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Profession: Woman Artist

“I often think about how lonely you were…”

Painter of the “Blue Rider” and Kandinsky’s long-term partner: Gabriele Münter (1877–1962)

They were one of the most famous artist couples of the twentieth century: Wassily Kandinsky and his former pupil Gabriele Münter. “If it were possible to delve deeply enough into the facts, a gripping novel would be born,” Münter’s later partner, Johannes Eichner, wrote on her relationship to Kandinsky. Following our article on Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler, a painter of the “lost generation,” the second part of our series “Profession: Woman Artist” introduces one of the most important representatives of Classic Modernism in Germany from the collection of the Deutsche Bank. The painter’s legend is also interwoven with a village in the Bavarian Alpine Foothills – Murnau is one of the birthplaces of German Modernism and, at the same time, Münter’s retreat in later years, where she hid her former lover’s artworks from the world.

Gabriele Münter beim Malen in Kochel, 1902

Gabriele Münter, Schürzen, 1914
Sammlung Deutsche Bank
© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2002

In January of 1957, five years before her death, Gabriele Münter, nearly eighty, wrote down her memory of a painting that was particularly important to her. For the elderly artist, a special experience remained connected to the making of The Blue Mountain in 1908, a painting whose larger version had since disappeared: “Javlensky stayed behind on the Kohlhuber Landstrasse and painted – I walked on until I turned off to the right and up a bit towards Löb. There, from above, I saw the Berggeist Inn sitting there, and the way the path rose and behind it the blue mountain and the small red evening clouds in the sky. I quickly jotted down the image appearing before me. Then, it was like an awakening for me, and I felt as though I were a bird in song. I never spoke to anyone about this impression, just as I don’t tend to chatter all that much anyway. I kept the memory to myself, and now, after so many years, I am telling it for the first time…”

Gabriele Münter, Allee vor Berg, 1909
Sammlung Deutsche Bank
© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2002

After so many years: the summits of the Alps rise up over the Murnauer Moos like the backdrop of a landscape of the mind; this is how “Miss Münter” captured the scene in oil nearly half a century before, in 1910. Trees, clouds, and mountains are reduced to elementary geometric forms and, like the sky and the meadows, shine forth in artificial hues of poisonous green, yellow, and violet. One year before, under Kandinsky’s persuasion, she purchased the newly-built house in Murnau, Bavaria, with a view to the east, over the valley basin and onto the village and church hill. Together with Kandinsky, Alexei von Javlensky, and Marianne von Werefkin, the artist worked in Murnau over the summer months, living a simple life entirely in the spirit of the avant-garde, which celebrated primitivism. She tended the garden and furnished the house with her own paintings, religious folk art, and local handicraft. Just as the myth of the so-called “Russian Villa” was inseparably tied to the founding of the artists’ group The Blue Rider, the village’s fame is founded in the extraordinary relationship that connected Münter and Kandinsky both in their art and their lives.

Das Haus in Murau

“As a pupil, you’re hopeless,” Kandinsky assured his later lover early on, in the winter of 1901/02, shortly after she entered the painting class of the progressive Phalanx Group in Munich. Kandinsky taught here as a founding member. “It’s impossible to teach you anything. You can only do what’s grown inside you. Nature has given you everything you have. All I can do for you is protect your talent and take care that nothing wrong becomes added to it.”

Like all women at the beginning of the 20th century, Münter was not permitted to enter a state academy, despite her evident artistic talent. Following drawing studies at a private school for women in Düsseldorf and an extended sojourn in America, she moved to Bonn and shortly thereafter to Munich, where she continued studying art. During the painting class’ summer stay in Kochel, Bavaria, Münter began growing closer to Kandinsky, who was married to his Russian cousin Anja; when the wife arrived, the pupil departed in haste.

Wassily Kandinsky, Aquarell mit rotem Fleck, 1911
Sammlung Deutsche Bank
© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2002

It was never sent – and yet the letter Münter wrote that same year reveals the intimacy that evidently already existed between her and Kandinsky. Münter’s words give expression to a surprisingly bourgeois longing that seems to push her own independent artistic work into the background: “My idea of happiness is a home life as cozy and harmonious as I’m able to make it and a person who belongs entirely to me, forever – but – that doesn’t absolutely have to be – if it’s not the case and I don’t find the right one – I’m also happy and contented like this, and I think about finding joy in my work – and if you’d like to help me with that, I’d be very happy…”

The following year, during the Phalanx painting class’ summer stay in the Palatine Kallmünz in 1903, Münter became “engaged” to her teacher, whom she met again and again after month-long separations. Inspired by him, she delved into woodcut, began painting from her own photographs, and made progress in impasto, the painting technique Kandinsky had been teaching his pupils. The “chopped” application of paint resulting from this technique dissolves the objects depicted in a post-impressionist manner, assembling them anew to create color compositions in relief. Münter’s paintings from 1904 to 1908, such as Tunis’ Outskirts, The Harbor of Rapallo, or The Park Lanes of Saint-Cloud document the pair’s restless life of wandering. With a trip to Holland in the early summer of 1904, the year-long “common time of testing” that Kandinsky had insisted upon began – far from Munich and the connections to his wife, which were still very strong.

Kandinsky in Murnau, 1910/11

Gabriele Münter: Jawlewsky und Werefkin auf der Wiese, 1909
© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2002

Even if the house Münter bought in Murnau in 1909 upon her return wasn’t used by the artist and her partner during all the summer months leading up to the First World War, it nonetheless played an important role in the history of German Modernism. Here, in the artist’s own words, the “great leap” in Münter’s work took place “after a short time of torment”: “in feeling the content – in abstracting – in giving an extract.” Murnau became both a new home and a place of upheaval for a painting borne aloft by inner necessity, true feeling, and the “intrinsic sound of things,” which Münter and Kandinsky didn’t need to communicate to each other in words.

Alexej Jawleswsky und sein Sohn, Marianne von Werefkin, Gabriele Münter in Murnau, 1908/ 09

The weeks of painting together in Murnau in the late summer of 1908 proved to be a turning point in their personal life and artistic development. The intense light of the Alpine Foothills that accentuates the landscape’s contours and the clear, flat surfaces of the buildings’ façades liberates the eye, making nature appear in expressive, graphic forms, as in Münter’s painting Lane Before a Mountain of 1909. “I always sought to capture the clarity and simplicity of the world,” the artist wrote. “Especially during foehn, the mountains stand there like a powerful crown in the picture, blackish blue. This was the color I loved the most.”

With great creative energy, Münter sometimes produced five oil studies a day during this time, no longer with the painting knife, but, like Kandinsky, using the brush. In retrospect, the older artist attested: “Most of my pieces that turned out well were made quickly and without correction, as though by themselves.”

Gabriele Münter: Kandinsky und Erna Bossi am Tisch, 1912
© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2002

Along with this inner mood of emergence, a climate of external exchange developed, as well: in 1909, Marianne von Werefkin and Alexei Javlensky founded "Die Neue Künstlervereinigung München" (The New Artists’ Association of Munich) in the salon of the Munich “Giselists,” with Münter, Alfred Kubin, and for a time Karl Hofer as members and Wassily Kandinsky as director. Gabriele Münter took part in the Association’s first exhibition in Munich’s Thannhäuser Gallery with the relatively high number of ten paintings and eleven prints.

Alfred Kubin, Ungeheuer auf dem Hügel, 1903
Sammlung Deutsche Bank
© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2002

Franz Marc, Tierlegende, 1912 (Ausschnitt)
Sammlung Deutsche Bank
© Künstler und berechtigte Erben

The following year, the exhibition toured throughout Germany, turning out to be a great success and quickly making the artists known beyond the country’s borders. This led to the Association’s second exhibition, which took place in 1910, once more in the Thannhäuser Gallery and with expanded international participation, including works by Braque and Picasso.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Kniende Frauen, 1912
Sammlung Deutsche Bank
© Dr. Wolfgang & Ingeborg Henze-Ketterer, Wichtrach/Bern

On New Year’s Day of 1911, a further significant development was set into motion: in the Salon of the Giselists, Münter and Kandinsky finally got to know Franz Marc in person, who had already been in contact with the Munich Association for some time. While Münter, together with the Association, took part in the famous 6th exhibition of the “Neue Sezession” in November in Berlin, which included works by Kirchner, Pechstein, and Nolde, the tensions between the moderate and progressive members of the Munich Artists’ Association worsened.

The final break occurred when the jury for the Association’s 3rd exhibition turned down Kandinsky’s large Composition V on December 2: Kandinsky, Münter, and Marc left the association and, together with Alfred Kubin, who was informed in haste, founded the artists’ group that was to go on to achieve world fame as the very epitome of German Expressionism – The Blue Rider. August Macke, whom Münter had met that same year on an excursion through the Rheinland, also joined the group. Following their encounter, Macke wrote to their mutual friend Franz Marc: “Münter did me a lot of good … I’m so convinced that Kandinsky is the mental inspiration for her painting that I just as little agree with the view that she works entirely personally as I can imagine my own work without French influence…”

As the fame of The Blue Rider increased, the dissonance between Münter and Kandinsky grew, becoming evident within the artists’ group, as well. In the spring of 1912, The Second Exhibition of the Editorial Board of The Blue Rider. Black and White opened in Munich, presenting exclusively works on paper and including, along with Paul Klee, members of Die Brücke, such as Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Max Pechstein, and Emil Nolde. A short time later, Franz Marc wrote to August Macke: “Now it’s over with [The Blue Rider]! At least it won’t take too much longer. In any case, this stupid woman spit on my friends from The Blue Rider… and I could punch her face in.” The view that Münter was difficult in her dealings with friends, gallery dealers, and collectors prevails to this day.

Erich Heckel, Stehendes Kind - Fränzi, 1910
Sammlung Deutsche Bank
© Nachlass Erich Heckel, Hemmenhofen

Erich Heckel, Toter Soldat III (Flandern), 1915
Sammlung Deutsche Bank
© Nachlass Erich Heckel, Hemmenhofen

“Unfortunately, the letters and other notes Münter left behind fail to create a different impression; on the contrary, they give evidence of an almost oppressive gruffness and detachment in her dealings with others, coupled with an insecurity and a tendency towards self-isolation,” Annegret Hoberg wrote in her catalogue essay on the large Münter retrospective initiated by Munich’s Lenbachhaus in 1992. The arguments, irritation, and disappointments in her relationship to Kandinsky also resulted in a decrease in Münter’s ability to work. The vision of a common breakthrough once promised by the painting summer in Murnau seems to have increasingly given way to exhaustion. “I was uneasy and unable to do anything over the past days,” Münter wrote to Kandinsky in 1912; “the notes from the spring in Murnau are no longer clear enough inside me…”

Gabriele Münter um 1923

Gabriele Münter,1952

Even though Münter’s largest one-person exhibition to date took place in Herbert Walden’s Sturm Galerie in Berlin in 1913, the greatest marking point in both partners’ lives was yet to come with the outbreak of the First World War: when Münter saw her Russian lover for the last time in 1916 in Swedish exile, she’d already had years of paralyzing loneliness behind her. And while Kandinsky married the Russian Nina Andreyevskaya in Moscow in February of the same year without telling Münter, she herself went through a phase of severe depression during the twenties. In 1931, she settled in Murnau with her new partner, Johannes Eichner, where she led a reclusive life until her death. Kandinsky never saw Murnau again and lost his works from before the war forever. Despite great material hardship, Münter saved this unique artistic treasure in the cellar of her house in Murnau throughout the reign of the National Socialists and the Second World War.

In 1957, on her eightieth birthday, she donated both her Kandinsky paintings and a large number of her own works to the municipal gallery Lenbachhaus in Munich. A message Kandinsky sent her from Moscow in 1914 gives us an idea of the price she had to pay for her relationship with him: “I’d like to help you and make you happy,” he wrote after a six-week trip. “I often think about how lonely you were, and it hurts me very much.”

Gabriele Münter died in Murnau in 1962. To this day, she has remained one of the most famous women painters in Germany.

Oliver Koerner von Gustorf

The quotes from the letters are unofficial translations of excerpts taken from Wassily Kandinsky und Gabriele Münter in Murnau und Kochel 1902–1914. Briefe und Erinnerungen (Wassily Kandinsky and Gabriele Münter in Murnau and Kochel, 1902–1914. Letters and Recollections) by Annegret Hoberg (Prestel Verlag 2000, 159 pages, hardcover € 24.95).

Further reading:

Gisela Kleine, Gabriele Münter und Wassily Kandinsky. Biographie eines Paares (Gabriele Münter and Wassily Kandinsky. Biography of a Couple), Insel Verlag 1994, 813 pages, paperback, €16 .
Stefanie Schröder, Im Bann des blauen Reiters. Das Leben der Gabriele Münter (Under the Spell of the Blue Rider. The Life of Gabriele Münter), Herder Verlag 2000, 224 pages, paperback, € 9.90.

Translation: Andrea Scrima