This painting of haunting beauty, dating from the summer of 1901, stands at the very axis of Klimt's modernism. Each summer after 1899 Gustav Klimt would join the exodus out of Vienna into the countryside, where he painted some of his most accomplished and atmospheric early landscapes (figs. 1 & 2). This tranquil holiday was particularly needed in 1901 after the storm whipped up by his painting Medicine when it was displayed at the Xth Secession Exhibition that spring. He spent the month of August with the Flöge family in Litzlberg, on the Attersee. Klimt was close friends with the Flöges, Helene having been married to the painter's late brother Ernst and Emilie being his closest confidante and a great supporter of his work. Klimt used these rural retreats to recover from the travails of complex and demanding commissions, and to rebuild his strength, rowing and rambling amidst the woods and by the lakeshore, absorbing the Attersee into his art. Whilst on holiday in 1901 Klimt embarked on Seeufer mit Birken. This remarkable landscape is rooted in the natural world yet simultaneously reaches towards the symbolic, decorative avant-garde. It is this synthesis of natural beauty and harmonious regularity which lends the work its ethereal quality.
Klimt's faithfulness to the landscape was evident in his employment of the en plein air method, pioneered by the Impressionists. Klimt was observed whilst at work by a fellow visitor to the Attersee: 'Once during a period of bad weather and cold, when it was gloomy and rainy, we went out walking on the empty road. In Litzlberg – the place that lies next to the Kammer – sat a man at an easel before a large field. In spite of the drizzle and cold, he sat there and painted an apple tree with photographic sharpness. As we came nearer, he said not a friendly word, but remained absorbed in sullen silence' (Irene Hölzer-Weineck in Inselträume: Teschner, Klimt & Flöge am Attersee (exhibition catalogue), Villa Paulick, Seewalchen am Attersee, 1888, p. 9). However as Johannes Dobai explains: 'Klimt, unlike the Impressionists, was not fascinated by a form of art which represented, ultimately, the perfection of naturalism, and hence the artistic apogee of an empirically positivist view of the world. Instead Klimt's inner passion was for making his understanding more real – focusing on what constituted the essence of things behind their mere physical appearance... during 1900-1901 Klimt 'took on the Attersee' as his basic subject...The development of his treatment of the picture surface reveals that Klimt must have been well acquainted with the techniques of Impressionism and Pointillism, although he did not set pure colours next to one another. He graded his colours in a way which bears comparison to Monet and Seurat, although his – Klimt's – work is more refined... the artist wished to create a "mood" painting' (J. Dobai, Gustav Klimt, Landscapes, London, 1988, pp. 12-15).
The views around the Attersee were not chosen so much for their actual associations, but purely based on a combination of aesthetics and the atmosphere they carried. In a letter of 1903 to his lover Mizzi Zimmermann, he describes how he would spend his days by the Attersee, 'I went about with my 'viewfinder' [Sucher], that's a piece of cardboard with a hole cut into it, looking for landscapes' (quoted in Christian M. Nebahay, 'Klimt schreibt an eine Liebe' in Klimt-Studien, Mitteilungen der Österreichischen Galerie, Vienna, 1978, vol. 22/23, no. 66/67, p. 108-109). This 'viewfinder' was roughly sketched by the side of the letter, showing a square hole. The shape of this aperture already narrowed the world into his aesthetic sense. Once a suitable view was found Klimt painted directly on to his canvas, with barely any sketching. Then, once enough of the actualities were recorded the pieces would be finished in the studio back in Vienna. It was here that he would use his memories to distill the essence of the atmosphere.
Seeufer mit Birken depicts the shoreline of the lake, a glittering body of water that ripples jewelled waves onto the shore, but becomes chasmic in its farthest reaches. Two lithe birch trees intersect the right hand side of the canvas setting the rhythm for the rest of this beautifully balanced composition. As Marie-Amélie zu Salm-Salm noted: 'The originality of Gustav Klimt's landscapes lies both in the unexpected viewpoints and in the contrasts and the relationships between shapes' (Vienna 1900: Klimt, Schiele, Moser, Kokoschka (exhibition catalogue), Petit Palais, Paris, 2005, p. 163). The present work derives its unity from the intricacy and balance of the composition. On the right side, the vertical birches insist on a very close viewpoint, on the left the horizontals of the lake and its far shore create a regressive perspective, and contrasts the silver white birches with the darker tree trunks behind. The lush green grasses and gilded flowers are harmoniously contrasted with the dappling azure blues of the water. All these colours and forms have been consciously placed to effect decorative harmony. The bank's triangular form with its softly undulating edge is reflected in the water to the left; every form and colour has its echo.
The square-canvas format heightens the impact of the work. Klimt started to use this shape of support exclusively for landscapes from 1899. This format imparted two specific effects: the symmetry denies the dominance of either horizontal or vertical elements in the picture, thus containing the scene with a tighter focus, and secondly the square increases the sense that these are objects for contemplation, they emanate atmosphere. Seeufer mit Birken is a contemplation not just on artistic endeavour, but what it is to translate the corporeal into the emotional. Significantly Monet started to use the square format in 1898 until 1916, and in particular the late works which were devoted to depicting the Seine and his lakes at Giverny have many of the same characteristics as Klimt's landscapes (fig. 4) . Monet was attempting to increase the impact of the surface of his paintings; the square negated the traditional emphasis on perspective and gave his revolutionary brushwork a stable support upon which to play. Both Klimt and Monet used this technical innovation to break away from the accepted forms of landscape painting.
Seeufer mit Birken captures an instinctive emotional response rather than a record of a particular location. This was a major preoccupation at the time, and all over Europe the idea of a modern landscape was under discussion. In Marcel Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu, first pubished in 1913, the Narrator visits a fictional painter called Elstir, based in part on Monet, where he begins to see Elstir's new purpose for art: 'But I was able to discern from these that the charm of each of them lay in a sort of metamorphosis of the things represented in it, analogous to what in poetry we call metaphor, and that, if God the Father had created things by naming them, it was by taking away their names or giving them other names that Elstir created them anew. The names which denote things correspond invariably to an intellectual notion, alien to our true impressions, and compelling us to eliminate from them everything that is not in keeping with itself' (quoted in Charles Prendergast, The Triangle of Representation, New York, 2000, p. 154). In this we can clearly discern a common purpose for Klimt – Monet – Elstir, to absorb scenes from the natural world, reorder them within the mind and then mix in a new perspective of art on their palettes.
In Austria the modern landscape was given its definition by an essay written in 1899 by Alois Riegl. His key theory was the concept of Stimmung, which would be best translated as something between 'mood' and 'atmosphere', he explains its importance here: 'When modern man, specifically the modern German, in the broadest sense, goes out into the landscape, sensations are aroused in him whose character he cannot clearly explain. Certainly he has invested a name for this sensation ... Stimmung... he has a presentiment of the world soul behind the tree and feels as though related to it' (A. Riegl, quoted in Margaret Olin, Forms of Representation in Alois Riegl's Theory of Art, Philadelphia, 1992, p. 123).
Although Riegl attributes the feeling of Stimmung to a Germanic mindset, it was in fact emerging all over Europe at the turn of the century, evidenced by Monet and Proust's exploration of the theme. Certain vistas were preferred over others, marshes and lakes were popular themes at the time; Werner Hofmann states that they became 'a parable for the passing, but also the seductive magic transmitted by the fathomless. These scenes of melancholy and escapism provide a solemn form of seclusion' (Werner Hofmann, Gustav Klimt und die Wiener Jahrhundertwende, Salzburg, 1970, p. 16). This idea of Stimmung continued to make a great impact on artistic theory; Kandinsky posited the notion that a painting can be 'the expression of psychological states disguised in natural forms, which is why it is called a 'mood'. All these forms have an artistic value, but they also provide spiritual nourishment...where the spectator feels a resonance within his own soul. Naturally in no case could such resonance ever remain empty or superficial, but the 'mood' of a work of art can deepen the mood of the spectator, and transfigure it' (Wassily Kandinsky, Towards the Spiritual in Art, 1911-12, quoted in Johannes Dobai, op. cit., p. 15). Seeufer mit Birken is a exemplifies this notion; the modern world with its growing metropoles was particularly susceptible to the power embodied by the landscape painting.
The present work comes from a distinguished family of collectors. Richard Koenigs was born in 1853 into a renowned banking family which included his brother Felix who was a leading figure of the Berlin Secession, and his nephew Franz Koenigs who assembled one of the finest collections of Old Master Drawings and Paintings in Europe. Richard regularly acquired works at the Düsseldorf Kunst-Ausstellung, including pieces by Rodin and Segantini at the 1904 exhibition. Seeufer mit Birken has remained within his family and has not been seen publicly since its exhibition in 1902 at the XIII Secession Exhibition in Vienna where it hung alongside other masterpieces by Klimt and his fellow artists (fig. 6).
This painting has been requested by Hirotushi Furota for the exhibition Klimt's Golden Rider and Vienna 1903 held at the Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art, Nagoya and then travelling in Japan, scheduled for 21st December 2012 - 2nd June 2013.
Fig. 1, Gustav Klimt, Der Sumpf, 1900, oil on canvas, Private Collection
Fig. 2, Gustav Klimt, Bauernhaus mit Birken (Junge Birken), 1900, oil on canvas. Sold: Sotheby's, London, 21st June 2004
Fig. 3, Gustav Klimt in the garden of his studio at Josefstädterstrasse 21, Vienna
Fig. 4, Claude Monet, Bras de Seine près de Giverny, 1897, oil on canvas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Fig. 5, Gustav Klimt, Birkenwald (Buchenwald), 1903, oil on canvas, Private Collection
Fig. 6, Postcard with a view of the XIIIth Secession Exhibition, Vienna, in 1902, showing the present work on the far right
Fig. 7, Gustav Klimt and Emilie Flöge in a rowing boat
Oil on canvas
Vienna, XIII Ausstellung, Österreichs Secession, 1902, no. 34
Dusseldorf, Deutsch-nationale Kunst-Ausstellung, 1902, no. 541
90 by 90cm. 35 1/2 by 35 1/2 in.
Letter from Klimt to Marie Zimmermann, August 1901
Stephen Koja, Gustav Klimt: Landscapes, London, 2002, p. 199
Gustav Klimt: Painting, Design and Modern Life (exhibition catalogue), Tate Liverpool, Liverpool, 2008, illustrated p. 79 (in a postcard of the XIIIth Secession Exhibition in 1902)
Gustav Klimt /Josef Hoffmann, Pioneers of Modernism (exhibition catalogue), Belvedere, Vienna, 2011, illustrated in colour p. 15
Richard Koenigs & Klara Koenigs-Bunge (acquired at the Deutsch-nationale Kunst-Ausstellung, Dusseldorf, in 1902)
Thence by descent to the present owner