The Mysterious Appeal of Art That Depicts Figures from Behind
In the early 1800s, German painter Caspar David Friedrich returned to the same subject again and again: figures looking at sublime landscapes, their backs toward the viewer. He painted a couple peering out from a ship’s bow; a woman gazing from her window; and, most famously, a wanderer on a cliff, overlooking a tempest of fog.
Painting subjects from the back was not a new compositional device. In the 14th century, the Italian artist Giotto became one of the first artists to use it when he turned the backs of Christ’s mourners to establish depth of field. The technique occasionally cropped up in the canvases of Raphael and Vermeer. Yet Friedrich and his fellow German Romanticists popularized this aesthetic mode, naming it Rückenfigur, or “figure from the back.” They used it to both evoke longing and invite the viewer into the scene as the faceless subject. With its heroic, mysterious figure, its loose and emotive brushstrokes, and its sense of awe at the sublime, Friedrich’s WandererAbove the Sea of Fog (ca. 1817) became the movement’s archetypal work.
Rückenfigur generates tension as it creates a paradox: The technique simultaneously invites viewers into a landscape and reminds them of the border between themselves and the scene. “It functions as a placeholder we can imaginatively occupy, allowing us a virtual existence in the landscape,” art historian Julian Jason Haladyn wrote in 2016. “[The] distance, however, requires us to be more actively involved in the experience of the painting if we are to enter its world.”
Since Friedrich popularized it, Rückenfigur has crossed the boundaries of visual culture, appearing across art movements and disparate media. Surrealists such as Salvador Dalí and René Magritte painted backwards figures to instill a sense of mystery and introspection. One of Dalí’s most traditional works, Figure at a Window (1925), creates a sense of yearning by capturing a woman gazing seaward from an airy window. To highlight the allure of the female form, artists including Gustave Courbet, Man Ray, and Horst P. Horst all created works reminiscent of Ingres’s La Grande Odalisque (1814), with sensual backs revealed and faces concealed. Adding a dose of voyeurism, Edgar Degas drew a series of pastels of anonymous women drying themselves after a bath.
In contemporary photography, Rückenfigur adds an air of mystique. Cig Harvey uses the device in her contemporary surrealistic self-portraits, and Erik Madigan Heck in his bold, enigmatic fashion images. Lakin Ogunbanwo puts a different spin on Rückenfigur with tightly cropped portraits of the backs of men’s heads. Their hats become symbols of their Nigerian identities.
In film, figures from the back can create drama—what happens, the audience wonders, when the subject finally turns around? As an eagle-eyed YouTube user showed in 2011, actress Jennifer Connelly has stood on a pier with her back turned in three different films. In a dream sequence in the dark drama Requiem for a Dream (2000), Harry (played by Jared Leto) tries to approach Marion (Connelly) on Brighton Beach, yet she disappears when he reaches her.
In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), a mind-bending moment occurs when Joel (Jim Carrey) tries and fails to turn his girlfriend’s new lover around to see his face. And in Jordan Peele’s horror film Us (2019), the young Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) meets her doppelgänger in a house of mirrors; when she turns and finds herself facing the back of her twin—a visual parallel to Magritte’s Not to Be Reproduced from 1937—the sight elicits immediate dread. In both situations, Rückenfigur amplifies a sense of unease.
Nowhere is Rückenfigur more suspensefully used than in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film Vertigo (1958). Kim Novak plays a tortured beauty who may be possessed by her late great-grandmother. A lovelorn detective, played by James Stewart, follows her as Hitchcock films his heroine from the back. In an eerie museum scene, Novak gazes at a painted portrait of the ancestor whom she has been emulating through style and dress. The camera slowly skims every detail of her turned figure as Stewart stealthily studies her from behind. He desires her and knows he can’t reach her—just as Friedrich’s wanderer appears unable to cross the abyss in front of him.
These days, Rückenfigur is finding novel uses online. On Instagram, influencers use its mystique to gain fans: The turned back is especially prevalent, especially in front of open vistas in far-flung locations. Followers can imagine themselves in glamorous destinations, enjoying vicarious thrills. The account @followmeto is the most famous example, with photographer Murad Osmann and his model wife Nataly taking viewers around the world as he captures the back of her slim figure and outstretched arm. As he takes her hand, Murad becomes a surrogate for the viewer. Nearly half a million followers virtually join the pair on their journeys around the world, tapping into the same longing for the sublime that Friedrich harnessed more than two centuries earlier.