Compositions, Impressions and Improvisations by Kandinsky

Impression III (Concert) by Kandinsky (1911)

Impressions III (Concert) was painted by Kandinsky soon after he had attended a concert by Arnold Schonberg in Munich in 1911 and according to the exhibition catalogue notes the painting should be looked upon as:

 “…one of modern art’s most outstanding examples of synaesthesia, correspondences between music and painting that other early twentieth-century artists sought. A dynamic wave of yellow paint flows across the painting from left to right like a great swell of sound that seemingly reverberates to and fro. Above it in the upper half of the painting is an energetic black in a diagonal position. In the preparatory pencil sketches one can clearly decipher the scene with the open, black grand piano as well as the curved backs of the seated listeners and those standing along the wall…”

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This is my final look at the later life of Wassily Kandinsky and some of his more abstract works of art.   In this blog I am featuring three of his these works, one from each of his three self-classified categories.   After 1910, Kandinsky decided to compartmentalise his work into three groups. The first he called Impressions and these paintings would still retain an element of naturalistic representation. They would be direct impressions of nature. The second category he deemed would be Improvisations and these paintings would convey spontaneous emotional reactions inspired by events of a spiritual type. The last category he termed Compositions. These were paintings which were not done spontaneously but put together carefully, over a period of time, following a number of preliminary studies. These were to be his most complicated works. Although the titles he gave to the three categories seems somewhat arbitrary in fact they harked back to his love of music and in the way he connected, in his own mind, art and music.  He would often add musical titles to his individual works such as Fugue, Opposing Chords or Funeral March.  By doing this, he wanted to evoke sound through sight and create the painterly equivalent of a symphony that would stimulate not just the eyes but the ears as well.

Kandinsky is believed to have had synaesthesia.   Synaesthesia comes from two Greek words Syn which means together and Aesthesis which means sensation.   It is a condition that allows a person to appreciate sounds, colours or words with two or more senses simultaneously. Kandinsky believed that colours and painted marks triggered particular sounds or musical notes and vice versa. Did Kandinsky have synaesthesia?  Maybe we will never know for sure but what we do know is that he was preoccupied all his life with the correlation between sound and colour. Following a performance of Wagner’s great opera Lohengrin in Moscow Kandinsky recalled:

“…I saw all my colours in spirit, before my eyes. Wild, almost crazy lines were sketched in front of me…”

Let me now return to his life story.  In my last blog we had reached the point when Kandinsky and some of his artist friends had set up Der Blaue Reiter group as a rival to their previous exhibiting association the NKVM (The Neue Künstlervereinigung München).    In the first exhibition held by the Der Blaue Reiter group, Kandinsky exhibited three of his works, entitled, Impression-Moscow, Improvisation 22 andthe painting which had been rejected by the NKVM jury, Composition V.  The exhibition came with a small almanac that Kandinsky and Franz Marc had been working on and the foreword of which set out to explain what visitors to the exhibition would see.  They wrote:

“…We are not seeking to propagate any precise or special form in this small exhibition.  Our purpose is to show, in the variety of forms here represented, how the inner wish of the artist takes shape in manifold forms…”

The exhibition which besides including works from artists, Kandinsky and Münter, included works from Franz Marc, Auguste Macke, Henri Rousseau to name but a few.  It also included strange sketches by the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg.  It was a confusing mish-mash of works, and artistic styles, which totally baffled and stunned both viewers and art critics alike. Even the most benevolent critics found great difficulty in finding some sort of common ground between the various artistic styles on show.   It was also around the time of this first exhibition that Kandinsky published his book Uber das Gestige in Kunst (Concerning the Spiritual in Art) in which he presented the reader with his thoughts about what he envisioned was the new purpose of art and his writing showed the great diversity of Kandinsky’s intellectual and artistic awareness.  In his book he discussed the spiritual foundations of art and the nature of artistic creation.  He also wrote an analysis of colour, form and the role of the object in art, as well as the question of abstraction.

Improvisation 19 by Kandinsky (1911)

Improvisation 19 was completed by Kandinsky in 1911.  Annegret Hoberg, the curator at the Städtische Galerie, Lenbachhaus, Munich, which houses many of Kandinsky’s paintings, including this one, wrote about the painting in the exhibition catalogue:

“…It seems as if an unknown ritual occurs in Improvisation 19, a kind of initiation and enlightenment of figures who can be understood as novices. One sees translucent figures outlined only in black. On the left is a procession of smaller form presses forward to the front, followed by shades of colour. The largest part of the painting, however, is filled with a wonderful, supernatural blue, which also shines through the group of figures shown in profile on the right, who seem to move toward a goal outside the painting. The spiritual impact of these long, totally incorporeal figures draws both on the uniformity (that is, they are all the same height, as in Byzantine pictures of saints) and on the fact that deep blue, almost violet shade in their heads may symbolize extinction or transition….This work underscores Kandinsky’s almost messianic expectation of salvation through painting…”

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The onset of World War I in 1914 affected Kandinsky, as being a Russian citizen, he had to leave Munich immediately.  He along with Gabriele Münter left and went to Goldach in Switzerland, a small town on Lake Konstanz.  They remained there until December of that year when Kandinsky went to Moscow and Münter travelled to Stockholm where she would remain and wait for him.  Kandinsky did go to Stockholm and met with Münter for the last time.  Their close relationship which had started back in 1902 had recently being deteriorating and by March 1916, it had run its course and the one-time lovers parted for the final time.  Kandinsky returned to Moscow and soon after his arrival in the Russian capital he met a young woman, Nina von Andreyevskaya, the daughter of a Russian general, and in February 1917 the two were married.

Whilst in Moscow Kandinsky spent much of his time not only painting but working as a teacher, writer and administrator.  He immersed himself in the cultural politics of Russia and collaborated in the new reforms in art education. He was director of the theatre and film section of Narkompros, which was the Peoples Commissariat for Enlightenment.  In February 1919 the Museums of Painterly Culture were established in Moscow and St Petersburg and Kandinsky became the first director of the institutions and worked hard to expand the organization by setting up a further twenty-two museums in the Russian provinces.    In May 1920 Kandinsky helped set up Inkhuk, the Institute for Artistic Culture and he formulated a curriculum for the teaching of art which was based on his strongly held belief that there was an inter-relationship between art and music and looked closely at fundamental forms and colours.  His theories did not go down with many of the Russian avant-garde artists on the staff of the institute.  They firmly rejected any kind of irrationality in the creative process and because of such differing views between these leading artists and himself Kandinsky found his position weakened and ultimately untenable.

In the autumn of 1921 a road to salvation was offered to him by Walter Gropius, a German architect and founder of the Bauhaus School in Berlin, who invited Kandinsky and his wife to visit the school.  This was a different Germany from the one he left at the outbreak of war.  Many of his artist friends, such as Franz Marc and Auguste Macke, had been killed fighting in the war, whilst others had moved away.  The Berlin art scene had changed.  The Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movement was now to the fore.   This grouping of German artists executed works in a realistic style, and they reflected what was characterized as the resignation and cynicism of the post-World War I period in Germany.   Leading protagonists of this style of art were George Grosz, Otto Dix and Max Beckman.  Also popular at the time were the works of the Expressionists and the cultural movement known as Dadaism.  This movement was, in the main, a protest against the brutality of the War and the members were also against what they believed was an oppressive intellectual rigidity in both German art and its everyday society. All of these artistic genres were diametrically opposed to all forms of abstract art, and so when, on arrival in Berlin, Gropius offered him a professorship in the Bauhaus in Weimar, Kandinsky jumped at the chance to start a new life in a new city.

In 1924, an artist friend from his Munich days, Paul Jawlensky, introduced Kandinsky to the German art collector and art dealer, Emmy Scheyer.  At that meeting she also met Kandinsky’s fellow Bauhaus faculty members, Lyonel Feininger and Paul Klee.   She formed the four artists into an exhibition group called Blaue Vier (The Blue Four) and Scheyer became their representative in America.  The four artists often toured, sometimes as far as America, giving lectures and staging Blaue Vier art exhibitions.

When Kandinsky left Russia he had to leave the majority of his paintings behind. They were sold but the return on them was poor due to the falling value of the Russian currency.   However during his eleven years at the Bauhaus he completed over three hundred paintings and several hundred watercolours, all of which he catalogued.  His time at the Bauhaus ended in 1932.  The previous year had marked the start of a vitriolic campaign against the Bauhaus by the Nazi party and the following year they had it shut down.  Kandinsky and his wife fled from Germany and went to Paris and settled in a new apartment in Neuilly-sur-Seine.  Kandinsky continued to paint and within twelve months living in Paris his output totaled an amazing 144 oil paintings and approximately 250 watercolours.   Kandinsky, although born in Russia, had been granted German citizenship in 1928 but when he tried to renew his passport in 1939, his request was declined.  That year, just before the start of World War II, Kandinsky managed to obtain French citizenship.

Composition IX by Kandinsky (1936)

Composition IX was completed by Kandinsky in 1936.  In the work we can make out multiple diagonal bands of colours and small shapes that resemble embryos as much as crustaceans.  This canvas earned Kandinsky criticism for not sufficiently articulating the background and the shapes. Nevertheless, it is one of the rare large format canvasses to which Kandinsky once again applied the name of Composition.  In his book, Concerning the Spiritual in art, he said that this one, of all his “Compositions”, was his most accomplished painting. In total, he completed only ten in all throughout his entire career. Sadly, when the French government purchased it for just 5000 francs rather than the 100,000 he had demanded, he felt quite humiliated.  This complex canvas is in fact one of the two works that the French State bought from Kandinsky during his lifetime.

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His last known watercolours and drawings were completed in the summer of 1944 and he held his last exhibition at the Parisian gallery, Galerie L’Esquisse that same year.  Wassily Kandinsky died of arteriosclerosis in December 1944, aged 78.

I have to admit I have struggled with this blog, the third covering the life and times of Wassily Kandinsky.  I struggle to understand abstract art even though leading up to this offering I have read reams of information with regards this type of art.  I have included three of Kandinsky’s paintings, one from each of his designated “types”.   I will not insult those of you who are very knowledgeable about this form of art by trying to explain, interpret and analyse the works but have relied on exhibition catalogue descriptions of the works.   I would like to have ended this blog by saying how much I like the works of Kandinsky but to do so, would be extremely economic with the truth.  I will conclude this look at the life and works of Wassily Kandinsky with one of his quotes:

“…Lend your ears to music, open your eyes to painting, and… stop thinking! Just ask yourself whether the work has enabled you to ‘walk about’ into a hitherto unknown world. If the answer is yes, what more do you want?…”

Have you managed the “walk about” ?

Grüngasse in Murmau by Wassily Kandinsky

Grüngasse in Murnau by Kandinsky (1909)

In my last blog I was following the life story of Wassily Kandinsky and had reached the juncture in his life, 1901, when he had opened up his own art school, Phalanxschule, in Munich.  The previous winter, along with help from some of his like-minded artist friends, he had launched the exhibiting association, known as the Phalanx, and they had held their first exhibition in August 1901.

First Phalanx Exhibition in 1901

Kandinsky designed the Art Nouveau styled poster advertising its opening.  In all the Phalanx held twelve exhibitions during its ten years in existence and it was in the seventh one in 1903 that works by Claude Monet were exhibited.  The tenth exhibition included a number of works by post-Impressionists such as Paul Signac, Felix Vallotton and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec.

Jugend magazine cover

In the final years of the nineteenth century and at the beginning of the twentieth century, the in-vogue artistic style in southern Germany was Jugendstil or as we may better know it, Art Nouveau.  The German word, Jugendstil means “youth style” and derives from the German cultural weekly publication Jugend.  The style-setting iconic magazine, founded by George Hirth, promoted the Art Nouveau style.  This up-and-coming art form was both artistically graceful and stylistically revolutionary. The Jugendstil artists and designers had their base around Munich, and while their work stylistically was likened to that of the French Art Nouveau of the fin de siècle era, the Jugendstil art depicted many Teutonic and mythological themes.  Probably due to this, many of Kandinsky’s works at that time consisted of figure studies, scenes of knights on horseback, scenes from romantic fairytales and some fanciful reminiscences that he clung to of his beloved Moscow.  The second Phalanx exhibition contained many Jugendstil works.

Kandinsky and his wife Anya Chimiakin separated by mutual consent in 1904 and he and his former Phalanxschule art student Gabriele Münter, who had become his lover, set off on a number of trips around Europe.  They travelled to the Netherlands and Tunisia in 1904.  The following year was spent in Italy and for a year between 1906 and 1907 the pair settled down Sèvres, a town in the outer suburbs of Paris.  During this stay he exhibited works at the avant-garde Salon d’Automne and the Salon des Indépendants.   At this time in Paris the art work of Gauguin, the Nabis, who were a group of Post-Impressionist avant-garde artists, Matisse and other Fauves were being exhibited.  Fauvism was the first of the major avant-garde movements in European twentieth century art, and was characterised by paintings that used powerfully vivid, non-naturalistic and exuberant colours.   This exposure to fauvism resulted in Kandinsky starting to paint fauvist-inspired landscapes in which the manner he used colour quickly departed from the naturalistic and descriptive.  His use of colour was for reasons of expression, and in a lot of cases, non-naturalistic, motivations.  Colour to Kandinsky now became ever more important and as this importance grew in his mind, the less he painted post-Impressionist type landscapes. Kandinsky’s colours became more brilliant and vibrant.  Often his paintings around this time were large areas of solid bright colours set in sharp contrasts of light and dark and warm and cold.

Although travelling around Europe, Kandinsky always found time to return to Russia and exhibited some of his works at Moscow and St Petersburg exhibitions.   In 1908 Kandinsky and Münter returned to Munich.   From there, they often took painting trips to southern Germany, during which they visited the small town of Murnau, which nestled in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps.  Both Kandinsky and Münter fell in love with the sprawling landscape of this area and found great inspiration from the scenic views with its kaleidoscope of colours with the high Bavarian Alps acting as an awe-inspiring background.  The following year, the couple bought a house in the town and their two artist friends from Munich, Jawlensky and Werefkin often stayed with Kandinsky and Münter and together the group produced a number of wonderful landscape paintings and works depicting the town of Murnau itself.   One of these works was one done by Kandinsky in 1909 and is today’s featured painting.  It was an oil on cardboard painting entitled Grüngasse in Murmau which depicted one of the local streets in the town where he was living.

It was during the time the four artists lived under the same roof that conversation often turned to art and new forms of art.  The most important result of these artistic discussions was that gradually Kandinsky’s became more interested in abstraction in art,  in which representational forms, whether people or places, would increasingly melt away and be replaced by colours and basic shapes.  In this Abstract art, the painting did not depict a person, place or a thing in the natural world, even in an extremely distorted or exaggerated way.   So the subject of the painting was based on what you saw, such as colours, shapes, and simple brushstrokes.  Kandinsky believed that different colours provoked different emotions. He believed that the colour red was lively and confident; green was peaceful with inner strength; blue was deep and supernatural; yellow could be warm, exciting, and disturbing and white seemed silent but full of possibilities. Kandinsky had now also decided to compartmentalise his work into three categories.  The first he called Impressions and these paintings would still retain an element of naturalistic representation.  They would be direct impressions of nature.  The second category he deemed would be Improvisations and these paintings would convey  spontaneous emotional reactions inspired by events of a spiritual type.  The last category he termed Compositions.  These were paintings which were not done spontaneously but put together carefully over a period of time, following a number of preliminary studies.  These were to be his most complicated works.  Although the titles he gave to the three categories seems somewhat arbitrary in fact they harked back to his love of music and in the way he connected, in his own mind, art and music.  Kandinsky said of the connection between colour and music and of the connection between an artist and a musician:

“…Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the harmonies, and the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul…”

In the spring of 1909, the four artist friends from the house in Murnau, Kandinsky, Münter, Jawlensky and Werefkin along with Adolf Erbslöh and Alexander Kanoldt, all of who had studied art in Munich, formed an exhibiting society known as The Neue Künstlervereinigung München (NKVM)    (New Artists’ Association of Munich).  Their exhibitions were to be an alternative to established exhibitions. The aims of this newly formed group were laid out in the preamble to the founding circular of the Neue Künstlervereinigung München.  It stated aims were:


“…We believe that the artist is continuously collecting both impressions from the outer world of nature and experiences from an inner world. And that he is searching for artistic forms to express the interaction between these types of impressions, forms which must be free of all irrelevant detail in order to express only what is necessary in a powerful way – in short, the pursuit of an artistic synthesis. This seems to us to be a solution that currently unites increasing numbers of artists. In founding this association, we hope to create a physical form for intellectual relationships between artists and to make it possible to speak to the public with a single voice…”

The NKVM mounted their annual group exhibitions at Galerie Thannhauser in Munich. The first NKVM show at the Thannhauser Gallery was held in December 1909 and a total of 128 works of art were put on display.  The second exhibition followed in September 2010 and this was opened up to French and Russian avant-garde artists, such as Georges Braque, Picasso, André Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck and Alexander Mogilevsky.

Suddenly with these exhibitions Munich became the centre of avant-garde art.  These exhibitions of avant-garde and abstract art were not universally popular with the Munich art critics of the time.  They were very forthright in their condemnation of one of Kandinsky’s entries, Composition II, unanimously agreeing that the painting was simply the work of a madman or somebody high on drugs.

The third exhibition of the NKVM was set for December 2011 and artists were asked to submit their painting to the exhibition jury so they could be considered as suitable or not for inclusion in their third exhibition.  By 1911 Kandinsky’s work was becoming more abstract in nature and some of the groups fellow artists were starting to criticise his style.   One of his main submissions, Composition V, was rejected by the jury as being too big and not in accordance with their Society rules on size but it was thought that it was also considered to be too abstract.  This decision pleased some of the artists in the group and annoyed others, such as his close friends, Münter, Jawlensky and Werefkin and the German painters Franz Marc and August Mack, and a schism in the NKVM occurred.  Kandinsky immediately resigned and along with his supporters formed a new exhibition group to rival the NKVM.  The group was called Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider).  The origin of the name of this new group was once thought to have come from Kandinsky’s own painting which he completed in 1903 entitled Der Blaue Reiter but in Annette Vezin’s 1992 book, Kandinsky and the Blue Rider, she wrote that Kandinsky wrote 20 year later that the name of the society came from Franz Marc’s enthusiasm for horses and his own love of riders, combined with the fact that he and Marc both loved the colour blue.  To further annoy the NKVM group, Kandinsky’s Blue Rider group decided to hold their first exhibition at the same time as the third exhibition of the NKVM and in a room next to theirs!

I will pause my story on the life of Kandinsky and in my next blog delve into his later life and the works he produced.

The Isar near Grosshessolohe by Wassily Kandinsky (1901)

The Isar near Grosshessolohe by Wassily Kandinsky (1901)

My last blog featured the German artist Gabriele Münter and I talked about her relationship with her one-time art teacher and lover, the Russian painter and gifted writer, Wassily Kandinsky.  Today I am going to delve into his early life and feature one of his earliest paintings.

Wassily Wassilyevich Kandinsky was born in Moscow in 1866.  He was the son of, Vasily Silverstrovic Kandinsky, a tea merchant.  In a short-lived partnership, his father married Lidia Ticheeva and Wassily was their only child. Wassily recalled that when he was just three years of age he was taken on vacation to Italy and even at that young age he was fascinated by the colours that were all around him.  In his 1913 essay entitled Reminiscences he wrote:

“…The first colours that made a strong impression on me were bright, juicy green, white, carmine red, black and yellow ochre.  These memories go back to the third year of my life.   I saw these colours on various objects, which are no longer as clear in my mind as the colours themselves…”

This photographic memory he had for colours and scenes that he witnessed in his everyday life in his beloved Moscow were to remain with him throughout his life and were to prove to be an inspirational source in his paintings.  Kandinsky loved Moscow and was devastated when at the age of ten he was taken to live in Odessa by his father, who had been made manager of a local tea factory.  Shortly after he and his family moved to Odessa, his father and mother divorced and Wassily was brought up there by his mother’s sister, Elizabeth Ticheeva.  At the age of ten he had his first art and music lessons at the primary and grammar school in Odessa, where he remained for the next nine years.

Aged twenty, Kandinsky enrolled at Moscow University where he attended classes in law, economics and ethnography (a branch of anthropology dealing with the scientific description of individual cultures).  His dissertation, The Legality of Workers’ Wages, focused on the legitimacy of labourers’ wages.  In his last year of studies, he received a commission from the Society of Natural Science, Ethnography and Anthropology to go on a research expedition to Vologda in north west Russia, where he recorded the local peasant laws, and it was during this period that he came into contact with the folk art of the region.  He was taken with the colourful decorative houses and the people dressed in their bright and vibrant peasant costumes, all of which made a lasting impression on him.  He never forgot the colourful scenes and later these memories would be encapsulated in some of his early works.  His report back to the Society after his trip was well received and he was made him a member of the Society, opening the way for him to pursue numerous  lucrative jobs.

His university life came to an end in 1892 when he received his law degree and became a member of the Law Society.  He was the offered a position as lecturer at the university which he accepted and it was whilst in that post that he met his cousin, Anya Chimiakin, and after a short courtship, they married.  In 1896 at the age of thirty he was offered a professorship at Tartu University and this was to be a pivotal point in his life.  He had to decide whether to carry on with his lucrative academic career or veer towards an artistic life and all the financial uncertainties that go with it.  One major factor in his eventual decision to tread the artistic path was when he visited an exhibition of French Impressionists in Moscow at which he saw the painting by Claude Monet entitled Haystack at Giverny, which is now housed in the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow, Russia.  Kandinsky was in awe of the work.  He later wrote of his thoughts when he saw Monet’s painting:

“…And suddenly for the first time I saw a picture.  The catalogue told me it was a haystack.  I could not recognise it as such.   The inability to perceive was embarrassing.  I felt that the painter had no right to paint so unclearly.  Dully I felt that the subject of the painting was missing.  And I noticed with astonishment and confusion that not only does the picture enthral one, but also impress itself indelibly on the memory, always quite unexpectedly appearing down to the last detail before one’s eyes.  This was all unclear to me and I was unable to draw any simple conclusions from this experience. But what was totally clear to me was the unexpected power of the palette, a power which had earlier been hidden from me, but which surpassed all my dreams…”

Kandinsky decided, at that late age of 30, to give up his academic career and study art.  At this time Munich was regarded as a cosmopolitan city of art and it was an exciting period for art at that time in the German city as the Munich Sezession had just taken place three years earlier when a number of modernist artist groups had split from the conventions of nineteenth century Salon painting and Salon-style exhibitions.  The Munich Sezssion was committed to excellence in all areas of artistic ventures and its paramount raison d’etre was to have an international and multidisciplinary approach to art.   So, in 1896, Kandinsky travelled to Munich and enrolled on a three year course at the Anton Ažbe’s school of painting.  Ažbe was a Slovene realist painter and teacher of art.   He founded his own school of painting in the Bavarian city, which became a popular attraction for Eastern European students. Whilst attending this school of art he met and befriended the Expressionist painters, Alexei Jewlensky, a fellow Russian, and the Russian-Swiss Expressionist painter, Marianne von Werefkin.

After an initial failed attempt in 1898, Kandinsky applied and was accepted into the Munich Academy of Art  in 1900, where one of his tutors was Franz von Stuck, the great German Symbolist and Art Nouveau painter, who at the time was considered the finest draughtsman in Germany.  One of his fellow students in Stuck’s class was Paul Klee who would later work alongside Kandinsky.  In 1900 Kandinsky exhibited some of his work at the Moscow Artists Association.  Kandinsky was not completely happy with the art scene in Munich.  He believed it to be too conventional and conservative and too associated with the affluent middle-class, and very narrow-minded in its doctrines.  The following year Kandinsky decided to bring together some like-minded artist friends so that together they could exhibit a more progressive selection of their work.  This idea bore fruit and in 1901 he, along with Rolf Niczy, Waldemar Hecker, Gustave Freytag and Wilhelm Hüggen, founded the exhibiting association called Phalanx.  Kandinsky was the main driving force behind the project.  The group aimed to help overcome the difficulties that often stood in the way of young artists wishing to exhibit their work and it attempted to redress the sexual inequalities found in the Munich Akademie by allowing men and women equal access to exhibitions.  Following the success of the association Kandinsky, who was its president, opened his own school for painting and drawing, known as the Phalanxschule.  One of the first pupils to enrol in his school was the German artist, and soon his lover, Gabriele Münter (see My Daily Art Display July 28th 2012)

I have chosen for my featured painting today one of Kandinsky’s earliest works.  It is entitled The Isar near Grosshessolohe, which he completed in 1901 and which is now housed in the Stadtische Galerie in Lenbach, Germany.  Großhessolohe is a small town, which lies on the banks of the River Isar, some five miles south of Munich.  To me, the painting has the look of the works of French Impressionists and maybe the exhibition of their works in Moscow, which Kandinsky had witnessed five years earlier, had a bearing on this painting.  Kandinsky had loved the Impressionists use of colour and this early painting of his highlights his similar passion for colour.  Kandinsky was one of the most important innovative painters of modern art and was considered the father of abstraction and yet in this early painting of his we have no hint of how his future works would change.  In my next blog we look a little further into Kandinsky’s life and witness how his art

The Blue Mountain by Gabriele Münter

The Blue Mountain by Gabriele Münter (1909)

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…”

The house in Murnau

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.

Kandinsky and Münter Winter 1916 Stockholm
Kandinsky and Münter Winter 1916 Stockholm

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.