Alex Katz, January Snow, 1993, Museum Frieder Burda, ©VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2016

"The Wood for the Trees..."

06 February – 29 May 2016

The Collection Frieder Burda includes many works whose motif is a tree, or which address the topic of “Woods”. Through its location at Lichtentaler Allee and its iconic architecture, which always incorporates the surrounding nature in its exhibitions, Museum Frieder Burda is all but predestined to exhibit works related to this subject. It is interesting to see how differently the artists approach the motif and commit their own quite individual forms of expression to the canvas.

The tree has always been a motif of great symbolism, which has fascinated humanity and obliged each and every artist to address it – be it through poetry, music or the visual arts.

In the visual arts, Piet Mondrian’s development from Impressionism to abstraction can be traced along his treatment of the tree over decades of his creativity. The essence of the tree, verticality and horizontal branching, practically lead automatically to the Dutch painter’s famous grid structures.

It is different with Joseph Beuys. In 1982, as part of documenta 7, he planted 7,000 oaks in the city of Kassel in order to effect lasting change on the urban living space through this artistic and ecological intervention.

In 1998, for their project “Wrapped Trees”, Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrapped 178 trees in the immediate vicinity of Fondation Beyeler for a few weeks. The concealed view brought the wood more attention than ever.

The tree motifs assembled here from the Collection Frieder Burda also reflect the completely different approaches and intentions of the artists.

In the series by Gerhard Richter created in 1991, as in the case of Piet Mondrian, the path from concrete representation of the tree to purely abstract coloured sketches can also be traced. Interestingly, by following the numbers in the catalogue raisonné, we can establish that, contrary to what we might assume, the pictures entitled “sketches” were created after the first and only representational picture in the series “Bühler Höhe”.

“Tree of Life” by Sigmar Polke demonstrates the symbolic combination of humankind and tree with the irony so typical of the artist. The human being as tree. The steadfastness, the rootedness. The treetop a human (moon) face, the cycle of life yet to close: a tree of life, indeed.

In the case of Baselitz, the woods as a typically German backdrop are augmented by a historically-charged dimension. “Der Wald auf dem Kopf”, painted in 1969, was the first picture in which he turned the motif upside down and came at a time when people were trying to distance themselves from previous generations and all their political ballast. Perhaps he chose it consciously, given that the “Deutsche Wald” had been a part of national socialist propaganda. In Baselitz’ pictures from the Collection Frieder Burda, “Eschenbusch II” blocks the way and the thicket in “o.T. (Wald)” is impenetrable. The turning upside down of the motif also makes it unclear where it is all supposed to lead. In this way, Baselitz sought his own path between abstraction and representation.

The works of Sabine Dehnel, Axel Hütte and Susanne Kühn are examples of how the woods can be depicted from what could be described as a typically German, romanticised perspective. An entire (fairy tale) forest, in contrast to a single trunk, immediately evokes memories and associations in the observer. It is not the symbolically-charged portrayal of a specific tree that is in the foreground here, rather a certain atmosphere. One hears the twigs cracking, the smell of moss is in the air… or is this perhaps just the first stage of not being able to see “the wood for the trees”?