Owner of the STURM gallery Herwarth Walden recognized her genius at an early date: Artist Marianne von Werefkin had a firm hold on the reins of the Blaue Reiter and defied tragic blows and the world war.

The woman in the picture is young, maybe 25. And yet Marianne von Werefkin, who defend from Russian high aristocracy, was already 49 years old when her friend and comrade-in-arms Gabriele Muenter painted her in 1909. All those who painted her portrait depicted her as a young woman. Hers was the pulsating energy that drove everyone around her and gave them the courage to be modern: Jawlensky, Kandinsky, Muenter, Marc, Erma Bossi. As early as 1913 Else Lasker-Schueler described her as the “Blaue Reiter-Reiterin”: Werefkin had firm grip on the artist community.

The genius cult of the 19th century

For many years, Marianne von Werefkin, who from 1880 onwards was the private student of Ilja Repin, the best known of the Russian Realists, and who in 1886 received the honorary title of a “Russian Rembrandt”, had not dared hold a paintbrush for many years. The thirty-two year old Werefkin met the four-years-younger Alexej Georgijewitsch Jawlensky at her teacher Ilja Repin’s studio. The penniless but talented Lieutenant kindled her interest and she projected her creative urges upon him:

I am woman, am devoid of any creativity. I can understand all and create nothing … I lack the words to express my ideal. I seek the person, the man, who would personify this ideal. As woman, demanding that which would give her inner world expression, I met Jawlensky … I thought I could create them in Jawlensky … A purely divine desire. Not attainable on earth.

Marianne von Werefkin

Was she indulging the genius cult of the 19th century, clinging to a bourgeois role model? Her fate brings to mind that of sculptress Gela Forster, whose artistic activities came to a halt following her marriage to Alexander Archipenko. Or that of the painter Minna Tube, who Max Beckmann demanded not touch a paintbrush as long as she was married to him. It is only after about eight years that Marianne von Werefkin, albeit secretly at first, began to paint again and eased herself away from her misbelief:

I have hell in my soul. I did not trust myself and that is why my life went to the devil. I have a creative soul and was a slave to idleness … I became a whore and a kitchen maid, a nurse and governess, only to serve the high art, a talent that I considered to be chosen to complete the new work. What did I do to myself?

Marianne von Werefkin, Steingrube / Stone Pit, 1907, Privatsammlung / Private collection, Wiesbaden

In 1896, Werefkin initially moved to Munich with Jawlensky and her young maid Helene Nesnakomoff, who was to bear Jawlensky’s son in 1902. Werefkin rented a large double apartment in Giselastrasse 123 in Schwabing, where she forthwith hosted an influential salon and which became a much frequented meeting point for the cosmopolitan avant-garde.

The self-centeredness of art

Before taking up painting once again, Werefkin put her aesthetic ideas down on paper in her “Lettres à un inconnu”, letters to an unknown, which she began in 1901. Most likely at the same time as the Paris Fauves in 1905, she discovered the equally “autonomous” as “structuring” value of color. She rejected any notion of l’art pour l’art, the self-centeredness of art:

It is the task of art to enforce new aesthetic and ethical values in mankind … Those who have nothing personal to say in art should remain silent.

Marianne von Werefkin
Marianne von Werefkin, Selbstbildnis I, um 1910, Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus und Kunstbau, München

Together with Wassily Kandinsky, Gabriele Muenter and Alexej Jawlensky, she founded the Neue Kuenstlervereinigung München (Artist Association Munich) in 1909, which two years later would become the Blaue Reiter. From 1912 onwards, she becomes one of the most renowned STURM artists. Her gallery owner became so enamored with her painting “Herbstidyll” (Autumn idyll) that he not only exhibited it but also turned the image into a STURM postcard, which he then used to market his artists and his STURM gallery. 

A promise of happiness on the horizon

In 1913, Werefkin traveled to Lithuania and Russia – probably to put her relationship to Jawlensky behind her. This is where she created the painting “Stadt in Litauen” (City in Lithuania). It is a troubled image reminiscent of Edvard Munch in terms of composition. The image seems ruffled. An old woman laboriously drags herself along the windy, icy road. The trees on the left bow in the wind; the red door on the right billows like a sail. Just the city glowing in the sunlight in the background appears like a promise of happiness.

Marianne von Werefkin, City in Lithuania, 1913/14, Fondazione Marianne Werefkin, Museo Comunale d'Arte Moderna, Ascona

In 1914, World War I broke out and Werefkin and Jawlensky were forced to leave Germany within 24 hours, as they are classified as unwanted foreigners. A friend – painter Cuno Amiet - initially supported them. They finally find shelter in Ascona in Switzerland.

Not another word  

The painting “Der Lumpensammler” (The rag-and-bone man) from 1917 evokes a poetic and emotional situation between life crisis and world war. The scraggily, starved rag-and-bone man could have been a figment of the painter’s imagination. The dark water does not bode well; on it, lost and lonely, a rowing boat. The wall of mountains in the background shakes like jelly from that which happens behind it, the sky turns sulfur yellow.

Marianne von Werefkin, Le Chiffonier (The rag-and-bone man) (1917), via kunstkopie.de

In 1920, Werefkin participated in the Venice Biennale, where several of her paintings were shown. And she traveled, for the first and last time since the war, to Germany. She had to wind up her apartment in Munich, as her Tsarist payments lapsed after the October Revolution, which she used to finance Jawlensky and his son. And she visited Herwarth Walden for the last time in his STURM gallery, who was busy showing her paintings for the 100th STURM exhibition in 1921. Jawlensky, however, found his next patron in the form of Emmy Schreyer, the daughter of an industrialist from Wiesbaden, and finally married Werefkin’s former maid Helene in 1922. Werefkin was never to talk to him again and refused to provide any further financial support. She managed to make a living by laboriously painting postcards and posters, as well as through support from her friends. This did not stop her from founding the international artist group “Grosser Bär” (Big Bear), together with six artists from Ascona, among them Otto van Rees, as well as the Museo Communale di Ascona. She died in 1938 and was buried according to Russian orthodox rites.