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The birth of the Blue Rider group

The first comprehensive exhibition of the group’s works in Britain since 1960 shows how Wassily Kandinsky, Gabriele Münter, Franz Marc, Paul Klee and others revolutionised painting.

By Michael Prodger

The period immediately preceding the First World War was the time of the “-isms”. Before industrial warfare made highfalutin artistic concerns seem both distasteful and irrelevant, a series of modern movements and styles sprouted across Europe, all addressing the need to create new art for the new century: fauvism, cubism and Orphism flourished in France, alongside futurism in Italy, vorticism in Britain, and suprematism and constructivism in Russia. Germany’s contribution to this febrile creative moment was expressionism, a style of rich colour and rudimentary forms that gave precedence to sensation and emotional truth over observable reality.

The most notable expressionists belonged to one of two groups: Die Brücke (The Bridge), founded in Dresden, or Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), founded in Munich. Both pursued broadly similar aims but it is the latter – less a formal group than an affiliation of like-minded artists, patrons, poets and musicians – that is the focus of “Expressionists” at Tate Modern. It is the first comprehensive exhibition of Blue Rider works in Britain since 1960.

The collective was short-lived, lasting only from 1911 to the outbreak of war, and at its heart were the Russians Wassily Kandinsky, Marianne von Werefkin and her partner-protégé Alexej von Jawlensky, and the Germans Gabriele Münter (Kandinsky’s partner) and Franz Marc. Other Blue Rider figures included Paul Klee (Swiss), Lyonel Feininger (American), Erma Bossi (Austro-Hungarian), August Macke (German) and the composer Arnold Schönberg (Austrian). Both this internationalism and gender equality were important to them: in the preface to their experimental manifesto-magazine The Blue Rider Almanac, published in 1912, Kandinsky and Marc proclaimed: “The whole work, called art, knows no borders or nations, only humanity.”

As this grand statement hints, art was the shared medium but the Blue Rider members were ultimately concerned, as Marc put it, with “a rebirth of thinking”. Aesthetically, their influences were wide-ranging – gothic and Oceanic artefacts, children’s pictures and folk art, as well as contemporary European work (both Picasso and Braque were included in the second, and last, Blue Rider exhibition in 1912). The “riders”, with their concern for an art in which the material and the spiritual coalesced, were drawn to works in which they were, in Münter’s words, “feeling the content of things”.

There was, as this vivid exhibition confirms, no single Blue Rider style; each artist took their own route towards the symbolic and expressive. All, however, used colour non-naturalistically, eschewed finicky detail and aimed for spontaneity – the lighter the throttling grip of the academy on their paintings, the better.

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As with the Bloomsbury Group, much of the theorising took place in the countryside. In 1908, Kandinsky, Münter, Werefkin and Jawlensky spent the summer in Murnau, a small subalpine town some 40 miles south of Munich, and the following year Münter bought a modest house there which she and Kandinsky set about decorating. It would become a meeting place and talking shop as well as a home. In 1912, Münter painted a charming picture of Kandinsky, in short trousers, sitting at the table there with Bossi. He, ever the pedagogue, gesticulates while she leans forward attentively. It was, Münter said, “a wonderful, interesting, enjoyable time with lots of conversations about art”.

Murnau was where the group went bicycling, skiing and swimming; Kandinsky designed a garden for the house and painted in the basement. The place brought out the best in them. The village’s church, coloured houses and surrounding mountains appear time and again in their work and also in a simple, colour-infused painting by Jawlensky, Landscape Near Murnau, made on a visit in 1909. The “riders” – Münter and Jawlensky in particular – were, however, better artists than their Bloomsbury peers­.

How quickly Kandinsky’s art developed under this stimulus can be seen in a pair of paintings made just eight years apart. In 1903 he painted Münter outdoors at her easel (although it could be a camera, since she was an accomplished photographer), a post-impressionist picture that captures a specific moment in time. By 1911 this genteel style was history. In Impression III (Concert) he depicted his memories of a concert by Schönberg he had attended with other Blue Rider painters. The scene becomes near-abstract with a dominant swathe of yellow, a black lozenge for the piano and dark arcs for the audience. Franz Marc recalled that his wife, Maria, noted that Schönberg “works with completely unresolvable sound-mixtures, without any tonal colour, only expression, gesture”. Kandinsky, he said, “was very inspired by it: that is his aim”.

Kandinsky became increasingly occupied with pure abstraction and exploring synaesthesia – experiencing music as colour – producing pictures such as his Improvisation paintings in which he sought visual equivalents to the emotive power of musical notes. 

Marc’s own interest, meanwhile, focused on animals. From 1912 he stopped painting the human figure and instead made pictures of tigers, deer, cows and foxes. He sensed a spiritual connection with these creatures and seems to have regarded them as symbols of innocence. Marc enlisted as a cavalryman on the first day of the war and slept with the horses in the stables, keeping warm under their blankets, and sending drawings of his charges back from the front. In 1916, shortly before he was due to be withdrawn from active service so he could paint in safety, he was killed by a shell splinter at the Battle of Verdun.

As an enemy alien, meanwhile, Kandinsky returned to Russia where he met and married Nina Andreevskaya but neglected to tell Münter. She found out through a third party only in 1922 when Kandinsky returned to Germany to teach at the Bauhaus. A legal case was to follow when Kandinsky sued her for the return of pictures she had kept safe during his absence.

So the paintings in the exhibition record not just developments in modern art but a friendship between artists with, as Münter put it, “a common passion for painting as a form of self-expression”, who were also interested “in the health and happiness of the others”. The passion for art survived, the care for one another did not.

Expressionists: Kandinsky, Münter and The Blue Rider
Tate Modern, London SE1, until 20 October

[See also: Caspar David Friedrich and the mystery of eternity]

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This article appears in the 01 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Labour’s Forward March