Painted in 1903, Birch Forest is filled with the stillness and mystery that make Klimt's landscape paintings so absorbing. This strange and isolated slice of nature leaves the viewer immersed in a world in which there is no sky, no hint of daylight in the upper sections; instead, there is an affecting sense of near-suffocation in the completeness of the surrounding trees, in the dense wall of wood that confronts us. As in almost all of Klimt's landscapes, Birch Forest is marked by the strange and complete absence of people and animals, removing any sense of movement or of time passing. The clock appears to have stopped entirely, nature has paused eerily, allowing us to glimpse the woodland in the spiritual fullness to which the artist himself was witness.
In part, this removal from people and from any sense of time reflects Klimt's enjoyment of a genre that was utterly removed from the portraiture and allegory that filled so many of his works in Vienna. Landscape provided solace and solitude for Klimt, and these are reflected in the still and absorbing isolation in which Birch Forest places the viewer. Despite only really beginning to paint landscapes a handful of years before Birch Forest, by the time he died the landscape genre accounted for almost a quarter of his oils. This reflects the extent to which these subjects allowed him to distill his own unique view of the world, his wonder at the forms of nature, in oils. Among the most celebrated of these landscapes are his rare woodland scenes. In Birch Forest, the dense mesh of striated vertical and horizontal strokes, contrasting with the scattered leaves--a series of bright and burning dots of color--reflects Klimt's ability to distill the view before him to a point that borders on abstraction. This is accentuated by the absence of any single point of focus. The woodland in its absorbing vastness is the subject, every square inch of the canvas the focus.
Both at the time that Klimt's landscapes were painted and again now, following a wide-ranging reappraisal of these works, they have come to be considered central to his output, a condensation of the artist's feelings and his own unspoken yet ever-present philosophy. This is reflected in the extent to which the landscapes were exhibited even within the artist's lifetime--it is a testimony to Birch Forest's importance that it was shown in the 1903 Secession exhibition of his works, in 1905 in Berlin, almost certainly in the first Kunstschau in 1908 that was a product of the split of Klimt and his followers from the Secession, and at the 1910 Biennale in Venice. Klimt had never trained in landscape painting, and only began to tackle landscape as a subject in itself when he was approaching his forties. Rather than find this lack of training a constraint, Klimt attacked the genre with a fresh perspective, with his own ideas about the potential of his subject matters to convey the inner magic and character of the landscape around him.
This is reflected in his repeated use of the square canvas, as seen in Birch Forest. It was only in 1900, three years earlier, that he had found that this square format had a great potential to present a world of balance and of peace--through symmetry emerges harmony. The square also removes the horizontality traditionally integral to landscape painting, as was perhaps best exemplified by the works of his friend Ferdinand Hodler, whom he had met earlier in 1903. In Birch Forest, the verticality of the trees is a deliberate counterpoint to those horizons, while their latticework appearance obscures any horizon within the world of the woodland. This is not a picture about horizons, about standing before the vastness of a stretching landscape. This is not a window. It is a wall, a painting whose appearance provides a deliberate barrier, an absence of depth, and in so doing forces us to contemplate it in its own right, ignoring any world that may lie beyond.
This deliberate refusal to indulge the viewer's expectations of depth brings the viewer's attention forcibly to the wonderfully worked picture surface. The mosaic-like manner in which Klimt has built up the fallen leaves and the flowers shows a sheer enjoyment of brushwork but also adds a sense of lush materiality to the oils themselves. This is accentuated by the deliberate thinness of the horizontal strokes that make up the bark surface of several of the thicker trees where the warp and weave of the canvas is itself visible. Birch Forest is a sensual mesh of differing textures and ardent colors. Presenting us with this textured vision of the woodland, Klimt evokes sensation in the viewer, and through the varied surface this sensation is not limited to sight but appeals even to our sense of touch.
Klimt's landscapes almost all dated from the Sommerfrische period of his year, when he would be physically and geographically immersed in the wonders of nature, rather than cooped up in his city studio. This was the time of his escape from the bustle of Vienna, from his usual routine, when all those who could head for the countryside would head for the countryside. For most of Klimt's summers, this time was spent in one place or another on the Attersee, a lake in the Austrian mountains. As in so many other years, when Birch Forest was painted in the summer of 1903, the artist was a guest of the Flöge family in Litzlberg. These were close friends, as well as family: Klimt's late brother Ernst had been married to Helene, and the artist himself was guardian to their daughter, also called Helene.
His 'holiday' surroundings feature in many of his landscapes--he would capture them in daily painting sessions, focusing on different aspects of the countryside according to the time of day and the weather as well as any other factors. The landscape genre is unique within Klimt's oil oeuvre for the lack of preparatory materials produced for the pictures (fig. 1). He created almost no sketches on paper or small oils, instead reacting directly to the visual impetus with which he was faced. His enthusiasm for painting woodlands en plein air even led to the locals at Attersee referring to him as the Waldschrat, or Forest Demon (V. Perlhefter, ''It is such a wonderful feeling to be in the countryside" The Phenomenon of the Austrian Sommerfrische, pp. 16-29, in S. Koja, Gustav Klimt: Landscapes, New York, 2002, p. 27).
The summer holidays provided Klimt with a chance to paint from nature, and also crucially to immerse himself in nature. These were days that increased both his physical and mental health as he exercised outdoors, painted outdoors, lived and breathed outdoors, a stark contrast to the hurly burly of life in cosmopolitan Vienna, where he was often working on exacting commissions. The landscapes were an escape from such pressurizing work, were more of an emanation of the artist's own self, an exploration of his own interests and feelings. This is far from the world of allegory, portrait and anthropomorphic subjects that dominated so much of his output. The holiday period resulted in holiday pictures, and this is reflected in the exuberance of Birch Forest's paint-work, in the enthusiasm with which he has rendered the scene. The fine detail with which he has captured the leaves on the ground--in his highly idiosyncratic incarnation of pointillisme--reflects the extent to which he was immersed in the act of painting, enjoying testing the boundaries in a medium and with a subject matter that were not predicated by a patron but by the sensations of the artist himself.
The extent to which art formed a part of the healthy lifestyle of the middle-aged painter are reflected in a letter that he wrote around the time that Birch Forest was painted: "Early in the morning, mostly about six, a little earlier or later--I get up--if the weather is good I go into the forest nearby--I'm painting a little beech wood there (in the sun) with a few conifers in between, that lasts until 8 o'clock, then we have breakfast, after that a swim in the lake, taken with due care--after that again a little painting, when the sun's shining a picture of the lake, when the weather's overcast a landscape from the window of my room--often I don't paint in the morning but instead study my Japanese books--outside in the open. So midday comes, after eating, a little nap or reading--until afternoon coffee--before or after coffee a second swim in the lake, not regularly but mostly. After coffee it's painting again--a large poplar at twilight with a storm coming on--now and again instead of this evening painting there's a little game of skittles in a small place not far away--but that's rare--then dusk--dinner--then in good time to bed and again in good time up the next morning. Now and again in this division of the day there's a little rowing in order to get my muscles toned up" (quoted in F. Whitford, Klimt, London, 2004, p. 180).
The above quotation provides a wealth of knowledge about Klimt's routine and about his working techniques. The fact that he was painting in situ is clear, implying that Birch Forest too was painted from nature, the Waldschrat behind his easel in the middle of the birch trees. Klimt would perform the initial groundwork of his landscape paintings while standing before the scene; however, he would usually complete the work in the more controlled surroundings of his studio on his return to town.
Klimt's pleinairisme meant he was in direct contact and confrontation with the scene that he was painting, reflecting also the immersion of the Impressionists, whose influence can also be discerned in some of the painterly treatment and the subtle plays of color that make Birch Forest such an evocative work (fig. 2). Indeed, the influences of several other schools of painting can be discerned in Birch Forest, from the Neo-Impressionism of the tiny brushstrokes that comprise the trunks, the background and especially the rich and varied carpet of leaves on the ground to the Symbolism so evident above all in the mysterious atmosphere of the painting. Klimt had been exposed often to the work of Symbolist artists such as Khnopff, not least in the Secession's exhibitions, and likewise had seen several works by Neo-Impressionists, particularly in the 1900 Secession (figs. 3 and 4). That year, when the artist became the center of a furor because of his painting Philosophy, which sparked protests and counter-protests, Signac too had exhibited works by himself and his fellow pointillists. This had a huge impact on several of the artists active in Vienna at the time, and the influence is clear in Klimt's paintings from that period (fig. 5).
Rather than using the optical theories of Chevreul and Rood, Klimt took the visual effects of pointillisme and converted them to his own purposes. Using tiny patches of bold oils, each tiny speck lying by another contrasting color, he gives the viewer a strong impression of the many colors of the many leaves. Unlike the Pointillists, who used the dot technique in order to create special tonal effects and a shimmering sense of light, Klimt has grounded his dots in the represented reality. He has taken their lesson and deliberately ignored its purpose. In short, Klimt was not a theoretical painter in the same way as the Neo-Impressionists. Klimt's art revolves around instinct and feeling and a more spiritual beauty derived from nature, from contemplation, but not from the clinical world of science applied to art. Birch Forest owes more to the mysterious atmosphere of Symbolism, exemplifying the words of his friend Hermann Bahr: "Aesthetics are being turned around. The artist's nature no longer wants to be a tool of reality, to consummate its exact image; but precisely the opposite, reality now becomes the artist's subject matter to proclaim his own nature, in clear and effective symbols" (quoted in Koja, ed., op.cit., 2002, p. 54). By taking the reality of the birch woods, Klimt externalizes and translates to the viewer his own hushed sense of awe and wonder at the world around him, while also creating an image that reflects the character and mood of the artist but also, crucially, of the woodland itself.
(fig. 1) Gustav Klimt, Pine Forest I, 1901. Kunsthaus Zug, deposit of Foundation Collection Kamm. BARCODE 06322731
(fig. 2) Claude Monet, Juan-les-Pins, 1888. Private collection. BARCODE 06322823
(fig. 3) Fernand Khnopff, Landscape in Fosset, circa 1894. Stedelijke Musea, Dendermonde. BARCODE 06322717
(fig. 4) Vilhelm Hammershxi, Landskab. Fra Fortunen, 1901. Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen. BARCODE 06322694
(fig. 5) Maurice de Vlaminck, Châtaigners à Chatou, circa 1906, Musée d'Art Moderne, Troyes. BARCODE 06322878