The earliest known works by German-born Walter Spies centred on the theme of 'magical realism', a popular trope in mid to late 19th and early 20th century Europe, particularly in his native country of Germany. Educated in Dresden, Spies rejoined his family - diplomats stationed in Russia - during the summer holidays, only to be interned when the first World War broke out, in a camp located in the Urals, a mountainous region in Russia. This was Spies' first inkling that there was a way of life beyond civilised Europe, one where music and mythology held sway, and fantastic tales were borne out of the wilderness setting.
After the war, Spies returned to Dresden for a period, before retreating to the surrounding mountain ranges of Germany, where the present painting Thüringerwald was executed. The Thuringian forest (Thüringerwald in German) is located in southwest Germany in the state of Thuringia, where this forest is a well known geographical feature. The landscape is blanketed by the lush, green, fir and pine trees that stretch endlessly, sitting atop rounded hills, lined by a rambling trail known as the Rennsteig.
Conceived and painted about two years before his departure to Indonesia, this present work is a striking example of the style employed by Walter Spies' during his brief pre-Indonesian period. Thüringerwald is predominantly a Germanic painting. Its uncanny prescience and mystical atmosphere are very much the product of the literary and artistic culture which gave the world the tales of the Brothers Grimm, the writings of E.T.A Hoffmann and the operas of Wagner. There is also a certain Russian element to its snow-embanked solitude, one which might have been personally experienced by Spies during the internment of his boyhood.
Spies also drew artistic influences from his film director friend, Friedrich Murnau. Through the lens of Murnau's movie camera, he learnt how to frame a dynamic viewer-scene relationship and position his source of light. In Thüringerwald, Spies creates a visual line of sight to his subject who has his back facing the viewer, dragging a laden sled across the landscape busily lined with fir and pine trees, wound together by a thin ribbon of path around the valleys. The almost monochromatic view is alleviated by the white highlights, emphasising his expertise in balancing the intricacy of light conditions, giving dominance to the white glow that seems to have filtered in from the painter's peephole. The subject appears to be outfitted in what seems similar to prison garb, perhaps indicative of the political climate when Spies was last in the mountains, and also Spies' own feelings of exile within an unfamiliar European city. There is an unpretentious beauty implicit within this scene. The quiet introspection of the solitary person sensitively captured by the artist is an enduring feature of Spies' work, visible even within his later Balinese paintings as the native farmer makes his way home across paddy fields, under a moonlit sky.