Forest Motif

Forest Motif

UndatedMixed media on canvas94 × 84 cmArt Museum of Estonia

Depiction of forests was very widespread in German culture in the 19th century: besides imparting a Romanticist sense of mystery, depiction of a “wild” forest was also seen as a way to shape a cultural identity. Forest was the antithesis of the French urbanism, and the mystery of the forest was also linked to the Song of the Nibelungs, which was shaped into the German national epic. And so, we see 19th century German paintings depict dense and impassable forests, romantic light filtering through the trees and so on.

Mägi is not known to have been as influenced by German culture and painting as he was by the French traditions. Yet depiction of forests plays an important role in his works, both in Norwegian and southern Estonian paintings. He never becomes as detailed as the Romantics, but more generalized and expressive, putting emphasis on the aesthetic qualities of the forests instead of a sense of mystery: colours, richness and other such attributes. Nor does Mägi’s eye penetrate the forests after leaving Norway; he gazes at them from a distance, and in southern Estonia, often from a higher position. Mägi’s paintings do not bring us into the forest, he does not emotionally pull the viewer into this environment but offers a stylized, generalized view of forests as an abstract form.

The date of this painting raises a number of questions. To this point, it has been included in the Saaremaa period, but is quite distinct due to its slightly more Art Nouveau approach to tree trunks, which was most characteristic of Mägi’s Norwegian period. His signature, “KM”, also catches the eye – he used his initials all through his sojourn in Norway and quite seldom after that. Many of his other Saaremaa works are signed “K. Mägi”, which would allow the work to be placed in Mägi’s Norwegian period instead.

In Norway, Mägi painted lone trees in close-up several times, bringing out their special character.

He regards the forest not from a higher perspective but at forest height, while still remaining a distanced outside observer. The motif of trunks that, whether or not they twist, still harbour an internal dynamic was very common in Art Nouveau and Mägi used these themes repeatedly in his paintings.

Thus, we can presume that this picture may have been painted on Eeriksaare or Kuusnõmme peninsulas, which extend from Saaremaa Island toward outlying Vilsandi Island. According to Filippov’s analysis, individual trees were left there intentionally as landmarks for seafarers and it was forbidden by law to cut them down. There are stories where vigilante justice was meted out to unauthorized tree cutters.