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How Gabriele Münter painted “the content of things”

The striking works of the German expressionist, founding member of Das Blaue Reiter and fiancée of Kandinsky.

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Landscape art is full of painters who have become spliced to the rootstock of particular places. The Suffolk-Essex borders along the River Stour will always be Constable country; the River Darent in Kent carved Samuel Palmer’s numinous “valley of vision”; Monet is inextricably paired with Giverny; and Claude Lorrain with the Roman Campagna. In just this way, Gabriele Münter (1877-1962) belongs with Murnau am Staffelsee, a small town some 40 miles south of Munich, on the edge of the Alps.

Münter first went to Murnau during a holiday in 1908 and bought a house there the following year. For the rest of her life she depicted its landscape in innumerable pictures and a variety of styles. A little over 50 years after discovering the place, she died there, surrounded by the mountains and lakes that had filled her paintings.

It was, in many ways, an unlikely setting for a painter of Münter’s persuasion. She was one of the driving forces of Der Blaue Reiter (the Blue Rider) group, a pre-First World War movement of expressionist painters that included Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Franz Marc. Although it had no clear manifesto, the group was thoroughly modernist in outlook and sought to explore the spiritual through colour symbolism and the links between painting and music. In doing so, it sometimes pushed forms towards abstraction. The members were friends as well as collaborators and much of their art-talking was done at Murnau. Münter herself seems to have left the chatter to the others, remembering wryly that while she was  busy with the conundrum of painting, Kandinsky in particular “was a thinker and had to express his ideas in words, so he constantly formulated new theories of art”.

Münter and the Russian-born Kandinsky had met in 1902 when she joined the Phalanx art school in Munich where he was teaching; she was 25, he was 36 and married. Their relationship quickly became intimate, not least, she said, because Kandinsky “regarded me as a consciously striving human being”, and when he separated from his wife they moved in together and contracted a secret engagement.

Münter was the daughter of a dentist and when her parents died she had been left a comfortable inheritance. It was she who provided the money to buy the house in Murnau, although the couple jointly designed its garden, furniture and painted motifs through its interior. Just as his reputation would always overshadow hers, so the house became known as the Russenhaus (“House of the Russian”).

This picture, Wind and Clouds, was painted nearby in 1910 and is now in the Sprengel Museum in Hanover. It shows her in Blue Rider mode: “After a short period of agony,” she recalled, “I took a great leap forward from copying nature, in a more or less impressionist style, to feeling the  content of things.” She articulated that content through simplified shapes (she was fascinated by children’s illustrations), intensified colour (blue, yellow and red were the key Blue Rider shades), black outlines (she imitated stained glass and Hinterglasmalerei, the local folk tradition of glass painting), and rapid brushstrokes. There are touches of fauvism and the influence too of Matisse and Gauguin. Münter had no time for stylistic purity. In “expressing the extract”, she said, “I simply painted in whatever style seemed to suit me best.”

Her idyll with Kandinsky was not to last long. When war broke out he, as a Russian, was an enemy alien and the pair moved to Switzerland before he then went on to Moscow. Rather than sending for her to join him, he met and married a much younger woman: Münter did not find out about the wedding until three years later. The fallout was acrimonious: Kandinsky demanded the return of all his paintings in Münter’s possession; she sued him for the shame brought by the broken engagement. She then stopped painting for a decade. “I allowed myself to be lied to and cheated out of my life,” she would write of their relationship. “Now I have nothing and never had anything.”

Despite her avant-gardism, Münter saw out the Nazi period in relative peace and hid numerous Blue Rider paintings in her basement to protect them from destruction as “degenerate art”. Whatever her feeling towards Hitler’s regime, she contributed work to celebrate the 1936 Berlin Olympics and submitted a painting to the Nazis’ Great German Art Exhibition in 1937. Such ethical complications did not stop her from being seen after the war as a link to early 20th-century modernism.

No cavils attach themselves to Wind and Clouds. Münter said, “My paintings are all moments of life – I mean instantaneous visual experiences, generally noted very rapidly and spontaneously,” but the picture also shows the vibrancy of her emotional landscape and how her art and her relationship with Kandinsky thrived at Murnau.

The best of her pictures, such as this one, give the lie to her belief that, “In the eyes of many, I was only an unnecessary side-dish to Kandinsky.” Rather they are proof of her conviction that, “It is all too easily forgotten that a woman can be a creative artist with a real, original talent of her own.”

Michael Prodger is associate editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article appears in the 25 September 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The autumn of discontent