Monday (aaaah, Tuesday) Modern Art Madness #4: The Proto-Abstraction of Klimt’s “The Park”.

Let me shift gears in this series to a work that is not exactly in the mental category of the “modern art” idea that people usually have. Above all things in art, I am first and foremost a landscape painter. For some time now, i have enjoyed the works of Gustav Klimt, but above his legendary work in portraiture, I hold His landscapes in an even higher regard (a small group to be apart of it know).

The reason this and other landscapes from Klimt stands out is the dramatic foreground nature of the piece. I think it is the “Canadian artist” in me that admires such a work, because outside of Klimt and a few others, there are very few impressionist landscape painters outside of the Group of Seven that predicate such an importance to a wall of foreground scenery. It is the Canadian wilderness that has this vast, yet up-close effect on artists, especially the GO7, you literally cannot see the whole forest through the layers upon layers of trees.

Klimt saw the possibilities in the manicured gardens and parks of Europe that Monet and other impressionists at the time did not. There is little to no areal perspective, or rather, Klimt had a way of marking off a few open sky holes that gave that subtle, yet dramatic effect of areal depth. He would do a whole painting that comes off as a vast layer of foliage that might as well be a piece of pure abstraction, and then plant in a few tree shapes and carve out a few spots of sky with the brush, almost as a purposeful afterthought. (a good description of the piece can be found here).

In “The park” (1909) Klimt once again utilizes the pointillist technique, although this may have been a stylistic choice rather than a purposeful choice of technique. The piece is one giant tight group of tree foliage with some more plane-like lines of grass at the bottom, and the background opening carved in to relieve the piece and blend in some realism into a giant mass of blue, yellow and green abstract dots. Klimt shows that it only takes a small piece of realize to suggest and render the whole piece intelligible to the discerning mind.

Despite being far less celebrated than his portraits, this piece is also a great feat in Plein-Air (french for “in the open air” or outdoor painting done Alla-prime or “all at once” in one sitting, usually with a limited and easy to carry set of colors and tools) painting. Being a fan and participant in the style, and having written about it at length, pieces like this get me absolutely gitty; Long before there was the (Americanized) image of the abstract expressionist walled up in some gargantuan studio space, dropping ungodly amounts of paint onto giant wall canvases, Klimt produces a piece of proto-abstraction that took Plein-Air into the realm of abstraction, and utilized the smaller and easy to carry canvas sizes that are commonly used in the style. This is why as a piece of abstraction, “The Park” is an important landmark, precisely because it blends the real with the abstract, or rather, serves as a stepping stone to full on Abstract-Expressionism. More so, the possibilities of an abstraction that serves and keeps nature as its primary subject and muse is also highly interesting, given the context of it being done “En Plein-Air”. This was the time when The Plein-Air movement had just recently reached its new beginnings and found its popularity among the impressionists as a stand-alone genre of art (rather than works done on location previously relegated to being studio aids only).

Now a days, there are a growing number of abstract painters going Plein-Air painting, and creating deterritorialized expressions of nature in their works, often finding the evanescent nature of Plein-Air to be immensely helpful as a unique artistic practice; The quickness of strokes and the chasing of light and shadow that embodies Plein-Air painting mimics, or more accurately (as Klimt, Monet and others demonstrated), gave birth to in a smaller size the quick “action painting” methods of Abstract-Expressionism.

In this and other landscapes of Klimt, we can see sprouts and germinating seeds of artistic technique possibilities. Techniques that led to the vast color fields and stoke-clusters of more orthodox AB-EX painters that found inspiration in nature who came after Him in the latter-half of the 20th century, name artists like Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell (who might grace this series in the near future). Klimt’s portraits and abstract tree paintings are spiritual and highly symbolic, but I would argue his landscapes are just as important for blending the line between the real and the deconstructed abstract, and showing how a minimalist approach to representation can suggest an entire realistic landscape, with only a few zen-like strokes.  His power of suggestion in the landscape is unmatched, even to this day.




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