"Birkenstamm vor Heidelandschaft (Birch Tree in Heathland)", 1901
Oil tempera on cardboard, mounted on wood
15.94 x 17.91 in / framed 25.59 x 27.17 in
Cat. Rais. 247 Busch/Werner
Expertise Otto Modersohn Museum
- with handmade craftsman's frame -
Über das Werk
"Worpswede, Worpswede ... Your powerful, magnificent pine trees! I call them my men, broad, gnarled and tall ... And your birches, these delicate, slender maidens ... with their willowy, dreamlike gestures, as if they have not yet been animated into life." These passages were entered into her diary on the 24th July 1897 by Paula Modersohn-Becker, born in Dresden in 1876. From autumn 1898 until her untimely death in 1907 in Worpswede, this extraordinary artist lived in the village of Moordorf, some 20 kilometres beyond the city gates of Bremen, where she amassed an oeuvre encompassing over 700 paintings. Most of the landscape studies were completed in the years 1899 to 1901, with a few dating from 1903 and 1904. Although Paula Modersohn-Becker's primary focus was the portrayal of the human form, her subjects are also frequently embedded within the typical Worpswede countryside, replete with peatmarch canals, birch forests, sandpits and flowery meadows. The painting "Birch Trunk in Heathland" is distinguished by its boldly structured composition - a feature common to virtually all Modersohn-Becker's work, yet which in this instance possesses an almost exemplary character. Directly before the viewer is the detailed depiction of a birch trunk, with its gnarled and upright white bark. To the left, set within the expansive pictorial space at the centre of the canvas, there is a further vertical compositional element in the form of another tree. Modersohn-Becker placed the line of horizon slightly above the centre of the canvas, thus creating a composition reduced to the essential lines - enhanced by the extremely close-up perspective. Allied to the muted tonality, the austere tectonics speak to Modersohn-Becker's interest in the fundamental gesture. For only few details are furnished here as the focus of artistic expression. Instead the painter is seeking to capture the archetypal essence of both man and Nature. This interest also extends to the ensouling of trees. Due to the changes wrought by the annual seasons, the tree has come to stand as a symbol of the eternal cycle of growth and decay. As such, it can also read as the eternal "tree of knowledge", the tree of life, the world and the family. Paula Modersohn-Becker's painting is imbued with a "profound, and silent sensibility for mystery of existence", as Christa Murken aptly described it in her biography, published in 1980. The fecund, fruit-bearing and protective character of the tree finds its expression in the works of Paula Modersohn-Becker. Furthermore, by sinking roots into the soil and growing heavenwards, the tree can be seen as the mediator between the elements of creation. Thus by virtue of their intensity, trees in the works of Paula Modersohn-Becker are often akin to portraits - even if they feature purely as landscape elements. Yet in common with the people appearing in Paula Modersohn-Becker's paintings and despite the attention they command, the trees remain possessed of an elusive, enigmatic presence.