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Sotheby's to offer a rediscovered masterpiece by Gustav Klimt not seen in public for over a century
Gustav Klimt, Seeufer mit Birken (Lakeshore with Birches), 1901. Oil on canvas, 90 by 90 cm. Estimate: £6-8 million/ $10-13 million. Photo: Sotheby's.

LONDON.- Sotheby's London announced the sale of Gustav Klimt’s recently rediscovered masterpiece of 1901 Seeufer mit Birken (Lakeshore with Birches), which is estimated to fetch £6-8 million/ $10-13 million and will be offered as part of the Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale, 8th February, 2012, in London. A work of haunting beauty and innovative format that stands at the very axis of Klimt’s modernism, the present painting was not publicly known to have existed until its recent discovery and authentication.

Helena Newman, Chairman, Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Art Department Worldwide, said: “Following Sotheby’s sale of Gustav Klimt’s Litzlberg am Attersee (Litzlberg on the Attersee) earlier this week for the remarkable sum of $40.4 million in our New York Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale, we are absolutely delighted to offer a further exquisite work by the artist which not only appears for the first time at auction, but represents a discovery of great significance in the artist’s oeuvre.”

Seeufer mit Birken (Lakeshore with Birches) was acquired in 1902 from an exhibition in Dusseldorf by distinguished collectors Richard and Klara Koenigs-Bunge. The painting was given to their daughter Martha Koenigs in 1903 on the occasion of her marriage and has remained in the same family for over a century. When the descendants sought authentication of the painting this year, it became clear that the present work was unknown to scholars – it had not been included in the Gustav Klimt catalogue raisonné of 2007. Alfred Weidinger, Vice Director of the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna, and author of the catalogue raisonné remarked that “its discovery is a sensation”. Research established that in 1901 Klimt had written to Marie Zimmermann that he was working on a series of landscapes including one of a group of trees in a sun-lit field beside a lake. In addition to an infrared scan that uncovered a preparatory sketch on the canvas, which is characteristic of the artist, an original photograph of the painting taken at the celebrated XIII Vienna Secession Exhibition of 1902 shows the present work hanging alongside other works by the artist.

Seeufer mit Birken (Lakeshore with Birches) was executed whilst Klimt was on holiday on the Attersee in the Viennese countryside, where the artist would escape to from the city every summer from 1899. On these rural retreats he would recover from the strain of complex and demanding commissions and would spend his time rowing and rambling amidst the woods by the lakeshore, absorbing the Attersee into his art. This tranquil holiday was particularly needed in 1901 after the storm whipped up in Vienna by his painting Medicine, the sexual symbolism of which shocked the public when it was displayed at the X Secession Exhibition that spring. Klimt was himself one of the most prominent members of the Vienna Secession movement (also known as the Union of Austrian Artists, or Vereinigung Bildender Künstler Österreichs), which challenged the contemporary conservatism in the arts by exploring the possibilities of art outside the confines of academic tradition and is credited with making the French Impressionists familiar to the Viennese public.

The present work depicts the shoreline of a lake, the glittering body of water rippling jewelled waves into the shore. Two lithe birch trees intersect the right-hand side and set the rhythm for the rest of this wonderfully balanced composition. The painting derives its unity from the intricacy and balance of the composition: on the right the vertical birches insist on a very close viewpoint, on the left the horizontal of the lake and far shore create a regressive perspective, and contrast the silver-white birches with the darkest tree trunks. The lush soft green grasses and gilded flowers are harmoniously contrasted with the azure blues of the water. All these colours and forms have been consciously placed to effect decorative harmony, and every form and colour has its echo.

The square-canvas format – which both Klimt and Monet used during this period of innovation to make a break from the accepted form of landscape art – heightens the impact of the work. A format used by Klimt exclusively for landscapes from 1899, the world within the square canvas is created to elicit an instinctive emotional response rather than a record of a particular location. This was a major preoccupation at the time, and all over Europe the concept of a modern landscape was under discussion.

Seeufer mit Birken (Lakeshore with Birches) comes to auction from a distinguished family of collectors. Richard Koenigs was born in 1853 into a renowned banking family which included his brother Felix who was at the heart of the Berlin Secession, and his nephew Franz Koenigs who gathered one of the finest collections of Old Master Drawings and Paintings in Europe. Richard built his own remarkable collection of art, including works by Rodin and Segantini. The present work has remained within his family and has not been seen in public since its exhibition in 1902.

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