Bursting with color, with the bold red of the apples and the colors of the flowers that carpet the ground below the tree, Apple Tree I is filled with happiness, with life, with fertility, with the bounties of nature. The rich colors and the intricately-worked oils lend the painting a sense of shimmering movement rare in Klimt's landscapes. Painted circa 1912, this picture focuses on a single tree which dominates the entire canvas. Only the vaguest hint of the sky peeks through in an upper corner, along with the foliage of some other background trees. Likewise, the bottom of the canvas, packed with colorful bloom facing the viewer and seemingly jostling for our attention, takes up a small amount of the canvas--the strip of flowers and of grass only serves to accentuate the extent to which the apple tree of the title fills the vast majority of the canvas, exploding from it in a firework-like display of luscious color and bold, frantic brushstrokes that echoes the increasing ornamentation that had come to feature in his portraits from the same period. Klimt's own satisfaction with Apple Tree I is reflected in its early exhibition history including its presence in the 1912 Große Kunstausstellung in Dresden.
It is thought that almost all of Klimt's landscape pictures were painted when he was on his summer holidays on the Attersee. It is therefore telling to find that some tourists including the then young artist Irene Hölzer-Weineck in that area later recalled once walking in bad weather in that area: "In Litzlberg [where the Flöge family stayed]--the village lies across the lake from Kammer--we saw a man in a large meadow in front of an easel, in spite of the drizzle and cold, painting an apple tree, with photographic accuracy. We went closer, the grown-ups said a few friendly words but the genius remained cantankerously silent. It was surprising that somebody chose such simple motifs, at a time when others looked for particularly impressive scenes of the area... It was only later that we discovered that the unknown painter was Gustav Klimt" (quoted in 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, ed., Gustav Klimt: Landscapes, Munich, 2002, p. 27) (fig. 1).
There are but a handful of paintings of apple trees by Klimt, and so there is some likelihood that it was Apple Tree I whose creation this chronicler witnessed. Certainly, the painting seemingly manages to create the impression of 'photographic accuracy,' with each apple and every flower lovingly rendered, a factor that perhaps owes itself to Klimt's well-documented use of opera glasses in order to perceive details all the more easily, especially at a distance.
The intricate net of brushstrokes that Klimt has used in order to paint the leaves, the grass and the background foliage also appears painstakingly accurate at first glance, yet on closer inspection it is clear that these are in fact small, vigorous dashes of bold color that have been built up to create an almost abstract mesh of oils in blue, yellow, red and green. In a sense, this reflects the pointillisme that had so impressed Klimt since the turn of the century. From the Neo-Impressionists, Klimt had taken several lessons about the use of blocks of pure, unmixed color. However, he used this technique not in a scientific manner, but instead all the better to capture the varying surfaces of the leaves and ground in his paintings. He had borrowed the visual intensity but discarded the theory for which it had been tailored.
Although the artist did not like to travel outside Austria, he had been to Paris several times and to Germany relatively often and liked to keep abreast of developments in the art world throughout Europe. This interest in contemporary attitudes and advancements is exemplified by his meeting, for instance, Charles Rennie MacIntosh in London, as well as his increasing support of the young artists Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka. During the years leading up to the execution of Apple Tree I, Klimt had come under new influences and had been exposed to the works of many artists from the international avant-garde, not least during his 1909 journey to Paris, where he saw pictures by a variety of artists from a variety of schools. The list of artists who exhibited alongside Klimt at the Kunstschau in 1909 likewise reveals the breadth of influence that was at his disposal. This annual exhibition had been formed by those artists around Klimt who had broken away from the Secession. In the 1909 Kunstschau, in which Klimt himself featured prominently, there were also works by artists as diverse as Bonnard, Matisse, Munch and Vuillard.
Klimt was hugely interested in the various movements and groups--or in the case of Munch, individuals--who were pushing back the boundaries of painting. Towards the end of the first decade of the twentieth-century, a discreet colorism breathed through Klimt's paintings that appears to owe much to the Fauve artists active at the time. This was revealed in another 1912 painting also from the same collection, the portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II, which is Matisse-like in its heady use of bright, intensely-colored ornament. It is in part through linking these two paintings stylistically that the date of Apple Tree I's execution is given as circa 1912 and not much earlier (the 1912 Große Kunstausstellung in Dresden provides a terminus ante quem). Apple Tree I and many of the portraits that Klimt painted from this time share an almost Byzantine opulence, a splendid wealth of decorative content that brings our attention as much to the painting itself as to the subject that it depicts.
Despite this coloristic influence, Apple Tree I--unlike some of Klimt's paintings from a few years earlier--appears to reveal the influence less of the Fauves than of their spiritual predecessor, Vincent van Gogh, whose works Klimt had also seen in Vienna. Apple Tree I takes his colorism to a new level (fig. 2). The picture explodes with life and color, with a strange hint of movement added by the scintillating surface, which forces the viewer's eye to dash this way and that, creating the vague impression that the leaves are moving gently, the grass swaying, in the breeze. This visual effect mimics the swirls in van Gogh's paintings, which lend them such a heady sense of movement. The painting is filled with energy, and like van Gogh's pictures, that energy is evident both in the world of the apple tree and in the application of the oils onto the canvas. At the same time, the contrast between the various colors, and especially between the red of the apples and some of the flowers and the greens that dominate so much of the rest of the canvas is more intense than in some of Klimt's own earlier paintings. Even when treating the subject of a poppy field, a theme that would be expected to allow a similar exploration of intensely contrasting color, the effect of the red against the green is more dissipated, whereas in Apple Tree I, the artist uses bold patches of raw color that relate more to his garden landscapes of 1912 and 1913 (fig 3 and 4). Likewise, there is a bolder sense of structure, a more solid depiction of the tree itself, that shows Klimt's move away from the hazier, less grounded and more ethereal landscapes of the previous years. Considering Klimt's working practice, it is almost irrelevant when Irene Hölzer-Weineck saw the artist painting his tree--it is the date of completion that is important. Klimt would often keep hold of his paintings for a long time, tinkering with them and adjusting them over a period of years in his studio. In this sense, Apple Tree I is a painting that stylistically appears to have been completed around 1912.
Apple Tree I is a summer picture, and the tiny hint of sky that is present--a rarity in Klimt's landscapes-- is marked by a bold blue that corroborates this sense of the light and sun of summer, as does the brightness of the tree itself. The joy of summer, of life on the lake, is unfiltered in this painting. But the fact that this tiny clue as to the weather, this merest glimpse of the sky, is largely suppressed to this extent lends the work a timeless quality. As we cannot see the weather pass, we cannot see time pass. The tree becomes somehow universal, a passe-partout indicator of the wonders of nature, of its generosity, the tasty apples a gift for us. Yet this hint of eternity, in the work of an artist associated with pictures in which themes and subjects were allegorized and personified, inevitably prompts the viewer to consider the meaning of trees in art. Klimt himself had produced a Tree of Life frieze for the Palais Stoclet, yet the most famous fruit tree in the Western tradition is surely that of the Garden of Eden (fig. 5). The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is usually portrayed as an apple tree--Cranach's Eve, for instance, repeatedly offers her Adam the luscious fruit, serpent hissing in the background. In religious depictions, the tree has its own complex associations, its sense of the inevitable Fall, and Klimt--painter of images of Philosophy, Medicine and Jurisprudence--cannot have been unaware of these implications.
Does this make Apple Tree I a religious painting, a warning, an allegory? Or does Klimt use these traditional associations only to discard them, to show to what extent he is celebrating nature and existence, trumpeting the wonders of nature and of the world? His use of a subject prone to allegorical interpretation in fact emphasizes the extent to which Apple Tree I is a painting without allegorical meaning. It is a pure feast for the senses, a spectacle that is sensual in its deft use of the lush colors and frenetic brushstrokes. The ghost of allegory, of the Fall, is evoked only in order to be wholeheartedly dismissed in a picture that speaks of innocence, of a prelapsarian state of nature. In this meditative painting, Klimt evokes awe at the purity of the wondrous beauty of the tree and flowers, justifying the statement of his friend Hermann Bahr that he was "unable to touch anything without, probably unknowingly, giving it a spirit and soul, he is that person who is called an idealist" (quoted in Koja, ed., op.cit., 2002, p. 61).
(fig. 1) Emilie Flöge in a "reform dress" and Gustav Klimt in his
painter's smock in the garden at Villa Oleander in Kammerl, 1910.
Austrian Archives, Vienna. BARCODE 06322755
(fig. 2) Vincent van Gogh, Field with Poppies, 1890. The Hague, Gemeentemuseum (on loan). BARCODE 06322816
(fig. 3) Gustav Klimt, Poppy field, 1907. Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna. BARCODE 06322748
(fig. 4) Gustav Klimt, Italian Garden Landscape, 1913. Kunsthaus
Zug, deposit of Foundation Collection Kamm. BARCODE 063227620
(fig. 5) Gustav Klimt, Lebensbaum Tree of life, central section of the pattern for the Stoclet Frieze, around 1905-1906. Austrian Museum of Applied Art, Vienna. BARCODE 06322830