Monday, November 7, 2016

1877-1962: Gabriele Münter, German

Gabriele at 23
Gabriele Münter played a vital role in the development of German Expressionism in the early years of the 20th century. She was at the forefront of a group of highly influential avant-garde artists who redirected the course of German modernism and shaped Expressionist aesthetics.

Gabriele became a living symbol of the daring artistic breakthroughs and achievements of modernist artists in pre–World War I Germany and was much honored. More recently, feminist art historians have championed her.

Background: For such a significant artist, remarkably little information about her background appears on the internet. All sources agree she was born to "upper middle class" parents in Berlin. Apparently "upper middle class" means the family lived on inherited wealth. One source refers to Gabriele's mother as "born in America," without calling her American, and it is said that her father had lived in America, though nothing about where, when, or why. The only other information about her parents is that her father died when she was 9, and her mother died when she was 21.

Gabriele at 28, in 1905
When her mother died, Gabriele and her sister inherited a large amount of money. This is the first and only time a sister is mentioned in my references. The following year, the two wealthy sisters decided to visit relatives in America. They stayed for over 2 years, mainly in Texas, Arkansas, and Missouri. It is said that Gabriele found the attitude toward women to be more liberal than in Germany.

Training: Since women were not allowed to enroll in the German Academies, Gabriel began her art training at the Ladies Art School in Düsseldorf. She was enrolled there before and after her trip to America.

Later she studied at the progressive new Phalanx School, founded by the famous Russian painter, Wassily Kandinsky. There she studied woodcut and sculpture in addition to painting. It was just about the only place in Germany where women could study art alongside men. Kandinsky was the first teacher to take an interest in her painting abilities.

Private life: Gabriele made the classic mistake of falling in love with a married man, and compounded this by falling for the story that he was going to leave his wife as soon as his divorce came through. The familiarity of this plot is sickening.

Wassily in 1905, by Gabriele Munter
It's easy to see how it happened. When she was 25, Gabriele fell for the founder of her school, Wassily Kandinsky, a Russian painter of great genius and charisma, who was the first teacher to appreciate her talent. He was 36, and had already been married for 10 years to a cousin who was 6 years older than he. Wassily and his wife had separated by mutual agreement in 1904, although they remained friends. Despite his marriage, Gabriele and Wassily were "engaged" in 1903.

Their relationship seems to have been idyllic for awhile. From 1904 to 1908 they traveled widely throughout Europe and North Africa. They spent more than a year in France, where Gabriele absorbed the work of van Gogh, Gauguin, the Fauves and Matisse.

In 1908, when Gabriele was 31, Wassily persuaded her to buy a house in the Bavarian town of Murnau, south of Munich, and the two divided their time between Murnau and Munich. For the next few years they were both very active artistically, and their home was a meeting place for all the leading German modernists.

Wassily Kandinsky
Murnau View with Railway and Castle, 1909

Kandinsky and Erma Bossi, 1912

However, when Wassily's divorce was finally granted in 1911, he did not marry Gabriele. They continued to live together until Germany declared war on Russia in August 1914. Kandinsky, now an enemy alien, was given three days to leave the country. He was able to take only a few paintings and possessions; the rest he entrusted to Münter’s care. The couple rushed to Zurich, Switzerland, but instead of waiting out the war with her in neutral territory, Wassily soon returned to Moscow. Gabriele spent most of the war waiting for him in Scandinavia, and urging a reunion. He finally agreed to meet her in Stockholm, but they could not reconcile, and she never saw him again. In 1917, Wassily married another woman in Moscow without telling Gabriele; his bride, age 24, was the daughter of a Russian general, and 27 years younger than Wassily. It seems Gabriele didn't find out until 1920, when Kandinsky's lawyer called to demand the return of his paintings and other belongings. You can imagine how she felt.

Since Wassily had reneged on his promise to marry her, Gabriele refused to return his art and sued for compensation. When the case was finally settled in 1926, much of the work was returned to Kandinsky, but Münter kept about 100 oils, and several hundred other works—among them some of his greatest masterpieces.

In 1927, when she was 52, Gabriele met art historian Johannes Eichner, 41, who became her lifelong companion. He wrote about her art and organized shows for her. The two returned to Murnau in 1930, and Münter lived and worked there until her death.

Gabriele Münter
Portrait of Dr. Eichler, 1930
During the rise of National Socialism, Gabriele moved her entire art collection from a warehouse to to her home in Murnau, and hid it successfully in the basement behind fake walls despite several searches.

In 1957, to celebrate her 80th birthday, Gabriele gave most of her art collection to Munich for display at Lenbachhaus museum.

She died in 1962, age 85.

Career: Gabriele was an accomplished artist—a superb draftsman, inventive colorist and daring manipulator of paint and pictorial space. She had an innately casual, confident touch. Her tendency to simplify reality into economical, nearly abstract components is in step with the times, and sometimes even more advanced.

At first, Gabriele's relationship with Kandinsky was good for her career. She always gave credit to his instruction in technique and for helping her develop her own style. While they traveled together, she had a chance to see the latest art and to meet many of the avant-garde artists.

It was because of her association with Wassily that in 1909 Gabriele helped establish the Munich-based New Artists' Association, an exhibiting group of avant-garde artists. They held two major ground-breaking exhibitions.

When Kandinsky departed that organization in 1911, Gabriele joined him, and Franz Marc and Alexei Jawlensky, in founding the celebrated avant-garde group known as The Blue Rider (Der Blaue Reiter). The members shared a common desire to express spiritual truths through art. Gabriele was very active and had works in all the avant-garde exhibits for a few years.

The Blue Rider Group
Kandinsky seated; on the left Maria and Franz Marc;
 center standing  Bernard Koehler;
right of center Heinrich Campendonk and Thomas von Hartman
Photo by Gabriele Münter

Gabriele in 1908

Self-portrait, 1908

World War I brought an end to The Blue Rider group, and sent Kandinsky back to Moscow, leaving Gabriele alone and uncertain about their relationship. She produced a series of haunting and melancholic portraits of women in interiors.

Wassily's abandonment of Gabriele had a disastrous effect on her career. Right at the peak of her ripeness, when she was 40, she turned to traveling restlessly and produced little art. I am assuming that she was still living off her inheritance.

She didn't really resume her career until after she began her relationship with Johannes Eichner in the late 1920s. She went back to the course of stylistic development she had been working on.

She painted all through the 1930s and 1940s.

In the 1950s she received significant awards and exhibitions. In the 1960s her work was exhibited in America for the first time.

Our photos of Gabriele's art:

The Village Church, 1908
Milwaukee / Jan's photo, 2013

Portrait of a Young Woman, 1909
Milwaukee / Jan's photo, 2013

Portrait of Mrs. von Hartmann, 1910
Milwaukee / Jan's photo, 2013

In Schwabing, 1912
Milwaukee / Jan's photo, 2013

Staffelsee, 1920
Milwaukee / Jan's photo, 2013

Breakfast of the Birds, 1934
Photo by Dan L. Smith

In the Village Chamonix, 1936
Portland/Jan's photo, 2017

Internet Examples:

Portrait of Marianne von Werefkin, 1909

Black Mask with Flowers, 1912
Anna Roslund, 1917

Gabriele's home in Murnau