Our swans are currently on the Alster” – it sounds almost wistful when the Romanticism Museum Frankfurt announces that the picture has been loaned to the Kunsthalle Hamburg for exhibition. In this anniversary year of Caspar David Friedrich, many of the painter's pictures feel the same way. Like his sailors, they are on the move: to Hamburg, Berlin, Greifswald and Dresden, to name just the most important stops. “Two swans on the pond in the reeds – The moon in the first quarter” was the title under which the picture, now kept in the Romantic Museum, was shown for the first time in Dresden in 1820. What might be special about the small-format painting? You can see swans on it; no problem for perception, like the chair in van Gogh's room. So nothing but local pride? Even the inexperienced viewer can see the pictorial semantic essentials of Friedrich's painting in front of them: the twilight, the light, the transition.

However, if you take a look at the details of the scene depicted, the tender intimacy of the encounter is striking. An intimacy appears that almost turns the viewer into a voyeur. The perspective suggests that you have to stalk up to the couple in order to see what is going on, “arched over by the reeds, without a view, horizon or solid ground,” as the Romantic Museum catalog text says. The delicate elegance of the animals, for whose movements the term grace is not an exaggeration, remains a mystery. What are they doing, are they out playing, busy building their nests late at night?

A strange contrast

If we go beyond the soft mood and interpret the friendly sociability of the animals in terms of action logic, thus abstracting from the subject, a reference to one another appears. What can probably only succeed in aesthetic objectification, and indeed only become accessible in it - for the painter as well as for the viewer - is the utopia of a cooperative relationship in relation to one another, in the alternation of day and night, in farewell and arrival, in which Time structure of life, of which the changing light bears witness. The curious attentiveness in the animals' movements brings to the fore what had preoccupied the painter throughout his life: the catastrophe of the successful and yet unsuccessful rescue of the thirteen-year-old Caspar David on December 8, 1787, in which his rescuer, who was one year younger Brother Christoffer, drowned. Helmut Börsch-Supan, master of the Friedrich interpretation, has never tired of pointing out the decisive significance of this loss of a brother.