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Friday, March 6, 2015

Gabriele Munter

This is Gabriele Munter under the influence of Kandinsky, probably after 1910.                
Gabriele Munter, Self-portrait, 1908
In the twenty-six years during which I taught art, I flatter myself that I may have influenced at least a dozen or so individuals who went on to become working artists. The question of how much of an influence I may have been and how lasting that influence may be in the decades and centuries to come is, of course, impossible to tell. In fact, what I've written, here and in my book, Art Think (right column), may be greater and more lasting than my paintings or any influence I may have had on students in a classroom. Similarly, the German Expressionist, Wassily Kandinsky was both teacher and artist. His influence was both short term and long term. Over the short term, he influenced the work of the group of likeminded painters which he co-founded in 1911, calling themselves "Der Blaue Reiters" (The Blue Riders) after the title of one of his paintings. Along with Franz Marc, Bernhard Koehler, Heinrich Campendonk, Thomas von Hartmann and August Macke, was a young lady, a former student, with whom he later fell in love and had a longlasting affair. His influence may have been most noticeable in the profound changes he wrought in her work. Her name was Gabriele Munter.
Sevres, France, 1906, Gabriele Munter, before she met Kandinsky.
Still Life with Vase of Brushes, 1906,
Gabriele Munter--pre-Kandinsky
Before continuing let me confess I am no great lover of German Expressionism. I understand where it was coming from and what it led to, both of which are important. But the paintings themselves, I find harsh and very often quite unlovely. Perhaps the most "unlovely" of them all, insofar as my own tastes are concerned, are those of Kandinsky. I guess you could say I respect his work but I don't much like it. I do, however, (for the most part) like the work of Gabriele Munter. And in that we're talking here about artistic influence, it's interesting to notice the impact of Kandinsky's influence and also the fact that, after they went their separate ways, the manner in which she eventually threw off that influence in charting her own way.

Interior (Still Life, Bedroom), 1909, Gabriela Munter
Born in 1877 to upper middle-class parents, Gabriele Munter grew up in Berlin, fortunate in the fact that her family supported her desire to become an artist. She had a private art tutor for many years as a child and later took classes at the Woman’s Artist School, though she was refused enrollment in the German art academies because of her gender. By the time she was twenty-one, both her parents had died and she and her younger sister were living alone. Having few family ties in Germany, the two of them packed up and came to the United States where they did have relatives. They visited Texas, Arkansas, and Missouri for some two years before returning to Germany (they had inherited substantial wealth).

The lovers painted each other, the contrast in their styles is all the
more interesting when you note the dates of each portrait.
Gabriele was strongly impressed by the social differences and freedom of choice women (even back then) enjoyed in America as compared to Germany. She began taking classes at a progressive school in Munich called the Phalanx School, studying woodcut techniques, sculpture, painting, and printmaking. There, she developed something of a "school girl crush" on one of the instructors--Wassily Kandinsky--the first to taker her seriously as an artist. The following summer, he invited Gabriele to join a group of his students in a painting sojourn to the Alps, just south of Munich. During that time, though Kandinsky was a married man, their relationship became more than just that of student and teacher. Also during this time, Kandinsky encouraged his young student to forego brushwork in favor of the palette knife. The effect was that Gabriele began to "paint like a man." Much of their work became virtually indistinguishable.

Rustic house Maria in Rorschach, 1914, Gabriele Munter
Der Blaue Reiter group,
Maria and Franz Marc, Bernhard Koehler,
Heinrich Campendonk, Thomas von Hartman,
in front, Wassily Kandinsky. Where's Munter?
She was the photographer for the group.
Munter and Kandinsky remained lovers for some twelve years, at times living together for extended periods, working together as equals in the small Bavarian village of Murnau, Germany, and nearby Rorschach, Switzerland (above), though Munter also owned a house in Munich. It was from there that Der Blaue Reiter came into existence. The group promoted modern art, and its connection between visual art, music, as well as spiritual and symbolic associations of color. They embraced a spontaneous, intuitive approach, moving painting rapidly toward abstraction. Münter, Kandinsky, and the others were active in transforming Impressionist, Neo-Impressionist, and Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) painting into a radical, non-naturalistic art we now call Expressionism (minus the German part).

The Russians' House, 1931, Gabriele Munter, her home in
Murnau, Germany, where she lived the final years of her life.
With the coming of WW I, Kandinsky was forced to return to Russia. There he divorced his first wife, and though Munter had long expected the two of them would eventually marry, instead Kandinsky married a Russian girl he met in Moscow. However, Kandinsky had gone back to mother Russia in such haste that Munter ended up with a great number of his works, which she stored away, and later hid away from the Nazis who came in search of them. She was also responsible for saving the work of other Blaue Reiter members. Her Winter in Elmau (below) is typical of the lingering Kandinsky influence as late as 1933. In 1957, on her eightieth birthday, Münter gave them all, more than 80 oil paintings and 330 drawings, to the Städtische Galerie in the Lenbachhaus in Munich. After the war, Gabriele Munter continued to live and paint (bottom) at her home in Murnau, Germany (above) until her death in 1962 at the age of eighty-five.

Winter in Elmau, 1933, Gabriele Munter

Winter Landscape, 1950, Gabriele Munter, typical of her
post-Kandinsky style.


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