The more frightening the world becomes, the more art becomes abstract.
– Wassily Kandinsky.
Gabriele Münter, one of the greatest German artists of the last century, was born 137 years ago today. She was a founding member of the Blue Rider group of artists that helped formulate the principles of German Expressionism that were so influential in the years before the outbreak of the First World War. In this centenary year of the great catastrophe of 1914, to visit to her home – preserved as a museum in Murnau, a beautiful Alpine town close to Munich – is to visit a lost world swept away by that terrible war.
Gabriele Münter was both partner and collaborator to Wassily Kandinksy, the Russian émigré who helped turn Bavaria into one of the world capitals of the new movements in art at the beginning of the 20th century. Sharing their life and work in Murnau in the years before the outbreak of war in 1914, they developed their ideas together in a beautiful place at a frightening time. Visit Murnau today – an hour from Munich in the direction of Garmisch – and what you will find is a Bavarian idyll where white church towers define the horizon between the waters of the Staffelsee and mountains fading into blue in the distance. The basic look of the place has not radically changed since the second decade of the 20th century when Münter and Kandinsky lived in the “Russian house” on Kottmüllerallee and, with others of their circle, shaped the direction of German art. Much of the town and surrounding landscape is still recognisable from Münter’s iconic paintings.
Walk through the rooms of their former home – open to the public as the Münter Haus Museum – and examine all around their remarkable attempts to turn every aspect of their daily lives and environment into an expression of their ideals, and it is difficult however not to feel a certain sadness. The British remember their “Edwardian” era of these years, albeit with more than a touch of romantic nostalgia, as a last golden summer of innocence before an entire generation disappeared into the fog of war and did not return. A similar aura of the fragile beauty of something lost pervades the Münter house, with its staircase and dressers decorated by Kandinsky, the bed painted by Münter, the sumptuous folk art wardrobe, and the glass paintings on the walls of rooms in which they sat with the doomed Franz Marc, soon to perish at Verdun, to write the Blaue Reiter Almanac, one of the greatest artistic manifestos of the 20th century, and introduce the principles of German Expressionism to the world.
Münter met Kandinsky in 1902 when she enrolled as a student in his art school shortly after moving to Munich from Berlin. As she later put it:
I decided to move to Munich, but still found very little encouragement as an artist. German painters refused to believe that a woman could have real talent, and I was even denied access, as a student, to the Munich Academy… …It is significant that the first Munich artist who took the trouble to encourage me was Kandinsky, himself no German but a recent arrival from Russia.
Their relationship developed in trips to the Kochelsee that summer. After some years of travelling throughout Germany and Europe, they finally found a place to settle when they discovered the ancient market town of Murnau on the Staffelsee in 1908.
Here they found what they had been looking for: a place not only to live, but a place in which to see the world anew. What was distinct and inspirational to them is still visible today – a world divided into lakes, mountains and sky, vivid blocs of colour and form, and everything washed clean in vivid Alpine light. Kandinsky in particular was a theorist who believed that a changing world rendered old artistic forms obsolete, and that in order to give expression to the inner spirit, the artist had to discover different, more fundamental, forms. This was a generation of artists who were fascinated by the “primitivism” of art cultures from Japan to the South Seas. Münter and Kandinsky found their “primitives” in the Bavarian folk art of the Murnau region, and were particularly inspired by traditional devotional glass painting with its use of clear colours and bold outlines. This would remain an influence on Münter for the rest of her career as she produced a series of paintings of Murnau and its surroundings in which the composition is divided into flat blocs of light and colour and an almost childlike simplicity of form. She later said that her teachers were Kandinsky and Bavarian peasants.
The resort to simplicity of form was taken further by Kandinsky and Marc, finally arriving at complete abstraction. The Blaue Reiter Almanac which they produced in Münter’s house in Murnau as the manifesto of their new “Blue Rider” movement, along with the work they produced during this period, effectively marks the beginning of abstract art. It’s quite a feeling to climb Kandinsky’s decorated staircase to the upper rooms of their home and look out over their garden towards the church towers of the town and reflect that you are standing in the birthplace of one of the defining ideas of modern art.
Münter herself never embraced full abstraction, but, not entirely unlike the American artist Georgia O’Keefe, managed to find a distinctive style that lay somewhere between representation and abstraction. She continued to live, and paint, in the house in Murnau until her death in 1962. Most of that time was passed without Kandinsky. The outbreak of war tore the Blue Rider group apart. Kandinsky, now a citizen of an enemy nation, had to flee back to Russia, and never renewed his relationship with Münter. Like Marc, August Macke was also killed in the war. Münter survived all of them, and preserved the house and a large collection of their works throughout the turmoil of the 20th century. Today it is fully restored and represents, both for itself and also its content, one of the most fascinating museums that can be visited in Bavaria today, in one of the most beautiful parts of the country.
Münter Haus Museum
Open daily 2pm-5pm (closed on Mondays)
Works by Münter, Kandinsky and other members of the Blaue Reiter group can also be seen in Munich’s Lenbachhaus Museum.
Luisenstrasse 33 (U-Bahn: Königsplatz).
Wednesday through Sunday 10am–6pm
closed on Monday
Entrance: €10 (concessions: €5).