Expressionist Redux: Remembering the Great Gabriele Münter
The German Expressionists influenced the cultural landscape of Europe in a language of color that produced some of the finest artworks of the 20th century.
Enlarge image Gabriele Münter (1905) (© picture-alliance/akg-images)
One of their primary proponents was Gabriele Münter (1877-1962), a committed artist associated with the legendary Munich-based Blue Rider (Der Blaue Reiter) group.
Münter died 50 years ago, on May 19, 1962, in Murnau, her picturesque Bavarian village home outside of Munich that now serves as a museum chronicling her life and art.
From Kandinksy protégé to mature artist
Born on February 19, 1877, into an upper-middle-class family in Berlin, Münter benefitted from a private tutor and took her first art classes at the "Damen-Kunstschule" (Ladies Art School) in Düsseldorf. (As a woman she was barred from the traditional art academies of the era.)
In Munich, she also attended the private art school "Phalanx" which was run by the brilliant Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), who later taught at the Bauhaus in Dessau.
In 1902, Münter and Kandinsky developed a personal relationship that involved travels throughout Europe together, during which she met Matisse and Rousseau. (She also had previously traveled for an extended period of time to the United States, where she visited relatives with her sister.)
Kandinsky was reportedly the first art teacher she had whom she felt took her work seriously.
- At first I experienced great difficulty with my brushwork - I mean with what the French call la touche de pinceau. So Kandinsky taught me how to achieve the effects that I wanted with a palette knife ... 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. - Gabriele Münter (Reinhold Heller, Gabriele Münter: The Years of Expressionism 1903-1920. New York: Prestelverlag, 1997.)
Move from Munich to Murnau
Around 1908 Münter and Kandinsky settled in to an apartment in Munich, where they often met with other artists. Later she purchased a house in the sleepy Bavarian hamlet of Murnau. Soon it became known to locals as "Das Russenhaus" (The Russian House), because Kandinsky lived there too and another Blue Rider artist - Alexei von Jawlensky (1864-1941) - was also associated with the Blue Rider group, founded in 1911 by Kandinsky and German artist Franz Marc (1880-1916).
The women of the Blue Rider group
Der Blaue Reiter was one of the primary German Expressionist movements, along with the Dresden-based Die Brücke (The Bridge), founded in 1905 by, among others, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938) and Erich Heckel (1883-1970).
Enlarge image "Jawlensky and Werefkin" (1908/1909) by Gabriele Münter, oil on cardboard, 32.7 x 44.5 cm, Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus (depcited here on a postage stamp) (© Deutsche Bundespost/Wikimedia Commons) Unlike the all-male Brücke group, however, the Blue Rider had two prominent female members - Gabriele Münter and Marianne von Werefkin (1860-1938), another Russian émigré painter who was a mentor and partner to Jawlenksy (the two moved to Munich together from Russia).
A figurative focus and humorous approach
Although Münter was interested in Kandinsky's development towards abstract art, her own work continued to be figurative. Many of her works take on an almost whimisical quality, without losing sight of the powerful effect shapes and colors pared down to resounding essentials may have.
- As the Art Directory puts it at gabriele-muenter.com: "Her landscapes, figurative scenes and portraits show a reduction to the essential with an inclination towards humorous characterization."
Wanderings through Europe
After the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Münter and Kandinsky moved to Switzerland. A year later, however, she decided to relocate to Stockholm, where she separated from Kandinksy, who later returned to his Russian wife.
During the 1920s Münter continued to travel, including to Berlin and Cologne. Therafter she spent most of her time in Murnau and Munich.
The fate of the avant-garde in Nazi Germany
Enlarge image Gabriele Münter's house in Murnau, also known as "Das Russenhaus" (The Russian House), in which she lived with Kandinsky and with her later partner Johannes Eichner until her death in 1962. (© dpa - Fotoreport) The rise of the Nazi dictatorship in Germany in the 1930s was a dark period for the modernist movement and all avant-garde artists, many of whom fled the country or began painting under very private, secretive circumstances (Emil Nolde). Many great works of art were confiscated by the Nazis, some never to be seen again as they were deliberately destroyed. Still others were lambasted in the infamous series of "degenerate" art exhibits intended to shock average German citizens via their alleged "vulgarity."
Savior of incomparable art during dark days
Despite several searches of her house in Murnau, Nazi operative never found the treasure trove of artworks she hid there. Although she was no longer on speaking terms with Kandinsky by this time, Münter had stored many of his works, and those by other Blue Rider artists in a warehouse. But she eventually transported them to her house, where she hid them and preserved them with care during the war.
The greatest gift - a treasure trove of Expressionist gems for art lovers to enjoy at Munich's Lenbachhaus
On her 80th birthday, Münter gave her entire collection, which consisted of more than 80 oil paintings and 330 drawings, to the Stätdische Galerie im Lenbachhaus in Munich.
- The Lenbachhaus, due to reopen to the public after extensive renovations in spring 2013, houses an unparalleled collection of works by artists associated with the Blue Rider group, including Kandinsky, Marc, Klee, Macke, Jawlensky, Werefkin and Münter.
Lasting legacy of a legend
In 1956 Münter received the Culture Prize of the City of Munich. In 1960 a first exhibition of her works was mounted in the United States, followed in 1961 by an extensive show in Germany, at the Mannheim Kunsthalle.
Münter's legacy lives on in Murnau, Munich - and all over the world. She was one of the great German Expressionists whose paintings continues to inspire new generations of artists.