By Maria Villalonga
Gabriele Münter’s role in the History of Art is no longer limited to her partnership with Wassily Kandinsky: she is now accepted as an artist in her own right. Das Gelbe Haus and Boating exemplify Münter’s contribution to Art, reflecting both her style and her most intimate concerns. The link between Münter’s creative evolution and emotional development is strong. In order to fully appreciate her work and understand her aesthetic, one must possess knowledge of her private life. Wassily Kandinsky undoubtedly had a great influence on both her private and her creative existence. Nevertheless, Münter developed her own personal style.
Gabriele Münter was born in Berlin in 1877 into a supportive middle-class family. During Gabriele’s youth, women’s artistic production was scorned by most of German society. In 1889, after travelling through the United States for two years, Münter established herself in Munich in order to access the only available formal training at the ladies’ academy Schule des Künstlerinnen-Vereins. Yet, even in this academy, women were not taken seriously as artists. At best, they were treated as clever dilettantes.
It was with enthusiasm, therefore, that Münter later joined the Phalanx academy for men and women, an academy recently founded by Kandinsky and his friends. This was to be the beginning of a personal and artistic partnership that lasted until around 1916. As Münter later stated, Kandinsky was the first person to take her seriously, encouraging and admiring her natural artistic talents. Unfortunately, the relationship proved emotionally unsatisfactory for Münter as the married Kandinsky had mixed feelings about leaving his wife. He promised to marry Münter at some later stage, only to wed a young Russian in 1917, not deigning to inform Münter that their fourteen-year affair was over.
Münter and Kandinsky got engaged in 1904 and soon started a four year journey through Holland, Italy, North Africa and France. During these years, Kandinsky worried about divorcing his wife and, as such, suffered extreme mood fluctuations verging on depression. In 1909, having returned to Munich, Münter bought a house in the nearby town of Murnau. Das Gelbe Haus and Boating were painted during this period of relative domestic stability, a period which lasted until 1914 and happened to be the most productive time of both Münter and Kandinsky’s careers.
During this phase, Münter improved her technique, moving from the comparative naturalism of her former impressionist style towards an increasing synthetism. Das Gelbe Haus perfectly exemplifies her new style. Leaving the palette knife behind, she opted to use a brush, a more appropriate instrument for extending even surfaces of colour (as opposed to the impressionist small touches of paste). Münter had always demonstrated a keen interest in landscape painting; she utilised landscape, not as a minor subject, but as a vital means of expressing the internal sound of the model. Houses became one of her favourite subjects. Münter’s houses, which are often crossed by horizontal lines (depicting either a fence or some kind of plant barrier), can be seen to expose her desire for, and exclusion from, an immediate home environment.
She collected children’s paintings of houses, trying to emulate their expressive simplicity and their ability to abstract the essence of the object. Münter’s colour-palette also matched her mood: some houses have bright colours, others, such as Das Gelbe Haus, are decidedly gloomy. It is interesting to note that this picture was painted in Murnau, after Kandinsky had spent a few months in Russia; the couple’s abundant correspondence of the time documents a certain cooling of Kandinsky’s affection. On his return to Murnau, the relationship did not progress as expected; Münter entered a period of emotional and aesthetic darkness.
Münter’s technique was inspired by Bavarian folk art. She was a pioneer of the “painting-behind-glass”-technique that, together with wood-cutting, had simplified drawing, extracting only the essential; thus, she participated in Kandinsky’s search for abstraction. However, as Münter’s meaning was never disrupted by the object, she never became an abstract painter. Nor did she have an intellectual approach to art which, according to her own terminology, was innerlich. In Das Gelbe Haus, she reduces the lines and colours to the minimum necessary to deliver her inner message.
It is interesting that Münter painted the very same house years later, in the 1950s, after she had happily re-married, settling down with art historian Johannes Eichner. In the latter version, everything is re-viewed from a window which frames the scene with curtains and flowers, suggesting a serener visit to the distant past.
With its simplified lines, Boating shares technique with Das Gelbe Haus; as a self-portrait, however, it symbolises Münter’s cultural consequence, her self-designated position within societal and artistic movements of the time. The vertical figure, Kandinsky, stands like a charismatic icon, directing the lives of those who believed in him. Marianne von Werefkin stoically sits by the side of the son of her partner, Alexei Jawlensky, whilst Gabriele Münter holds the oars, her back turned to the viewer. This self-portrait, heavy with biographic significance, alludes to her many important, if low-profile, roles. Not only was she an indispensable partner to Kandinsky, but she supported him financially to a great extent.
Furthermore, Münter was involved in orchestrating, what eventually became, the Blaue Reiter group – her Murnau house functioning as its general headquarters. Finally, it is important to appreciate that Münter saved all documents, correspondence and a vital collection of works by Blaue Reiter artists, from the censorship of the Nazis donating them after the Second World War so they could be kept together. Were it not for this heroic act, the emergence and evolution of subsequent artistic currents, especially Modernism, would have been greatly impeded. Aware as she was of her own stabilizing and propelling power on the oars, she trusted Kandinsky with the direction and chose to turn her back to the immediate future.
For legal reasons, we are unable to use images of Munter’s paintings in this article. However, to see Boating online, please follow the link below:
Das Gelbe Haus, (1911, oil on canvas, 70 x 95 cm), Schlossmuseum, Murnau, Germany.
Boating, (1910, oil on canvas, 70 x 95 cm.), Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA.
Heller, Reinhold, Gabriele Münter: The Years of Expressionism, 1903 – 1920, Prestel, Munich/New York, 1997.
Annegret Hoberg, Wassily Kandinsky and Gabriele Munter: Letters and Reminiscences, 1902-1914, Prestel, Munich, 1994.
Hoberg, Annegret, Gabriele Münter: The Search for Expression 1906 – 1917, Holberton, London, 2005.