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.
Color linocut - Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich
Countryside Near Paris (Bei Paris II)
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.
Oil on board - Brooklyn Museum, New York
Mountains in the Twilight
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."
Oil on board - Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington DC
Jawlensky and Werefkin
This work, completed in the summer of 1909, is one of Münter's most famous compositions and depicts her friends, the artists Alexej von Jawlensky and Marianne von Werefkin. Landscapes such as this betray the influence of Jawlensky, who was well versed in the aesthetic innovations of the Parisian avant-garde, including the works of Henri Matisse and the Fauves, Paul Gauguin, and the Nabis group. Scholar Annegret Hoberg notes that this image relies on "formal simplification and clear, forceful color contrasts" bound with dark outlines which point to the artist's continuing study of Gauguin's Cloisonnism.
Though Münter included very simple color modulation - the adjacent darker and lighter greens in the field suggesting the texture of grass, and the pink and blue additions to Werefkin's white dress implying design elements and Werefkin's rounded shape - overall, she rendered each color field as a solid, planar unit, equally vibrant to its adjacent color field. Münter divided the green mountainside into three segments, bound by a black contour line, with Kelly-green vertical brushstrokes suggestive of grass at the painting's foreground, proceeding to shorter brushstrokes and a combination of yellow and green in the middle-ground, and finally a darker toned horizontal green band to imply the farthest point of the grassy plain. Similarly, Münter aligned the distant Alps with the tonalities of the sky against the backdrop of the setting sun, with a progression from pink, lavender, cornflower blue, blue-purple, to a darker, deep blue, broken only by a sharp bright line of yellow and pink sunlight. This is suggestive of the evolution of the sky's tonal range from proximity to distance from the sun.
However, somewhat atypical for a Münter portrait, she here adopts a convention from Jawlensky's work, and effaces her portrait subjects. As a consequence, Jawlensky and Werefkin's countenances become less testaments to unique subjectivities, and more oval, pink and flesh-colored shapes, akin to the discrete pink and orange-toned circular forms signifying the subjects' hands, the pink flowers in the grass, the decoration on Werefkin's hat, and the sun's rays breaking through the blue-gray clouds. In this manner, Münter better integrated her figures with the landscape, and eliminated the hierarchy between subject and setting. By using thick, black outlines to demarcate only external contours (rather than both contour and detail) such as fingers, facial features, or flower petals, Münter reduced all of her forms equally to evocative studies in color blocking.
Oil on board - Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich
Lower Main Street, Murnau
This landscape illustrates the lessons in simplification and pure color tones Münter absorbed from her growing collection of Hinterglasmalerei (reverse-glass paintings of folk art) and children's art. With rushed black outlines, Münter's trees, houses, and road are child-like in their simplicity. Similarly, like a child who indiscriminately applies the same color for a painting's disparate objects, or like the glass-painting artisan working from a limited palette, the artist repeated her color choices. For instance, the same yellow tinged with green and blue creates the shadows on the Murnau street as the trees bordering the road that are here reduced to blocks of imperfect shapes rather than discrete illustrations of leaves and branches.
Overall, the landscape can be read as a study in the interplay between lines and triangles. Loosely formed triangular color units delineate the trees, rooftops, distant mountain, and shadows on the street. Each triangular form is somehow bound by a linear design, whether in the blue tones of the road dividing the yellow triangles, the borders containing and outlining each form, or the vertical sides of the houses and trunks of the trees. In this manner, Münter combined her interest in reducing the visible field to a study in color contrasts, with her love for the landscape of Murnau. By rendering both man-made and natural subjects using the same, limited relationship of shapes, Münter defined all aspects of the Murnau environment as equivalent and organic.
Oil on board - Norton Simon Museum, California
Still Life with St. George
Münter's still lifes were unique contributions to the German Expressionist pantheon. Her male colleagues eschewed "women's work," as still life was considered a traditionally female genre. Indeed, of the NKVM group, Münter was the only member, aside from Alexej Jawlensky, to extensively study and contribute to the still life genre.
As with this example, Münter's still lifes often incorporated the folk objects she and Kandinsky collected. This work includes a culturally diverse grouping of objects, such as a Russian Madonna and Child, and what appears to be a European figurine. These objects were not selected for their thematic coherence. Scholar Reinhold Heller notes that Münter's still lifes "assault[ed] the commonality of objects" as they "grant[ed] significance to the mundane" in the artist's privileging of "formal or abstract values prevail over motifs and subject matter."
Though this still life is an exception, Münter, in fact, often entitled her still lifes not based on content, but rather according to the assembled objects' dominant color. Indeed, though not constituting the painting's title, color fields unite the subjects of Still Life with St. George. Loosely defined fields of purple-pink or grey-blue in a variety of tones create a flattened perspectival space, and elide the boundaries between the backdrop wall and the table, and between foreground and background, such that each object or painted work exists on the same compositional plane.
Subject matter was not, however, unimportant in Münter's still lifes. In particular, her inclusion of an image of St. George is noteworthy. St. George was the patron saint of both Moscow and Murnau, an omnipresent figure in the Hinterglasmalerei tradition, a presence in Kandinsky's early experiments in increasingly abstracted form, and dominated the cover of the 1911 Der Blaue Reiter almanac. St. George represented salvation and a moment of renewal, which the artists felt exemplified the purifying spiritual power of the new Expressionist aesthetic. Münter's decision to showcase the image of St. George in the context of a still life assemblage of her folk art collection should be interpreted not only as a testament to the most fruitful aesthetic sites of inspiration - the Murnau landscape and folk art models - but also as a reflection of the philosophical and aesthetic discussions she and her peers had and were having about art's future, and the nature of progressive art.
Oil on board - Städtische Galerie im Lehnbachhaus, Munich
Still Life with Vase, I
Münter viewed her artistic breakthrough as the moment she began to perceive the world more abstractly, emphasizing the essence of form rather than what, and how, it might signify. This still life represents the progression of this idea in her work, as the inanimate objects are predominantly unidentifiable, lost behind an interplay of curvilinear outline; short, choppy brushstroke; and dynamic fields of contrasting colors.
Unlike her earlier still lifes, in which objects maintained a formal integrity, Still Life with Vase, I dissolves the borders between object and ground, as the bare outline of a flower bud and stem could equally be confused with similar circular or linear forms throughout the composition. As with Kandinsky's studies from around and immediately prior to this time, the connection between line and color leads the spectator through Münter's painting. A thin, black, graphic linear shape with a circular end directs the viewer from the bottom up to the midsection of the composition, its primacy underscored by the contrast created by the black against a vibrant yellow color field. Vertically oriented color planes similarly originating from the painting's bottom foreground and up to the middle continue the sweeping arc of the initial, black line, as the viewer's gaze is then directed back downwards with the curve of the still life flowers and with a thick, white color plane concluding at the painting's base. Unlike the work of her partner Kandinsky, here, coloristic and linear agency in Münter's painting is totalizing; this is an all-over composition, with the briefest incursions of space between the brushstrokes unable to distract from the effect of constant optical motion.
Oil on board - The San Diego Museum of Art
Münter composed many portraits of solitary female sitters, each a study, in scholar Annegret Hoberg's description, of the "psychological states of waiting, hoping, thinking or suffering." Here, Münter combined aspects of her three preferred artistic genres - portraiture, still life and landscape - to depict her favorite model and friend, Gertrude Holtz. Holtz sits, her finger to her lips, her eyebrows raised, and her gaze outside the picture plane to illustrate the external signifiers of intense contemplation.
The entirety of the composition is rendered with thick, black outlines, but the contrast between cooler, dark tones and vibrant, warmer tones, as well as the contrast between signals of interior, man-made objects and products of nature, illustrate the fruitfulness of intellectual inquiry. Münter depicts Holtz as a study in black and white, with her gloved white hand a bright spot against a body united through outline, hair, eyes, and dress by dark, black color blocks. These same colors echo in the darkness of the interior, and the white, blue, and blackness of the table. A deep violet shadow outlining Holtz's eyes connects the sitter to the table edge and the pops of color in the dark background. Yet, Münter uses color to indicate the vibrancy of the sitter's thought or imagination. From Holtz's head appear to spring a bouquet of bright violet flowers, aligned with a flowering branch seemingly outside the window. Behind Holtz's head, bright oranges, reds, and yellows from the outside world echo in the apples on the table and the shade of the lamp. With these decisions, Münter illuminates Holtz's inner life, with thought and intellectual engagement literally animating the world around her. Also in this manner, she connects coloristic vibrancy and intellectual engagement to the natural world as equally powerful sources: tellingly flowers, literally spring from Holtz's head as a visual surrogate for mental inspiration.
In her preference for the evocative potential of outlined color planes, this work betrays the influence of Swedish avant-garde, and especially two former students of Henri Matisse, and founders of the Swedish Expressionist movement, Sigrid Hjertén and Isaac Grünewald. Münter befriended the pair while in Sweden during the First World War and their influence is here married with Münter's ongoing interest in Hinterglasmalerei technique. Indeed, Hoberg notes that Münter's reference to Hinterglasmalerei often occurred with her use of "powerful, darkly luminous colors" that were then then "applied flat and edged with dark contours."
Oil on canvas - Städtische Galerie im Lehnbachhaus, Munich
Münter maintained her interest in landscape and still life even under National Socialist artistic restrictions. Her paintings of flowers and landscapes helped protect her from the scrutiny her exhibited works received under National Socialist policy (which condemned so-called "degenerate" avant-garde art). This work continues Münter's exploration of color and linear forms in nature, but presents a less abstract and more naturalistic front, a strategy she would employ until the conclusion of the Second World War. Innocuously titled, this landscape is a study in the various color tonalities of snow - alternately white, blue, pink, yellow, or purple - as it blankets, and then transforms, winter trees into abstracted linear forms. In contrast to her earlier landscapes, the violet-blue of the mountains are depicted as discrete from the lighter-blue sky, rather than as equivalent color field tonal experimentations. The inclusion of snow on the distant mountaintops provides a more naturalistic perspective on the landscape too.
Oil on board - The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, New York