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Exhibitions and Projects
Web Exhibition | From 16 November 2021 onwards

The Heroic Oak and the Lyrical Birch: Depictions of Trees

Web Exhibition

The Birch and the Oak

Birch, O birch, with tresses fine,
Who combs your hair
That it looks so well?
Is it your mother, or your sister,
Or some fairy from the dell?

Not my mother, nor my sister,
Nor some fairy from the dell,
But the quiet rain of noontime
And the gentle breeze that swells.

Oak, O oak, with your curling mane,
Who tousles your hairAnd ruffles it so?
Perhaps a wicked stepmother,
Or could it be a hundred foes?

Not a wicked stepmother,
Nor yet a hundred foes,
But the raging, stormy wind
That chill at midnight blows.

Oton Župančič
Župančič’s poem, which gives the exhibition its title, addresses the contrast between the female and the male principles. Even in itself it suggests the conceptual duality of the heroic image in a lyrical poetic form and mood. This implies that the notion of the lyrical is something changeable. While the oppositional use of the epic and the lyrical may seem self-evident, it does not work when we wish to apply it in concrete cases, particularly over a span of several centuries. Aristotle based his Poetics on the notion of mimesis – the imitation of nature – and only included lyric poetry indirectly in his hierarchical list of the principal genres of epic poetry, tragedy and comedy. According to his theory, the lyric has a purely ornamental function. It is a kind of inessential addition in a tragedy, which also uses music and singing. When these notions are transferred to fine art, it is the historical painting that corresponds to epic poetry, while in past centuries lyricism was regarded as one of its inessential components or a characteristic of minor genres. 

Particularly when it comes to the adjectival use of the concepts, we must understand the epic and the lyrical in a dynamic relationship that is dependent on the value system at any given time. This changed radically in the late eighteenth century with the start of the Romantic period, when epic or heroically epic, i.e. historical, painting reached a crisis and was superseded by genres in which there was a greater emphasis on those qualities that we associate with the lyrical: subjectivity, sentiment, expression, reflection, even irrationality, and so on. The epic correspondence of the hero’s actions with the environment, or their cathartic balancing in tragedy, which speaks to the community, relinquished its place of privilege to individual, emotionally turbulent, intense experience. An integral image of the world was replaced, in poetry, music and fine art, by the aesthetic of the fragment that suggests the whole, which we call metonymy. In the twentieth century lyricism or lyrical expression is understood as subjective, intensely emotional experience. The formal characteristics of lyric poetry play no role in the adjectival use of the word lyrical. The latter use is also the one adopted by the relatively young discipline of history of art when it accepted the concept of lyricism into its descriptive vocabulary. 

When we talk about lyricism in art, we are usually referring to the landscape and landscape painting. Landscape painting is considered a minor genre and we first come across it, from the Renaissance onwards, as a “supplemental” element of historical painting, portrait or depiction of everyday scenes. From the mid-seventeenth century, however, we start to find examples of landscapes as a fully independent artistic genre. Within art historical terminology we encounter the concept of the heroic landscape, which is inseparably linked to the historical painting or the depiction of a mythological story. Its function is to accompany, complement and expand the narrative of the scene portrayed, intensifying it to produce dramatic effects. When we remove the narrative from the painting, we are faced with a kind of suspension: all that remains is an ideal landscape, with which we can establish above all an emotional relationship, and when we attempt to describe it we make use of the established vocabulary we use when discussing poetry or music. Lyric poetry is a poetic form that is linked to music and rhythm and a form of verse that is adapted to music and singing. It is also characterised by a unique form – stanzas, verse structure, rhyme, refrains, etc. We are only able to describe a landscape painting “without a story” with the help of an approximately analogous use of terms borrowed from literary theory.
Jacob Pynas, Landscapewith Christ Giving the Keys to Saint Peter, before 1608?
Giuseppe Zola, Ideal Landscape, c., 1700
Within the antonymous pair heroic landscape–idyllic (or pastoral) landscape, the heroic landscape is, together with architecture, a setting for epic scenes – mythological and historical events – and accompanies depictions of actions, of action in progress. The pastoral landscape, on the other hand, is divorced from narrative content. The figures, animals and ruins in it are an integral part of a timeless, eternal and unchanging world and are, at the most, signifiers of the transience of Man and his works. Both landscapes are ideal, imaginary landscapes, but the essential difference between them is in their function and – consequently – the way they address us, which is adapted to their function. Jacob Pynas uses the landscape to dramatise the action in the foreground by using an intense palette, sharp light and contrasting shadows. The broken tree trunk is even a symbolic suggestion of a moment of crux – Christ’s farewell, in which he charges the first of his disciples to continue the work he has begun. 

Giuseppe Zola softens his imaginary landscape with a golden, southern light and a measured sequence of light and shadows. The painting expresses carefree delight, obliviousness, and puts the viewer in a dreamy mood. Just as the landscape is imaginary and indefinable, so the trees in it are non-specific, adapted to the peculiarities of the genre. Pynas uses them as a repeated frame in the form of a pointed arch, while Zola uses them like dancers, scattered across the scene in slow pirouettes.

Pieter Mulier, Ideal Landscape,1660−1670, Slovenska akademija znanosti in umetnosti


Pieter Mulier’s ideal landscape presents more of a challenge, simply because it is difficult to grasp the story, given that we are unable to identify the couple with a naked child in the middle ground of the painting, walking along a sunlit path that leads towards the left-hand edge of the picture. We are therefore left to an emotional experience of the depiction of the landscape, which is divided into the half that is closer to us, dramatically articulated with rocks, trees and the broken waterfalls of a foaming stream, and the left-hand half in which the view stretches into the distance, to the blue-tinged mountains on the horizon. A soft light illuminates the valley, in which a castle stands next to some trees beneath the hills, past which winds the path that the three enigmatic figures are following. Now the lyricism of the vanishing point that draws the eye into the distance and the dramatic character of the hillside with the torrential stream act in coordinated fashion in a suspension of the narrative, which reveals an Aristotelian understanding of the ornamental function of lyricism.
We do not find individual images of trees in the tradition of Western art until the seventeenth century, except in the case of the Arbor scientiae boni et mali (the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil), Arbor Vitae (the Tree of Life) and similar. In this case the images are schematic and symbolic. Although the philosophy of antiquity knew depictions of the plant world and trees, these were lost when the Middle Ages began. It is not until the landscape is fully emancipated in seventeenth-century Dutch painting that we find, in the work of Jacob van Ruisdael, depictions of mighty ashes, elms and oaks in his native landscape of Holland and of firs, spruces and birches in his Scandinavian mountain scenes with waterfalls, influenced by Allaert van Everdingen.
Jacob van Ruisdael, The Great Oak,1652, Los Angeles County Museum, source: Wikimedia Commons
Three Great Trees in a Mountainous Landscape with a River, 1665–1670, Norton Simon Foundation, Pasadena, source: Wikimedia Commons
The heroic oaks, ashes and beeches in the works of Jacob van Ruisdael had their origin in field studies by Dutch painters in previous decades, in which trees became unambiguously identifiable. We could almost call them tree portraits, a new genre of painting in which it is impossible to draw a clear dividing line between scientific interest and symbolic associations. In botany, it was not until the second half of the twentieth century (!) that a typology was developed for the classification of trees according to their growth shape. This is something that visual art was already capable of more than three centuries earlier, thanks to observation and the study of the natural environment. In the case of Jacob van Ruisdael, it is generally possible to identify the trees in his paintings in taxonomic terms, at least at the level of genus, if not species. 

Although it is possible to debate the message of his landscapes with trees, the spiritual dimension, supported by the nuances of mood suggested by the sky, expresses the insignificance of man in the midst of universal creation. His trees can be luxuriant and mighty, they can be shattered and burnt as they defy the forces of nature, or they can simply be dry trunks that hint at their former grandeur and call to mind the transience of every living thing. Jacob van Ruisdael has often been characterised as a poet who was able, through his convincing reproduction of the world, to express his comprehension of the way in which the world surpasses human existence. His trees are heroic whatever the species, animated into heroes that tell their own story and express their own ethos.

Lovro Janša, Landscape with Houses, Trees, Fishermen and Travellers, ok 1800

Franc Kavčič, Hollow Oak in the Prater, ok. 1800

In Baroque painting, trees frequently played the part of guardians of human dwellings or of travellers. Although less recognisably unique, they retained their heroic dimension. Life goes on in the safe shade of their spreading branches and can end just as suddenly as it begins. The immensity and indifference of the landscape, in which mighty trees tower over placid human dwellings and the trivial doings of their inhabitants, establishes a relationship between the eternity of creation and the coincidental and episodic nature of man’s harmonious coexistence with nature. 

Kavčič’s Hollow Oak in the Prater is an entirely different kind of picture which could be included in some Romantic compendium of Voyages pittoresques as a type of image representing a natural wonder. The tree is cropped by the frame and we are unable to picture the extent of its spreading canopy. The artist emphasises the enormous diameter of the tree trunk, in which he has placed three figures with no significant interaction among them, above all to provide some scale for the giant tree. At the same time, however, he uses restrained and classically measured draughtsmanship to provide an objective illustration of ramification of the upper part of the trunk, the texture of the tree’s bark and the relief of the leaves, which extend beyond the edges of the paper and offer an idea of the extent of the canopy. The line of the drawing creates clear contours and spatial relationships, which are supported by the measured contrasts of the graduated washes. 

Through their moderation, the artistic resources employed deprive Kavčič’s oak of its metonymic status. Although it is clear that the oak is a supremely monumental example of its species, its depiction is anything but a heroification of the tree, a fragment that could stand for the whole. This metonymic status of the image is clearly evident in Pernhart’s painting Lago di Fusine in Stormy Weather. A storm rages above the lake. Everything we see, with the exception of slender fir on the shore of the lake, is cut off and fragmented. The slopes, the water and the clouds are carried in all directions by spatial diagonals, with the result that in this fragment of the world we sense the uncontrollable raging of universal forces. The lyricism of the scene can be explained as a metaphor for an intense inner experience, since we find nothing in it that we could interpret as the finite defying the infinite, the mortal defying the eternal, which is a precondition for a dramatic scenario. 

With all its characteristics, Pernhart’s lake represents another of the concepts spread by Romanticism, namely the notion of the sublime. It is the very absence of conflict that confronts us with the experience of the transcendental and unachievable which is manifested in nature. This is a concept whose perception is entirely conditioned by emotion.
Marko Pernhart, Lago di Fusine in Stormy Weather, 1852
Anton Karinger, Oak Trees in Mestni Log, 1869
Pernhart’s storm shows a change in the understanding of lyricism, if we compare it to the contrasting image in Karinger’s painting Oak Trees in Mestni Log. The harmoniousness of the pallet and the soft light in the latter picture remind us of that timeless tranquillity we were able to perceive in Giuseppe Zola’s idyllic image. Karinger’s oaks are organised according to the principle of the Romantic fragment, although they continue the pastoral tradition in painting that was adopted by the Realists of the Barbizon school, who then passed it on to the Impressionists in the 1860s. 

In Karinger’s drawings the sublime and the fragment are realised time and again in mountain landscapes within the broad frame of the Alps that create the setting for dramatic images of solitary trees and lonely pines, images of Romantic defiance of a contrary fate, a refusal to compromise and dogged adherence to one’s own principles, which the Romantic ideal attributed to the image of the new hero. The image of a pine tree on a hilltop blasted by lightning and battered by wind offers itself to us in animistic identification, or even in a religious association with a hilltop crucifix. The new value system that emphasised the sincerity and authenticity of intense emotional experience greatly burdened the notion of the lyrical with subjective emotional experience and identification.
Anton Karinger: Alpine Valley with Pine Tree, 1860−1870
Anton Karinger: Alpine Pine, 1860−1870
If the Romantic movement turned the value system of genres based on Aristotle’s Poetics on its head, the Realism of the Barbizon school in the mid-nineteenth century led to a change in understanding of the painted image. The imitation of nature was replaced by the research and study of natural phenomena – directly, from a model, en plein air. Paintings are no longer seen as an illusionistic recreation of the world but as its equivalent. The painter no longer creates an illusion of the ideal world but a persuasive image of the seen world. The painter’s skill derives from recognising and understanding the essence of natural phenomena and discovering ways to depict them convincingly. This opens up an opportunity for the artist’s presence to enter the image more directly, revealing itself in the gradual emancipation of brushwork.
Gustave Courbet, The Oak at Flagey, 1864, Ornans; Wikidata

Jurij Šubic, Orchard in Normandy, 1882

Courbet’s oak is as much an oak as it is a piece of painted canvas. He does not hide the latter but instead the visible brushstrokes are arranged into a convincing image of a tree charged with metonymic significance. The connection with Gallic history reveals the painter’s intention to heroify the tree, something he achieves through the use of the convention of the portrait and the relationship between the tree and the landscape and in relation to the other trees. Jurij Šubic, on the other hand, was drawn to an apple orchard at the onset of autumn in a melancholy light that mingles with a partly cloudy sky over a group of trees. Here too the composition, the trace of the brush and its rhythm are a significant part of the aesthetic effect. The aesthetic expression of the painting is no longer carried by the attempt to describe details in a convincing illusion, but by the suggestiveness of the painter’s brushwork. A similar contribution to the harmonious mood is made by the character of the apple trees, which remain recognisable despite our awareness of the means employed by the artist. We can justifiably describe the painting as a lyrical image of an emotional experience of the subject which the painter communicates to the viewer.
Rihard Jakopič, Poplars in the Morning Sun, 1901
Avgust Berthold, Birches, c. 1905
Rihard Jakopič, A Solitary Birch, 1903
Impressionism thoroughly explored the limits of the visual shortcuts to which brushwork could be pushed while still retaining its referential effectiveness. In central European landscape painting, Neo-Romantic tendencies led to a revival of the concept of the lyricism of nature (Naturlyrismus), in which context we also find numerous images of trees of various kinds. The mental image of the apple tree in blossom became a kind of symbol of the rebirth of fine art in the centres of Mitteleuropa, particularly Vienna. We find numerous correspondences in Berthold’s photography and Grohar’s painting which add up to an emphatically lyrical effect of the image. The soft undulation of the landscape in Grohar’s Spring is complemented by the soft shape of the young apple tree. Through its slender branches a view opens of the landscape. Fragmented and disordered touches of the paintbrush and palette knife soften the contours of the forms, with the result that they are absorbed into the undulation of fields, hill and sky. The coarse graininess of the gum bichromate process in Berthold’s photograph has a similar function. The vanishing point on the left and the soft transition of the dark form of the bushes through the branches of the tree into the sky create a mood of emotional excitement and empathy with the rebirth of natural energies.
Avgust Berthold, To theHill, c. 1905
Ivan Grohar, Spring, 1903
Matija Jama’s Willows captures a group of trees in a distinctly lyrical image. A row of willows planted along an overgrown ditch thrust yearningly towards the sky, their trunks leaning in different directions and their branches bare. Anchored on the bank, which is partly covered by snow, they extend their branches towards the sun. Although Jama consistently maintained an intellectual distance in his focus on the effects of specific daylight, he was unable to paint emotional factors out of the image.

Matija Jama, Willows, 1907

If we return now to the poem by Župančič with which we began, and which was written in this same period, we might claim that the birch has become the paradigmatically lyrical tree in painting. Not only in Slovene painting, but more widely in central and eastern Europe. We find birch trees in works produced by the artists’ colonies of Bavaria, the works of representatives of the Vienna Secession, and the works of Finnish, Russian and other Slavic artists. Yet this is above all a cultural and historical coincidence. The stereotypical image of Jakopič’s birch trees is so firmly rooted in Slovene art that we want to see a birch in every tree that Jakopič painted. The truth is that while Jakopič did devote himself to birches in 1902 in 1903, two decades later he only returned to them rarely, usually to fill explicit commissions. He did, however, paint numerous other trees – pines, hornbeams, poplars – which are identifiable by their manner of growth, regardless of the strength of the colour transposition and the artist’s hand. If we look, for example, at his most chromatically intense Expressionist pines from the mid-1920s, we have to agree that it is impossible to confuse them with any other type of tree.
Rihard Jakopič, Pines,c. 1925
Rihard Jakopič, Birches in Autumn,1903
Rihard Jakopič, Birches, 1903
Jakopič’s birches, however, reveal to us a new aspect of lyricism that can perhaps best be demonstrated by his depictions of these trees from the first years of the twentieth century. We can place them in a row, where the chronological sequence seems to pass from tonal solutions to a more intense use of colours. The birches exhibited at the Salon Miethke in Vienna in 1903, which were given an original, custom-made frame, may still be understood in the context of the realistic paradigm of equivalences, only that the part played by drawing is significantly less marked, rather as it is in Poplars in the Morning Sun. The large version, possibly painted as a study for the similarly sized painting today in the National Museum in Belgrade, is enigmatic in its own way. The fauvistically expanded palette and emancipated brushwork move the study and the aspect of lyricism to the artist’s side. Such an intense expression of subjectivity and, at the same time, emotional experience convinces the viewer that they are witnessing the creative process and reliving the intensity of inner emotional turmoil together with the artist. This aspect of lyricism became very important in the art of the twentieth century, beginning with Wassily Kandinsky, who in 1911 painted a canvas entitled Lyrical. This is still a landscape image with a stylised horseman, but with a dynamic form that echoes the animistic images of yearning trees –Jama’s willows, Jakopič’s solitary birch or his poplars in the morning sun, Berthold’s birch wood or his apple tree in blossom. In the middle of the century we encounter the notion of “lyrical abstraction”, which is based on an associative connection with the landscape, while the principal means of expression is the brushstroke, or even less − the trace of a gesture.
Ivan Grohar, Larch, 1904−1906
Ivan Grohar, Tree, c. 1907

And what of the heroic oak? If we look at Grohar’s Larch, we see a tree that could undoubtedly be described as heroic, and the larch as a species certainly conforms to the notions of magnificence, solidity and endurance. The painter’s signature – unique and never repeated – is a clear sign that he wished it to function as a depiction of a name carved into the bark of the tree. This is Grohar himself, his symbolic self-portrait and his simultaneous presence in the execution of the painting with long combed strokes that make up the view of the shimmering Alpine valley with rocky peaks in the distance. Lyricism imbues a form which we once encountered in heroic, dramatic images of, in particular, oaks. Over the centuries, the heroic oak has given way to the lyrical birch – not because of any intrinsic properties but for reasons of cultural suitability. In the dynamic relationship of the lyrical and the epic (heroic), the epic (heroic) has taken on a subordinate role in Župančič’s poem and acquired an ornamental character.