There are paintings which smoulder in the mind, like the image of the light from the window which is etched on my retina when I wake in the night. These are pictures that speak to some part of our minds at a level of which we are unaware; they appeal for reasons that we cannot define, in the way that a certain smell can evoke a distant time or a particular place, without us knowing what the smell is, or how we remember it.
I cannot even remember when I first saw Caspar David Friedrich's Wanderer above the sea of fog. It is a painting which has always been in my consciousness, like a memory from childhood only half-remembered. It was used as a book jacket illustration on a Penguin edition of Nietzsche's Ecce Homo when I was a teenager; a perfect metaphor for existential longing, for the strange adolescent combination of aloofness and uncertainty.
This is a painting about yearning, a painting which captures the sense of aloneness in the big hills. It was painted by Friedrich in 1818, the year he married. He was forty-four years old at the time, and I wonder if the painting was an expression of youthful vigour, the young man on the mountain's edge with the world laid out before him, like a successful future he might yet realise.
Brussels in the autumn can be capricious; days of fine rain which seems to be in constant motion but never falling to the ground, alternate with days of balmy warmth, the sun beating off the grey limestone flags. On the Mont des Arts, the last of the summer's tourists wander aimlessly, stilled by the view between buildings across the old city below, the spires and rooftops of the Grand Place.
Inside the Musee des Beaux Arts, the sounds of the street are muffled by the thick walls; the thrum of tyres on the cobblestones, the clank and rumble of the number 90 tram. I can often loiter in the bookshop here for half an hour between meetings, a staging post between the urbane European Quarter and the jostle of the lower town.
I was browsing through a book of New European Photography when an image flipped by on the pages and lodged in the mind. One of a series by the Finnish photographer Elina Brotherus; pictures of herself in front of a vast landscape; a modern interpretation of Friedrich's Wanderer. The pictures seemed amusing, referential, but also with a spare, elegiac quality, a mystery in which we wait for the person to turn and face us. And yet they never do.
The wind on Rannerdale Knotts yesterday was gusty and chill as we climbed from the lakeshore. In the distance, the honking of geese on the far shore was dragged by us on the wind. I struggled with the cloak and stick in my rucksack, trying to avoid spilling the contents of the sack down the steep grass slope below me. My younger son was animated and eager, delighted to be complicit in this madcap scheme. He had spent the climb looking out for rocky knolls with a clear view to the distant hills, and had now found the perfect place. Across the valley, the threads of snow on the higher Buttermere fells gave the scene a desolate, arctic quality; a sense that spring would be long to arrive in this valley, pooled in darkness for much of the winter.
The photograph was a piece of fun, an exercise in recreating a favourite painting in our own local hills. But it made me think of Friedrich and his image which defined, in part, a whole period of romanticism. I watched my son leaning into the wind, at home on these rocks, and envied him his youth and vitality, his willingness to embrace the world at full speed, uncompromising, impatient. I wondered if Friedrich's Wanderer is not a young cavalry officer at all; if, in fact, Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer is Friedrich himself, gazing with longing over the landscape of his past, the uncertainties and disappointments, the enthusiasm and the energy, as though they lay in the valley covered by a benign fog, no longer attainable, but still within the gaze of our yearning.