toward the landscape. (Runge significantly mentions Guido Reni's Aurora.) But as yet no landscapist has brought real meaning, allegories, and clear, beautiful thoughts into his paintings.  Who does not see spirits in the clouds when the sun is setting?. .  .  does not a work of  art originate the moment I become aware of my union with the universe? Something is waning in our time, we stand on the brink of all religions sprung from Catholicism, the abstractions are perishing, everything is airier (luftiger), lighter, and points (drangttoward the landscape....  Is not an absolute climax to be reached in this new art, the art of the landscape if you wish, also ? I will depict my life in a series of  paintings; when the sun sets, when the golden moon bathes the clouds, I will seize those fleeting spirits."
Raphael, Sistine Madonna, 1513-14
(Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden)

Lazzaro Bastiani, 
Madonna and Child in Painted Frame, second half of 15th c.
(Gemaldegalerie, Berlin)

Unfortunately, due to his early demise, Runge was not able to accomplish this tremendous project.  Today, we are left with some sketches to give us a semblance of an idea of the what we are missing.  Recently, when I was in the Gemaldegalerie in Berlin I came across a Madonna and Child by Lazzaro Bastiani,  that made me stop and ponder if Runge had ever seen this work. I wonder if there are any connections out there?  No matter what his influences, Runge has accomplished in creating a work of art that has allows the viewer to have a transcendent experience.



Otto Georg von Simson, "Pilipp Otto Runge and the Mythology of Landscape", The Art bulletin, Vol. 24, No. 4 (Dec., 1942) pp. 335-350

1 comment:

  1. Interesting analysis and it sure helped me on my homework :-) Definitely an outstanding painting!


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