Important Art by Gabriele Münter
Printmaking was an integral part of Münter's practice, as it was for many of the German Expressionist artists. Like the later Die Brücke studies in printmaking (though Die Brücke artists worked predominantly in woodcut), Münter rendered Kandinsky's countenance in this portrait as a thick, black, graphic outline, punctuated by flat fields of color. Scholar Shulamith Behr notes that this work was Münter's first exploration of linocuts, executed while she was in Paris. The work nods to the influence of Paul Gauguin's woodcuts, which were on display in Paris in a 1906 retrospective, as well as to the inspiration of Henri Matisse's painted color blocking. Characteristic of Münter's practice, however, is her vacillation between naturalism and abstraction. She rendered Kandinsky's portrait as an accurate depiction of her subject, and included minute details such as the texture of Kandinsky's beard hair, and the lines of his eyes as seen from behind his glasses. Against such realistic detail, Münter composed the background as abstract color fields of naturalistic shapes, each color and curved form delineated with a thick, black outline. This play with the borders between naturalism and abstraction was one way Münter illustrated the life and attributes of her portrait subject. The organic shapes and verdant tones of the background forms, for example, connected Kandinsky to the brightly colored, color field landscape pieces he was creating at the time.
An early landscape, this work demonstrates Münter's move away from more naturalistic scenes, under the influence of Kandinsky's tutelage, and her increasing knowledge of French Post-Impressionist artists. Composed during one of Münter and Kandinsky's sojourns in Paris (as he attempted to put distance between himself and his first, estranged wife) Münter's plein-air landscape represents the artist's experimentation with different, avant-garde techniques. Like the Post-Impressionist pieces of Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Cézanne, Münter used quick brushstrokes and paint applied in a thick, tangible impasto to convey the barest sketches of trees, sky, road and a house.
As evidenced here, and throughout her artistic career indeed, Münter painted quickly; in the course of a single day or afternoon, she could complete one or more large-scale paintings, and she often required only a single sitting with a portrait subject. The haste of this painting's execution conveys the illusion of motion, as if the foliage undulated in the wind, and she reduced the composition's subjects to near abstractions, with the trees barely distinguishable from the outlined suggestion of a house. Yet, and quite particular to Münter, she imbued this composition with what would become her signature exploration of blocked color tonalities and graphic outlines. Though her palette here is more muted than in her later work, Münter still infused the painting with the dynamism of vibrant color juxtapositions, as she placed red, blue, white, and green planes of color adjacent to one another.
This painting represents an evolution in Münter's practice, as she composed this landscape by foregrounding color studies, rather than relying on the highly textured or naturalistically contoured renderings of her earlier works. She depicted the Alps in vibrant blue tonalities, intermixed with shades of a light, reddish purple, which, in turn, incorporate lighter colors of lavender and yellow as the mountain range recedes to align with the distant blue and yellow sky.
In a nod to traditional aerial perspective, the brighter, red-orange of the natural formation on the painting's right, and the striking yellow, orange, and yellow-green of the front row of four trees, indicate the objects' proximity to the viewer's field of vision, while the deep green of the trees on the base of the nearer mountain ridge suggest visible foliage. Unlike traditional aerial perspective, however, Münter composed the foreground forms in warmer colors, leaving the dominant tones for receding objects. She maintains a color vibrancy throughout with the blues, violets, and purples coming to dominate the more temperate tones of the foreground.
This interest in depicting the landscape as an interplay of color constituted Münter's early experiments with what would become the definitive Blaue Reiter aesthetic, and were a direct consequence of the artist's stay in Murnau. According to scholar Annegret Hoberg, the "intense light in the foothills of the Alps" brought out the "colors and contours of the landscape and the village in clear planes with very little atmospheric refraction." As evidenced in this 1908 landscape, Münter's exposure to these views "contributed to an emancipation" of both Münter and Kandinsky's aesthetic perception, and, as a consequence, both artists "quickly changed over from the palette knife to using the brush" to create landscape views with a "previously unseen fluent, spontaneous touch."