Thin bark closed over her breast,
her hair turned into leaves,
her arms into branches,
her feet so swift a moment ago
stuck fast in slow-growing roots,
her face was lost in the canopy.
Only her shining beauty was left
(Ovid, Metamorphoses I, verses 545–555)
EVER SHAPING NEW FORMS
ON THE CURRENT FOREST WORKS IN THE OEUVRE OF NINA STOELTING
‘Nature! ...She is ever shaping new forms: what is, has never yet been; what has been, comes not again. Everything is new, and yet nought but the old.’1 This finding congealed into an aphorism in the essay Nature, penned in circa 1782, is frequently ascribed to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. However, the poet and naturalist states on the subject of his imputed authorship: ‘Though I am factually unable to recall that I authored these considerations, they may indeed be congruous with the notions of which my mind was comprised at the time.’2 Ramified contemplation of nature defines his life from the beginning: To mark Goethe’s birth, his grandfather planted a pear tree, which was followed on his 75th birthday by a lime3. Meanwhile, the likely author of the essay is now held to be the Swiss pastor and writer Christoph Tobler, who was born in 1757 and died in 1812 in the canton of Zurich in the parish of Wald (‘forest’). Its arms bear three green firs with red trunks.
Forest! The artistic creation of Nina Stoelting pertains to the fascination exuded by that ‘green area consisting of forest plants’ (§2 German Federal Forest Act), which is described officially as forest, far beyond the root-treetop axes, branches and crowns, clearings and undergrowth, along with German forest romanticism with all its subcategories. Nina Stoelting approaches humanity’s primal symbol haptically and holistically. She is interested in essence and megastructure of the tree and therewith in a central aspect of morphology. Goethe is reputed to have been the first to use that term in his diary on 25 September 1796. His subsequent considerations were published about 200 years ago, from 1817 through 1824, in the periodical that he founded, Zur Morphologie.
In an etching in 1903, Paul Klee drops a bony ‘virgin’ into a knotty tree. The woman is as naked as the tree is defoliated. A state of witheredness, here, as there, is the theme. Klee depicts the type of the aged virgin, his tree is a metaphor. And he does so in a further, generalising respect, with reference to artistic creation itself. In Klee’s comments On Modern Art we read: ‘As […] the crown of the tree unfolds and spreads in time and in space, so with his [the artist’s] work.’4 After all, the artist, he says, ‘[…] standing at his appointed place, the trunk of the tree, […] does nothing other than gather and pass on what comes to him from the depths. He neither serves nor rules – he transmits.’5 We can positively hear the spring rain pattering in the xylems here.
There is scarcely another colleague’s conviction that Stoelting can share as wholeheartedly as this one. Nina Stoelting rides through the forest, and she proceeds in medias res. There are few individual outlooks and attitudes in contemporary art that treat the tree as being intensely symbolic and emblematic and a serious counterpart at the same time. We have to go back to Edvard Munch in order to retrace the not only phenotypical parallels between the down-to-earth human being on the one hand, and the literally deep-rooted structure of shoot axes on the other in metaphysical space. In contemporary art it is David Hockney who proceeds similarly to Nina Stoelting. The British painter – after his forays into Californian swimming pools – also now incessantly explores things that are nearby. He found a compelling motif in features that are right on his doorstep: the local woods, beeches, ashes and maples in Yorkshire.
In Stoelting it is chiefly the foothills of the Taunus, the forests near Wiesbaden, her city of birth. Whereas Hockney decks the forest in garish colours, joyfully throws garments over it whose violet, yellow, orange and green tones would hardly be produced by Nature, Stoelting takes the reverse route: she has conceived a particular form of appropriation art, while it is not works by artist colleagues that inspire her, but the greatest artist of them all. Nature. For her art, Stoelting simply appropriates what she sees.
Her aim is to use artistic means in order to lay bare the nature of Nature. Her aspiration is to structurally probe that symbol of German identity and motif of longing, the tree, without employing zany tones. Forest solitude (‘Waldeinsamkeit’) and forest delight (‘Waldeslust’) are central topoi for literature in particular, explicitly for German Romanticism. Nina Stoelting not only portrays the forest, however; she replicates the forest. As she does so, she sets it in a close relationship to her own person. Nina Stoelting almost seems herself to be Daphne, setting out on a path through transitory terrain and in the depths of dendrochronology.
Fifty years ago, NATO established a committee for environmental matters. In the 1970s, Germany greened. Environmental policies changed the West German party landscape; increased awareness came about concerning natural resources and their finiteness. To Nina Stoelting, orientation to resources comes naturally, and green – in the ecological sense as well – is the colour of her art, which, appropriately grounded, is created by her ‘almost colourful palette’. It was not long before she was heading off into the green on a daily basis. In the forest, she mentally develops her artistic projects. Trunk and bark, soil and open strips, mosses and marshes are the keyword providers. The essence of the forest is her life’s theme. Fine Art knows the forest as set-piece, staffage, background foil. From the beginning, Stoelting has been concerned with its essence.
The passionate rider, hunter and hiker is accompanied on her solitary strolls by her dog. In that light, but also because of the unabashedly confessed love for her local landscape, she seems to be a spiritual sister of Gustave Courbet. In the famous Self-portrait with a Black Dog, the painter of forest and waves presents himself as a rambler with quadruped, pausing to take his rest in an open landscape. Courbet’s home territory was Franche-Comté in Eastern France, formerly the region with the highest proportion of forest in the country. He studied its waters, soil properties and inhabitants intensively: they yielded essential subjects of his painting. With reference to the forests in which she rides out, and to her art, the outcome of the almost daily rides and nature explorations, Stoelting speaks of ‘structures upon which I work off the stresses of my life.’6 They are consistently incorporated into her pictorial world.
The works of Nina Stoelting are an existentialist manifestation of her being and her personality structure. Their principal feature is elementary love of Nature, embedded in something higher: ‘I grapple with faith’7, she says. Forest floor and woodland are a place of physical wellbeing as well as of intellectual engagement. In her studio this silent and nevertheless eloquent dialogue manifests itself in an unusual and unexpected way. There, barks of all shapes and sizes lie alongside white buckets containing mysterious substances. Stoelting is also somewhat of an alchemist. Concerning her ingredients, she reveals: ‘The white powder is marble dust, which I use with acrylic emulsion as a binder to make my medium.’8 She works with mineral modelling paste in addition. She summarises a picture’s genesis as follows: ‘I scrape nothing out, I build it up.’9 Using painting knives with varying blade widths, brushes, rags and fingers she modulates the surface, assuming about eighty hours for a medium format. The Wiesbaden native, who initially studied architecture and was awarded the Hessischer Denkmalschutzpreis for a restoration project in 2015, also contemplates the forest with an architect’s eye. She formally reproduces individual aspects in her art. Multi-layered, complex works that recall collages are at once an homage to, and an attempt at approximating, an idealised ‘primal image’ (Urbild) as Goethe imagined it.
In an older group of works Stoelting explores terroir as a component of natural factors, which determine the soil of vineyards, for instance. In the artist’s eyes, the properties of these soils, the respective method of cultivation and the typical stone formations yield an image that is characteristic in each case. In these panel paintings she used natural stone, soil, pigment and acrylic paint to make a portrait of the soils of the expansive historical vineyards in Burgundy, the Palatinate and the Rheingau, whose wine Goethe savoured to the full as a guest of the Brentano family. Wood serves as the support medium. In order to capture the vineyards as close to nature and as authentically as possible in terms of mineral composition, Stoelting collected, crushed and ground the specific stones. She bonds the stone dust thus obtained with acrylic. In accordance with the respective vineyard, the works’ titles are Baiken or Sancerre; Stoelting names the group of works Le goût de la terre.
Essentially, since the start of the millennium she has been looking at three clearly distinguishable phases of creativity. Their common denominator is Nature cultivated by humans in the form of woodlands or areas under vines. The series of works Le goût de la terre (2001–2008), the Rindenbilder (2008–2016) and Makrobilder (2016–2019) comprise relief-like pictures executed in mixed media. They are generally carried out on wood and have a distinct object character. The artist developed the appropriate technique at about the turn of the millennium and continuously refines it.
The Rindenbilder set her on the path of working as a master of the trees. ‘The background of this cycle is the tree’s mythos and cultural history’, says Stoelting, ‘idealised structures are brought out, architect’s plans of Nature, which – removed from the natural context – generate an autonomy and abstraction that throws the beholder.’10 She approaches the tree even more closely in the current body of works, Makrorinden. She places her interpretations of highly enlarged cut-outs from tree barks, reproduced in a life-like manner, alongside the ‘natural context’. These are visual-art cover versions of the forest, understood as a continuation of the bark pictures, the Rindenbilder. They likewise find their roots in the artist’s all-round consideration of the tree, but differ from the earlier group of works as a result of more pronounced abstraction. Extrapolation by means of reduction is the artist’s procedural principle. ‘In this enlargement, the macro views of specific details illustrate the barks’ unique aesthetic, yet they equally point to related structures in entirely different material contexts’, explains Stoelting, ‘The beholder’s disposition and experience engender very, very different associations.’11
For the artist, 2017 and 2018 were the years of the birch (Betula), which already previously enjoyed Stoelting’s special attention, and pine (Pinus). The fissured, the white grey and grey white, which bring the silvery into play, the numerous floury and milky hues, the sometimes almost lacy periderm of the birch, which strips off horizontally, and its exquisite grain, these stand in striking contrast to the character of the pines, with their more reddish-brown countenance, the more massive than brittly sensitive papery appearance of their bark. It looks waxy and almost waterproof at times in Stoelting’s works, in contrast to the richly nuanced and faceted grisaille of the birch, which is a deciduous wood. The periderm of the pines can be furrowed or smooth, subdivided into plates. Stoelting translates the characteristics of bark and periderm to the panel painting with botanical empathy. The white colouring of the birch periderm recommends the species to decorative purposes, for example in allées and as a maypole for heralding in the spring. The birch – being the lightest-coloured tree in Russia’s forests – therefore occupied Russian landscape artists in particular, such as Isaac Levitan. In the west, Gustav Klimt, Otto Modersohn, Max Liebermann or Karl Hagemeister devoted themselves to the birch in paintings: by and large. Stoelting considers their particularities at maximum proximity. In her view, the beauty of trees lies in their detail. The highly enlarged excerpts no longer symbolise something – the magic of a landscape –, and are no longer in the service of a transitory phenomenon of the likes of incidence of sunlight or incipient dusk. They are also not pruned to elicit a mood. Rather, they stand for themselves.
Stoelting’s most recent work cycles, in particular, are characterised by works that are reminiscent of informalist painting and the ductus of Hans Arp. Structural parallels in respect of the interplay of contour, line, interior drawing and surface occasionally suggest a formal family relationship. But, in Nina Stoelting, it is not cloudy distance and sensitivity, not in any way inspirations and automatisms such as are manifested in écriture automatique, that define the design scaffold, but the many years of direct contemplation. She captures the habitat and key biotope forest, zoomed in on yet memorised in the studio without any photographic log, creatively intuitively, courtesy of her close attachment to her treasure trove of motifs.
Stoelting couples sensory perception with empirical knowledge, with the result of a reliably idealised approach to her central theme. A thousand ways lead into the forest, and the path of growing knowledge leads out of it and beyond. On foot, on horseback the artist explores it without ever erring from her routes. She is no representative of conceptual art and has not been inveigled by VR. Her works are subjected to the constant demand that they stay firmly rooted in facts. Stoelting examines the architect’s plan of life, the ‘superiority of Nature’ and the feeling of powerlessness that this superiority can trigger as she contemplates the archaic Other. Winter after winter – during a cabin stay in Carinthia without electricity and common civilised comforts – right up to the treeline, even at minus 15 degrees she stoops to search stone formations for her ‘overarching theme’ of structures. Yet she is no Maria Sibylla Merian, she does not painstakingly transcribe observations of nature in a Studienbuch (Book of Studies), does not work as a naturalist in the customary sense, does not pursue systematic contemplation like the Frankfurt entomologist. It is not the obvious thing to compare her special winter paths with Merian’s forays into the primeval forest in circa 1700. The disparity of privations is great, and yet the intentions are similar: to go outside, in order to look, to be astonished, to gather impressions and forms of the diversity of life – and in order to find oneself.
In the company of Indians, Axel Hütte explores – as Merian did – exotic climes. The photographer of the Becher School assigned a firm place in his oeuvre to the tree as motif. Towards the Woods is the programmatic title of one series. Unlike Hütte, however, Stoelting is alone during her excursions. And thereby thrown back upon herself.
Berlinde De Bruyckere uses fragmented trees in her installations as an allegory of life. The sculptor focuses on the anthropomorphic character of the tree. Not least in its vulnerability does it resemble the human. Nina Stoelting lets this aspect into her work as well. The two artists are united by the need to approach the deep-rooted structures with a pronounced realism, which provokes metaphorical contemplation.
If De Bruyckere is the anatomist, Nina Stoelting is the surgeon. The reproduction scale that she chooses permits detailed views. Stoelting’s macros can be understood as the outcomes of a continuously successive clarification process. In a different manner to the Belgian she works out the anchoring of human existence in the context of fauna and soil condition.
There is a direct relation to the human individual drawn in Stoelting’s organically comprehended images, a relation that the artist conjures wherever it may be least expected. She underlines ‘the diversity of the visible in a snapshot of ever self-renewing nature, which resists transitoriness by repeating its own principle.’12 The illusion of reality generated by her art reflects its specific subjectivity. That being said, the macro barks stand out from earlier works due to their extraordinary degree of abstraction. While Stoelting kept an even closer eye on the trunk at that time, nowadays she approaches it systematically. The smaller the excerpt of nature to which she applies herself, the more spiritually stimulating the depiction. The vividness is preserved, the associative field is philosophically broadened and becomes an intellectual place of transshipment. The morphological sounding-out is not uncoupled from the ontologically manifest and the phenotypically perceptible. They constitute the picture together. A tree can be considered as a lignifying seed plant with dominant shoot axis, secondary growth in girth and abundantly ramified side shoots. But also as the result of a metamorphosis, at the beginning of which a crazed, overbearing Olympian acting like Harvey Weinstein chases after a mountain nymph or – as another version has it – a virginal huntress. Daphne, finding herself in such a dreadful predicament, is transformed in the Greek myth into a bay tree, which will become sacred to the god Apollo and the title character of a bucolic one-act tragedy by Richard Strauss.
As world tree, tree of life, tree of knowledge, fairytale motif and guarantor of happiness, as source of comfort and tree of destiny, as protective symbol and love nest, family tree, Christmas tree, maypole and tally-keeper, tree of liberty, topping-out tree, sacrificial tree or The Hanging Tree (thus the title of Gary Cooper’s penultimate Western), the tree symbolises (celestial) immortality and (terrestrial) death, joy and fear, knowledge and transformation (in the alchemical sense), faith and mystery, disunity and wholeness at once, security and optimism, in short: the complexity of human striving and an imago mundi, a world view and allegory. It symbolises a microcosmos, whose macrostructures Nina Stoelting artistically encounters in fitting form. The tree is a ‘picture of certain happiness’13 (René Magritte) and a collective projection surface for the human species. The latter stands upright like its dearest symbol, sees in the tree the likeness of its self. Only, man topples more easily. Even when he is regarded as grounded, down-to-earth or as rooted to a certain spot, he nevertheless lacks the anchoring that holds him steady.
A new group of works by Stoelting from the past year makes use of frottage. Using the technique of rubbing, the artist took ‘pictures of identity-giving places in the city of Berlin’ within the context of an artist in residence programme in summer 2018. In graphite on muslin Stoelting created the image cycle X Quadratmeter von Berlin, featuring the Victory Column, Memorial Church, the Wall, the Holocaust Memorial, in order finally to arrive back at her original subject, the trees in the famous street Unter den Linden, in order to arrive back at certain happiness.
1 Quoted from the English translation in Thomas Henry Huxley: ‚Nature: Aphorisms by Goethe‘, in: Nature I, 1 (4 November 1869), pp. 9–11, p. 9.
3 Sibylle Selbmann, Der Baum: Symbol und Schicksal des Menschen, Karlsruhe 1984, p. 56
4 Sibylle Selbmann, Der Baum: Symbol und Schicksal des Menschen, Karlsruhe 1984, p. 62, own translation
6 - 12 Nina Stoelting in conversation with the author.
13 Sibylle Selbmann, Der Baum: Symbol und Schicksal des Menschen, Karlsruhe 1984, p. 77, own translation