20. January 2016

Contrary to social norms, the STURM artist Gabriele Münter lived her life totally independently and became a co-founder of one of the most important art forms of the 20th century: Expressionism.

By Teresa Koester

You are hopeless as a student – one cannot teach you anything […] you have everything from nature.

Wassily Kandinsky to Gabriele Muenter

Gabriele Muenter’s most important medium of expression was colour. Colour clothed her figures, brought the bodies of those persons portrayed and her flower arrangements to life, and whisked those viewing her pictures away and into wild landscapes, into nature and cities. Freed from the constraints of naturalism, forms and colours oscillate between faithful approximation of their worldly role models and abstraction. The artistic exterior is created from within – this is precisely the driving force of Expressionism, of which Gabriele Muenter, born in 1877 in Berlin, becomes an important representative. Indeed, Muenter emerged as the co-initiator of ‘Der Blaue Reiter’, one of the best known groups of Expressionist artists, and she served as a role model for numerous women who, flaunting social repression, shaped their lives and their art independently and freely. At the side of Kandinsky and the Blaue Reiter, Gabriele Muenter in the space of but a few years created an art form that is still considered one of the most important currents of the 20th century, and which she would continue to refine decades later.

Kandinsky falls in love with his young student 

Gabriele Muenter’s artistic talent became evident at an early date. As the doors of the State Art Academy remain closed to the 20-year old, who moved to Herford with her family after her birth and then to Koblenz, as they did to her contemporaries (up until 1919, women were not allowed to study at art academies within the German Reich or other state academies), she had to rely on the Art School for Women in Düsseldorf. However, she only studied there for a few months, as her mother died in November 1897. Her father, the dentist Carl Muenter, had already passed away in 1886. Financially independent due to the what their parents had left them, Gabriele and her sister travel to America the following year. For two years they traveled around Missouri, Arkansas and Texas.

Equipped with numerous photographs taken during her travels, as well as experiences and impressions, with her artistic talent and without financial dependency, Gabriele Muenter finally returned to Germany. In 1901, she continued her training, initially at the Women’s Art Association, later at the ‘Phalanx’ in Munich, where Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky was her teacher. Kandinsky not only praised her talent but also fell in love with his young student. Two years later – although Kandinsky is still married – the two secretly got engaged. At Kandinsky’s side, Muenter once again travelled before finally settling in Murnau, Bavaria, in 1909. 

The New Artist Association Munich 

From this small town nestling beneath the slopes of the Bavarian Alps, the two artists were not only to change their styles, which had been primarily post-Impressionist until that time, but were to lastingly change art: Muenter and Kandinsky painted alongside Marianne von Werefkin and Alexej Jawlensky. The New Artist Association Munich (N.K.V.M.) was founded. There, Muenter evolved from being a “copier of nature” into an Expressionist artist proper, and was to become one of the most renowned females of this artistic current alongside Paula Modersohn-Becker. It was here that Muenter painted the famous portrait of her friend and comrade-in-arms Marianne von Werefkin. Alongside Werefkin and Jawlenky, the couple receive many famous visitors, collectors, critics and painter friends such as Franz Marc, August Macke or the composer Arnold Schönberg in the “Russian House” that they acquired in 1909.

Following disagreements between Kandinsky and the N.K.V.M, it was he who ultimately initiated the separation from the association, as well as the subsequent founding of Der Blaue Reiter. More a relationship network than a fixed group, the artists around Kandinsky and Franz Marc started to organize exhibitions form 1911 onwards and, among other things, published the journal the “Almanach”. Although she was officially not counted as one of the founders of the artist association (she said that she did not sign the manifest ‘out of modesty’), Gabriele Muenter was closely involved with the work of the Blaue Reiter. She helped conceptualize the “Almanach” and organized numerous exhibitions. Like so many other artist groups and couples, the First World War was to also end this synergy. Macke and Marc went to war as soldiers and Kandinsky has to flee Germany. Muenter waited in vain for him in Sweden. It was not until 1920 that she found out from someone else that Kandinsky had remarried in Moscow. 

New beginnings 

After the end of the war, Muenter returned to Germany, where she lived in Cologne, Munich and Murnau, one after the other. In these years, her artistic activities were paralysed by depression. However, in 1929/30, when Muenster was in a new relationship with philosopher and art historian Johannes Eichner, she visited Paris and this re-stimulated her art. Once back in Murnau, the painter created works infused by intense colours such as her flower still lifes or abstract studies that are so characteristic of her today. However, contrary to the decades with and before Kandinsky, Muenter now led a secluded life; the Nazis are said to have placed forbidden her to exhibit. No longer the external expression of the internal, which is what Expressionism represents, but rather the actual withdrawal into privacy are what dictated her renewed life in Murnau although from 1949 onwards her works went on show in numerous exhibitions. Just as they are part of the current group exhibition “STURM-Frauen” in the SCHIRN, which acknowledges Muenter as an important, influential figure in art history.