A prayer without words: The story of the wanderer

Take a journey through the maze of interpretations of one of the most famous paintings in history.

"Wanderer above the sea of fog", by Caspar David Friedrich
"Wanderer above the sea of fog", by Caspar David Friedrich, Wikicommons

A tale of silence, an icon of human solitude in the face of the forces of nature, or perhaps a memento of the great artist?


I come down from the mountains,
The valley dims, the sea roars.
I wander silently and am somewhat unhappy,
And my sighs always ask "Where?"

This is the lamenting of the Wanderer from a song composed by 19-year-old Franz Schubert to the words of G.P. Schmidt. The stranger looks for a spiritual home everywhere, but is condemned to wander forever. Schubert's music was composed in 1821. Three years earlier, Caspar David Friedrich painted a picture that often illustrates the recordings of the Austrian composer's song. Wanderer above the Sea of Fog also often ends up on the covers of books about German Romantic painting. It shows a man from behind, with a cane, wearing an overcoat, standing on a protruding rock. At his feet, a spectacle of nature takes place: clouds are lifting from a valley, exposing rocky ridges. Further away, on the horizon, a mountain range looms wrapped in a morning haze. No other painter has possibly ever created a comparable icon of solitude in the face of the forces of nature; no other painter has so emphatically shown the melancholy of unfulfilled hopes. Friedrich himself likened his work of art to a prayer. "Just as the pious man prays without speaking a word and the Almighty hearkens unto him, so the artist with true feelings paints and the sensitive man understands and recognises it."

Friedrich's painting was created 200 years ago, and we, as its viewers, rank among the more thick-witted. Accustomed to the school-level version of Romanticism, we sometimes forget that it was "the fallen religion". Caspar David Friedrich was born in Greifswald, on the territory of the then Swedish Pomerania, in the family of a soap-boiler with a strong, Protestant history. Thanks to his first painting teacher he met the philosopher and pantheist, Thomas Thorild, and the poet, preacher and theologist Ludwig Gotthard Kosegarten. The latter praised the beauty of nature leading to the meeting with God.

Friedrich Schiller himself said in 1794 that landscape is perfect for expressing both ideas and emotions. However, Friedrich's Tetschen Altar (1808) provoked a controversy: a simple cross on a rock surrounded by spruces against the background of the sky turning pink. The critic F.W.B. von Ramdohr was scathing when he wrote that it was "a veritable presumption, if landscape painting were to sneak into the church and creep onto the altar." Indeed, this was supposed to be a secular landscape. Only later on did Count Anton von Thun-Hohenstein insist on placing this painting in his palace chapel. Cherubs, stalks of grains and wine chalices carved into the frame created the correct context, however Friedrich's lonely cross covered with ivy was not so much a religious symbol as an element of the landscape. Answering his critics' objections, the artist explained that "Jesus Christ, nailed to the tree, is turned here towards the setting sun, the image of the eternal life-giving father." Yet this does not necessarily mean that the sun always symbolizes God in his works, and that evergreen trees should be associated with the hope of resurrection. Friedrich's contemporaries often exaggerated the religious aspect of his works, envisaging their artificially sophisticated mysticism. Critics were doubtful as to whether being moved by the spectacle of the fog should be associated with religious elation. However, the writer Ludwig Tieck claimed that Friedrich had sensed the spirit of the era: "Friedrich expresses the religious mood and excitement that recently seems to have stirred our German world in a particular manner, in sensitive, solemn, melancholy landscape motives."

Friedrich painted his pictures in the studio, based on earlier sketches drawn on location. His compositions are well-balanced, often symmetrical. Tree trunks mark the centre of the composition or frame it; diagonal branches do not project beyond the frame. "This insistent geometry accords with our modern sense of artistic decorum," John Updike wrote. "If Friedrich meant to imply Presence with his controlled, emptied vistas, and we can feel only Absence, well, Absence is an old friend, and we wouldn't know what to do with Presence if it came up and hit us in the face."

19th-century thinkers and poets were searching for divinity in personal contemplation. Friedrich's painterly approach was incidentally expressed by Ludwig Tieck in his early novel Franz Sternbalds Wanderungen. An old painter, a hermit, considered mad, tells the main protagonist: "I do not want to copy trees or mountains, but my soul, my mood which reigns over me at this hour, these I want to fix for myself and to communicate to those who are able to understand." Friedrich's landscapes are usually divided into two zones: a dark foreground with a man in contemplation, and the landscape in the background, flooded with light. One of the main stylistic tricks of the German master is the so-called ckenfigur, a figure shown from behind. Details of the landscape become less important than the fact that it is being observed and experienced. On the other hand, we, the viewers, can only imagine the emotions and thoughts of the person we are seeing from behind.

Friedrich's famous painting was also interpreted as a tale of silence, of a creative individual reaching the blessed state of being alone with nature and their own thoughts. The American scholar Theodore Ziolkowski said that the traveller on the rock should be seen as Goethe. Indeed, this painting is a peculiar conversation with the author of Faust. The poet asked Friedrich to paint a set of studies of clouds, according to their classification, recently published by Luke Howard. Friedrich could not accept such a challenge: scientifically systemized clouds would not convey higher, spiritual meanings anymore. For him that would be "the end of painting". Therefore, his picture has a polemical character. Nature does not comfort, it is menacing and oppressive. The wanderer stands above a precipice.

It's worth remembering that Wanderer above the Sea of Fog also functions in the collective imagination as a metaphor for the German conscience. It was used on the cover of Der Spiegel on the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. From the height of the rock, the man in the painting contemplated the ghosts of Nazism. Then, on the cover of Stern in October 2015, Friedrich's wanderer watched a sea of refugees emerging from the sea of fog. It might perhaps be that the German Romantic's painting today is not just an allegory of artistic solitude, but also of the fog from which critical awareness emerges, as well as sensitivity to the suffering of others.

Translated from the Polish by Anna Błasiak

Reprinted with permission of Przekrój. Read the original article.


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Mind & Brain

This article was originally published on Big Think Edge.

Problem-solving skills are in demand. Every job posting lists them under must-have qualifications, and every job candidate claims to possess them, par excellence. Young entrepreneurs make solutions to social and global problems the heart of their mission statements, while parents and teachers push for curricula that encourage critical-thinking methods beyond solving for x.

It's ironic then that we continue to cultivate habits that stunt our ability to solve problems. Take, for example, the modern expectation to be "always on." We push ourselves to always be working, always be producing, always be parenting, always be promoting, always be socializing, always be in the know, always be available, always be doing. It's too much, and when things are always on all the time, we deplete the mental resources we need to truly engage with challenges.

If we're serious about solving problems, at work and in our personal lives, then we need to become more adept at tuning out so we can hone in.

Solve problems with others (occasionally)

A side effect of being always on is that we are rarely alone. We're connected through the ceaseless chirps of friends texting, social media buzzing, and colleagues pinging us for advice everywhere we go. In some ways, this is a boon. Modern technologies mediate near endless opportunities for collective learning and social problem-solving. Yet, such cooperation has its limits according to a 2018 study out of Harvard Business School.

In the study, participants were divided into three group types and asked to solve traveling salesman problems. The first group type had to work on the problems individually. The second group type exchanged notes after every round of problem-solving while the third collaborated after every three rounds.

The researchers found that lone problem-solvers invented a diverse range of potential solutions. However, their solutions varied wildly in quality, with some being true light bulb moments and others burnt-out duds. Conversely, the always-on group took advantage of their collective learning to tackle more complex problems more effectively. But social influence often led these groups to prematurely converge around a single idea and abandon potentially brilliant outliers.

It was the intermittent collaborators who landed on the Goldilocks strategy. By interacting less frequently, individual group members had more time to nurture their ideas so the best could shine. But when they gathered together, the group managed to improve the overall quality of their solutions thanks to collective learning.

In presenting their work, the study's authors question the value of always-on culture—especially our submissiveness to intrusions. "As we replace those sorts of intermittent cycles with always-on technologies, we might be diminishing our capacity to solve problems well," Ethan Bernstein, an associate professor at Harvard Business School and one of the study's authors, said in a press release.

These findings suggest we should schedule time to ruminate with our inner geniuses and consult the wisdom of the crowd. Rather than dividing our day between productivity output and group problem-solving sessions, we must also create space to focus on problems in isolation. This strategy provides the best of both worlds. It allows us to formulate our ideas before social pressure can push us to abandon them. But it doesn't preclude the group knowledge required to refine those ideas.

And the more distractions you can block out or turn off, the more working memory you'll have to direct at the problem.

A problem-solving booster

The next step is to dedicate time to not dealing with problems. Counterintuitive as it may seem, setting a troublesome task aside and letting your subconscious take a crack at it improves your conscious efforts later.

How should we fill these down hours? That's up to you, but research has shown time and again that healthier habits produce hardier minds. This is especially true regarding executive functions—a catchall term that includes a person's ability to self-control, meet goals, think flexibly, and, yes, solve problems.

"Exercisers outperform couch potatoes in tests that measure long-term memory, reasoning, attention, problem-solving, even so-called fluid-intelligence tasks. These tasks test the ability to reason quickly and think abstractly, improvising off previously learned material to solve a new problem. Essentially, exercise improves a whole host of abilities prized in the classroom and at work," writes John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist at the University of Washington.

One such study, published in the Frontiers in Neuroscience, analyzed data collected from more than 4,000 British adults. After controlling for variables, it found a bidirectional relationship between exercise and higher levels of executive function over time. Another study, this one published in the Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, compared fitness data from 128 adults with brain scans taken as they were dual-tasking. Its findings showed regular exercisers sported more active executive regions.

Research also demonstrates a link between problem-solving, healthy diets, and proper sleep habits. Taken altogether, these lifestyle choices also help people manage their stress—which is known to impair problem-solving and creativity.

Of course, it can be difficult to untangle the complex relationship between cause and effect. Do people with healthy life habits naturally enjoy strong executive functions? Or do those habits bolster their mental fitness throughout their lives?

That's not an easy question to answer, but the Frontiers in Neuroscience study researchers hypothesize that it's a positive feedback loop. They posit that good sleep, nutritious food, and regular exercise fortify our executive functions. In turn, more potent executive decisions invigorate healthier life choices. And those healthy life choices—you see where this is going.

And while life choices are ultimately up to individuals, organizations have a supportive role to play. They can foster cultures that protect off-hours for relaxing, incentivize healthier habits with PTO, and prompt workers to take time for exercise beyond the usual keyboard calisthenics.

Nor would such initiatives be entirely selfless. They come with the added benefit of boosting a workforce's collective problem-solving capabilities.

Live and learn and learn some more

Another advantage of tuning out is the advantage to pursue life-long learning opportunities. People who engage in creative or problem-solving activities in their downtime—think playing music, puzzles, and even board games—show improved executive functions and mental acuity as they age. In other words, by learning to enjoy the act of problem-solving, you may enhance your ability to do so.

Similarly, lifelong learners are often interdisciplinary thinkers. By diving into various subjects, they can come to understand the nuances of different skills and bodies of knowledge to see when ideas from one field may provide a solution to a problem in another. That doesn't mean lifelong learners must become experts in every discipline. On the contrary, they are far more likely to understand where the limits of their knowledge lie. But those self-perceived horizons can also provide insight into where collaboration is necessary and when to follow someone else's lead.

In this way, lifelong learning can be key to problem-solving in both business and our personal lives. It pushes us toward self-improvement, gives us an understanding of how things work, hints at what's possible, and, above all, gives us permission to tune out and focus on what matters.

Cultivate lifelong learning at your organization with lessons 'For Business' from Big Think Edge. At Edge, more than 350 experts, academics, and entrepreneurs come together to teach essential skills in career development and lifelong learning. Heighten your problem-solving aptitude with lessons such as:

  • Make Room for Innovation: Key Characteristics of Innovative Companies, with Lisa Bodell, Founder and CEO, FutureThink, and Author, Why Simple Wins
  • Use Design Thinking: An Alternative Approach to Tackling the World's Greatest Problems, with Tim Brown, CEO and President, IDEO
  • The Power of Onlyness: Give Your People Permission to Co-Create the Future, with Nilofer Merchant, Marketing Expert and Author, The Power of Onlyness
  • How to Build a Talent-First Organization: Put People Before Numbers, with Ram Charan, Business Consultant
  • The Science of Successful Things: Case Studies in Product Hits and Flops, with Derek Thompson, Senior Editor, The Atlantic, and Author, Hit Makers

Request a demo today!

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