Bursting with life
There is a splendid Dutch painting in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna called ''Interior of a Wood.'' Not only is it a dense and rich layered tapestry of foliage, it acts as a kind of visual invitation to the viewer to imagine himself penetrating the wood's shadowy depths - though, paradoxically, it also presents the wood's impenetrability.
The great trunks and branches, the accumulated canopy of the leaves, virtually block out the sky. In fact, the Dutch artist who painted it, Gillis van Coninxloo, seems to have tried conveying the actual feel of being plunged into the close-crowding secrecy of thick forest, rather than merely looking at it from the outside. It is a thorough celebration of self-surrounding nature. And it is nature that proliferates and flourishes without interference from human beings.
On the face of it ''Interior of a Wood'' is a long cry from what we think of as typical in the art of that strangely original painter and printmaker of seventeenth-centry Holland, Hercules Seghers. This artist's prints of desolate landscapes, creased and crinkled, with agitated rock crevices, of open places as lonely and weird, sometimes, as the moon, make Coninxloo's wood, for all its remoteness, seem a rather warm and comfortable environment. Yet there is another side to Seghers' work - very strikingly illustrated by the etching and drypoint ''A Country Road With Trees and Buildings'' - which depicts an observed rather than a fantastical natural world, and which owes many of its assumptions to Coninxloo. It is safe to say this because one of the few facts known about Seghers' career is that he was an apprentice in Coninxloo's workshop in 1606, in Amsterdam.
Though Coninxloo belonged in spirit to the seventeenth century (his paintings are now seen as forerunners of the later Dutch landscapes of Ruysdael and Hobbema), he also looks back to Altdorfer.
His pupil, Seghers, was also well aware of this great Bavarian painter of the early sixteenth century, whose pure landscapes pay tribute not only to the grandeur and mystique of trees, but to the baffling multiplicity and littleness of their leaves. Altdorfer's vision seems to have been smitten by the countless and the infinitesimal in nature, picturing the vital energy of trees transferring itself from trunk to branches, and from branches to leaf-particles, which are often reduced to dots and specks so fine that they almost merge into the air.
Seghers was highly original in his printmaking, and built his entire landscapes rather in the way Altdorfer painted leaves. He used his etching needle as a tool most suited to the making of tiny marks rather than large or sweeping effects. Cliffs, crags, old ruins, slopes covered with shrubs, fields, all presented him with the opportunity to cover his plates with rich and varied accumulations. He concentrates on minuscule configurations, often quite primitively free from convention.
These repeated forms are stylistically inventive, and sometimes seem to have come so thick and fast that they might be better described as ''texture.'' There is something in Seghers which refuses the painterly generalization, the merely broad suggestion, and insists on detailed investigation.
''A Country Road With Trees and Buildings'' is a vivid instance of this. It is as if he wanted to picture every blade of grass, every stone on the track, every crack in the trunks of the trees, and above all every last leaf. And yet these are not details for the sake of some kind of prosaic realism, they are the vital and sparklingly energetic details of nature translated into the parallel liveliness and excited persistence of art. All the particularities of this unique print (there are not many impressions existing of any Seghers print - and of this, only one) are shivering with life.
Leo C. Collins writes of Coninxloo's tree foliage: ''It is no longer an ornament but a living thing.'' And of this Seghers etching he says ''it is . . . close to Coninxloo's late style . . . the perfect translation of Coninxloo's ideas into a graphic language.''
Seghers' graphic language is so compelling, so intricate and emphatically direct, that it is hard to think of an artist after him who compares. Perhaps Samuel Palmer, in the early nineteenth century, is like him in some ways. He certainly produced pictures similarly invigorated by what he described as ''the leafy lightness, the thousand repetitions of little forms'' which are ''part of (nature's) own genuine perfection.'' Seghers' true heir, however, was surely his own fellow countryman whose brief career ended exactly three centuries after Seghers was born - Vincent van Gogh.