A couple of blogs ago I looked at the life of Frida Kahlo and, in the course of following her life story, talked about her husband the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. Although Frida was an artist in her own right, I wonder if she suffered from the description: “Frida, wife of the great Diego Rivera”. How often was she looked upon as just that – merely the wife of the great Rivera? There have been many romantic attachments between artists and between literary figures in the past, and they are mostly described in a manner where the men are looked upon as the celebrated ones in the partnership. The male in the relationship is viewed as the great initiator or the knowledgeable inventor of this and that, while the female of the relationship is denigrated as simply somebody who follows the man subserviently in his shadow. Today I am going to look at the life of another female artist who, for almost twelve years had, as her lover, the great Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky and one wonders how much influence she had on him and his work. Her name is Gabriele Münter. How many of you recognise her as a talented artist in her own right and how many of you just know her as the intimate friend and lover of the “great” Kandinsky?
Gabriele Münter was born in Berlin in 1877. Her youth was spent in Herford and Koblenz. She came from an upper middle-class background and from a young age enjoyed to draw and paint. When she continued to show an interest in art, her parents decided to support her artistic ambitions and provide her with private tuition and when she was twenty years of age and after she had completed her normal education they arranged for her to attend the Malschule für Damen (Womens’ Artist School) in Dusseldorf. At this time in Germany, women were not allowed to attend German Academies because of their sex for in Germany at the turn of the 20th century, only men were able to access government-subsidised Academies. Her period at this school lasted just a year as she was disappointed with the artistic education it offered. For a time she stayed at home with no job and little of interest to occupy her mind. In 1898, she was twenty-one years of age and by this time,had lost both parents. On the death of her parents her sister and her inherited a sizeable amount of money and the two of them decided to take a holiday to America, where their father had lived and her mother had been born and it was where the sisters still had family connections. The two of them remained in America for two years.
In 1901 having returned to Germany, Gabriele decided to once again take up some formal artistic training and enrolled at the Künstlerinnen-Verein in Munich. This Ladies Academy of the Munich Art Association was modeled on the prestigious Royal Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts and it allowed its female students the freedom to choose their own courses and offered them the opportunity to both paint in studios and paint en plein air. One of her tutors during at the Academy was Angelo Jank, the German animal painter and graphic artist. A year later Gabriele left the Academy and in 1902 she enrolled at the newly established Phalanxschule in Munich. The Phalanx was an association of avant-garde artists who were opposed to old fashioned and conservative viewpoints in art. One of its founder members was the Russian painter, Wassily Kandinsky. Kandinsky, who had initially studied law and economics at Moscow University, did not turn to painting until he was thirty years of age. It was then that he abandoned his promising career in academic law to attend art school in Munich in 1896. He was elected president of the Phalanx association and also became the director of the Phalanxschule (Phalanx School of Painting). Gabriele was one of its first students.
In 1902 and 1903 Gabriele Münter attended Kandinsky’s summer landscape classes which were held in southern Bavaria. Kandinsky was, at that time, still a married man having married his cousin, Anna Chimyakina in 1893. The pair had separated by mutual agreement in September 1904, although they remained friends. They eventually divorced in 1911. However despite being still married, he and Gabriele became close and in 1902 a love affair between the two began. Münter was always grateful for what she learnt about art in those summer classes especially the ability to paint much quicker. In Reinhold Heller’s biography of the artist entitled Gabriele Münter: The Years of Expressionism 1903-1920, he quotes her comments on the help she received from Kaminsky:
“…My main difficulty was I could not paint fast enough. My pictures are all moments of life- I mean instantaneous visual experiences, generally noted very rapidly and spontaneously. When I begin to paint, it’s like leaping suddenly into deep waters, and I never know beforehand whether I will be able to swim. Well, it was Kandinsky who taught me the technique of swimming. I mean that he has taught me to work fast enough, and with enough self- assurance, to be able to achieve this kind of rapid and spontaneous recording of moments of life…”
Kaminsky and Münter travelled extensively around Europe between 1904 and 1908, including living in Sèvres, a suburb of Paris, for almost a year in 1906. After years of gruelling travel visiting the major European cities, the pair was ready to settle down and arrived in Murnau, a small Bavarian village in the foothills of the Alps, seventy kilometres south of Munich. The following year Kandinsky persuaded Gabriele to buy a newly-built house in Kottmüllerallee in Murnau. It had a view to the east, over the valley basin and onto the village and church hill. Together with Kandinsky, their artist friends Alexi von Javlensky and Marianne von Werefkin, they worked there during the summer months, living a simple life. Gabriele spent time tending the garden and furnishing the house with her own paintings, religious folk art, and local handicraft. She and Kandinsky lived there until 1914. In 1909 Münter experimented with a new painting medium. It was known as Hinterglasmalerei or as it known here, Reverse painting on glass, which is an art form consisting of applying paint to a piece of glass and then viewing the image by turning the glass over and looking through the glass at the image. In France it was known as Verre Églomisé. Münter had first learnt this technique whilst she was living in Murnau.
That same year, 1909, that the couple settled in Murnau, Kandinsky, Gabriele Münter and their fellow artist friend Alexi Jawlensky founded the Neue Künstlevereinigung (NKV) (New Artists’ Association), which was an exhibiting group of avant-garde artists. The members of this association were artists who, although they did not have similar styles of painting, were nevertheless united in their opposition to the official art of Munich. They held two exhibitions in the art dealer, Heinrich Thannhauser’s Moderne Galerie in Munich in September 1909 and 1910. In the latter exhibition there were also works from Picasso, Georges Braque and Maurice de Vlaminck. Kandinsky was to later describe the rooms in the gallery as “perhaps the most beautiful exhibition spaces in all of Munich.” Many of the works in the second annual exhibition were from Russian artists and maybe because of this, the show was not well received in Bavaria as the Germans were becoming fearful for their own culture.
Probably, due to the fact that the artists in this association had very different ideas on painting styles, discord was bound to occur and the “final straw” came late 1911, just prior to the NKV’s third annual exhibition, when Kandinsky submitted a large abstract painting, entitled Composition V, for inclusion but it was rejected by the exhibition jury for being too abstract and at 193cms x 274cms, it was far too big for inclusion. Kandinsky was furious and he and Gabriele Münter along with a few others left the group and set up a rival artistic exhibiting association known as Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider). Then in that December, they simultaneously set up their own exhibition in the building next to the Thannhauser’s Moderne Galerie, where the NYK group was holding their annual exhibition.
World War I broke out in 1914 and Kandinsky was compelled to leave Germany. In the August of that year he and Gabriele moved to Switzerland. Their relationship had been faltering for some time and at the end of 1914 the love affair was over and despite having been engaged to marry they never took that final step. Gabriele left Switzerland and went on to Sweden whilst Kandinsky returned to his native Moscow. They met once more in Stockholm at an art exhibition at Gummersson’s Art Gallery but after that their paths would never cross again. In 1917 Kandinsky married Nina Andreevskya, the daughter of a Russian general, some twenty-seven years his junior.
Between 1917 and 1920 Münter lived in Copenhagen, after which she returned to Germany and her house in Murmau. In 1925 she moved to Berlin where two years later she met the philosopher and art historian Johannes Eichner. From 1928 Eichner would be Gabriele Münter’s lifelong companion and from 1931 Gabriele, until the end of her life, lived and worked in Murnau. She led a reclusive and modest lifestyle but still continued to paint.
One of the greatest gifts Gabriele Münter bestowed on the art world besides her huge role in the history of early German modernism was that during World War II, whilst living in Murmau, she hid Kandinsky’s works and those from other artists from the Nazis and despite several house searches, the works of art were never found. In 1957, on her eightieth birthday, Münter gave her entire collection, which consisted of more than 80 oil paintings and 330 drawings, to the Stadtliche Galerie in Lenbachhause in Munich, the former villa of the “painter prince” Franz von Lenbach. This collection consisted of many works by herself and Kandinsky as well as works of their other artist friends in the Blue Rider Circle. This generous gift turned the Lenbachhaus overnight into a museum of world significance. The Gabrielle Münter and Johannes Eichner foundation was established and has become a valuable research center for Münter’s art, as well as the art that was done by the Blaue Reiter group
Gabriele Münter died on 19 May 1962 at home in Murnau where she is buried. She was 85 years old.
My featured painting today by Gabriele Münter is entitled The Blue Mountain which she completed in 1908 having just arrived in Murnau. This painting always brought her fond memories of that time in the tranquil surroundings of the foothills of the Bavarian Alps and her time with Kandinsky. Almost fifty year later in 1957 she put pen to paper about the painting of this picture. She wrote:
“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…”
The trees, clouds, and mountains in this painting are simply reduced to elementary geometric forms and, like the sky and the meadows, they are coloured in artificial tones of green, yellow, and violet. There is something about this painting and others like it that reminds me of the colourful works of Hockney which I saw at his exhibition at the Royal Academy earlier this year.