I will start My Daily Art Display today with a look at a local folklore that of the Devil’s Bridge. Like most folklore there is not simply one version of the tale but many different versions of it depending on which country the structure is situated. The first time I came across this phenomenon was when I visited Cahors in France and went to see the spectacular 14th century Pont Valentré Bridge.
Built in 1308 and completed seventy years later it became associated with the legend of the Devil’s Bridge and the architect Paul Gout made reference to this by placing a small sculpture of the devil at the summit of one of the towers.
The folklore of the Devil’s Bridge is all about the Devil, a bridge builder and his bridge. The main gist of the story is that a bridge builder sets about building a bridge across a river or river gorge, but at some point in the building of the structure the bridge builder realises he hasn’t the strength or time to complete the task and has to turn to the Devil for assistance. The price levied by the Devil for his assistance is that he should receive the first soul that crosses it.
In my featured painting, Teufelsbrücke or Devil’s Bridge painted by the German Romantic artist, Karl Blechen, in 1832. In the painting we see the Devil’s Bridge straddling the Swiss River Reuss as it passes through the Schöllenen Gorge on its way to Lake Lucerne. The legend of this particular Devil’s Bridge states that the river was so difficult to cross that a Swiss goat herdsman asked the Devil to make a bridge. The Devil duly appeared, but required that if he should construct the bridge, the soul of the first to cross it would be given to him. The herder agreed, but instead of crossing the bridge first and risk losing his soul he drove a goat across ahead of him, thus tricking the devil. The Devil was so angry that he had been duped he fetched a rock with the intention of smashing the bridge, but an old woman drew a cross on the rock and this prevented the Devil from being able to lift it. The rock is still there and, in 1977, 300,000 Swiss Francs were spent to move the 220 ton rock by 127 m in order to make room for the new Gotthard road tunnel.
Karl Blechen was born in Cottbus in 1798. His father was a local tax collector and Karl started his working life as a minor bank official. It was not until he was aged twenty four that he began to study art. In 1822 he enrolled at the Akademie der Künste, Berlin (Academy of the Arts). Later when he was working in Dresden as an apprentice in an art studio he was befriended by two artists also based in the city , the German painter, Caspar David Friedrich and the Norweigen artist, Johan Christian Dahl who were leaders in the fields of art known as Romanticism and Realism. My Daily Art Display has featured some of their works and they are well worth viewing. Their styles would influence Blechen in his future works. In 1828 he travelled to Italy where he remained for a year studying art and in particular, oil painting. It was here that he was introduced to the en plein air style of painting and was influenced by the works of English landscape painter, Turner who was also in Italy at this time and by the French landscape painter, John-Baptiste Corot, who at this period in time, lived in Italy. He returned to Germany and in 1831 and was awarded a professorship at the Berlin Academy. Despite this academic recognition the sales of his work were disappointing and this depressed him. His depression and mental state deteriorated and four years later, at the age of thirty-seven he was diagnosed as being mentally unstable. Blechen died in 1840 in Berlin, a broken man, aged forty-two.
When Karl Blechen visited Italy his journey fostered an interest on visual phenomena and how light and colour effects landscapes. A number of his paintings were categorised as being of a Romantic genre. The Romantic artists, of which Blechen was one, applauded individualism, subjectivism, irrationalism, imagination, emotions and nature – emotion over reason and senses over intellect. Whilst Blechen was returning back to Germany he travelled along the St Gothard’s pass and the Teufelsbrücke was still being built. This Devil’s Bridge depicted by Blechen in his painting is enclosed by snow-capped mountains which soar into the sky and below them we can see the raging torrents of the Reuss River. I think what I like most about this painting is the beautiful way in which Blechen has depicted the sunlight penetrating a gap in the mountains to light up the bridge and some of its builders. It is as if somebody has switched on a spotlight to illuminate the scene. In the central mid ground we see the arch of the old bridge and the partly constructed arch of the new one with its scaffolding. The illuminated partly-built new arch is dwarfed by the mountains and one wonders whether its frailty and exposed position will be able to withstand the forces of nature when gale force winds relentlessly charge down the valley. There is also a sensation of remoteness about the scene. We are aware that we are miles from civilisation but can marvel in the savagery of nature. In the right foreground we see some of the bridge builders taking a well earned rest from their labours amongst all their building materials.
Karl Blechen has managed to create an image which is both awe-inspiring and beautiful and one which makes us realise how small we are in comparison to our surroundings. This awesome painting by Karl Blechen, which I have featured today, hangs in
the Bavarian State Picture Collection housed in the Neue Pinakothek in Munich.