In Münich, we see lots of Wassily Kandinsky’s and Gabrielle Münter’s art at the Lenbachhaus and we discover that the summer home Kandinsky and Münter shared from 1909 through 1914 is in a prealp town called Murnau and that we are going right through that area the very next day. The house was recently restored in 1999 back to the way it was when they were living there and is now open to the public. So we go to their Alpine house in Murnau that overlooks the train tracks and gazes directly out to an elaborate church on a hill, and, sensitive person that I am, walking up the rise to the house, I feel like I am returning to my own home.
The Alps are beautiful and striking. There is something strange about the area that I can’t figure out until I realize that it is the light. It does this thing where it manifests a white pearlescent overlay that makes everything shine in a peculiar kind of way. According to Gabrielle Münter, when she and Kandinsky went to Murnau, they saw the house and Kandinsky became completely obsessed with it and kept insisting that she buy it until she gave in and they moved there. They painted hundreds of paintings and entertained other artist friends there for five years during the summers. They worked on the house and gardened and wore traditional Bavarian clothing and enjoyed and collected traditional Bavarian crafts and glass painting and began painting on glass themselves and giving in to the effects of the light and the place itself until gradually all figurative form became secondary and abstraction was born.
This was the birthplace of the Blue Rider group. Kandinsky, Münter, Marc and others all collaborated to come up with this new idea of the spiritual in art as a pure concept. Kandinsky loved the idea of the rider and Marc was into horses and the Blue Rider came from there one night around the table. There was no actual requirement of style and for the first time a movement embraced other arts forms as well, including dance, music, visual art by children, amateurs, and the mentally ill. It was quite a breakthrough and a radical idea for the time, although these days it is a given that art encompasses all of those things and remains rooted in personal experience. When you look at the art they made there, and the art they made previously, and when you also travel there you can truly see the difference in the colors and the energy of the work.
Franz Marc was killed in the war at Verdun at age 37, and Münter and Kandinsky parted ways in 1914, because Kandinsky, a Russian, had to leave since he was now an enemy of the state during the war, and the group’s heyday ended. Kandinsky went on to become more and more abstract with his work, continuing to develop in Moscow, while Münter was somewhat derailed by his leaving her when he offered little explanation of why he never returned, even after the war, and she didn’t really paint again until the 1930’s.
When Kandinsky returned to Russia, he expected the war to end soon and left his work in Murnau with Münter, figuring he would retrieve it when he came back. He never returned, married someone else, and when he asked for his work back later, she refused and a custody battle ensued. She ended up keeping much of it and safeguarded it in the Murnau house all through the Nazi regime when it was all declared degenerate.
On her 80th birthday in 1956, she donated all of it to the Lenbachhaus in Münich, after years of the museum director trying to convince her that they were the right place for her donation. The small, regional Lenbachhaus museum became internationally acclaimed overnight.
The personal details of these artists’ lives together and the sketchy demise of their relationship are as important to me as the artwork. Understanding their physical context explains in a fuller way where the art comes from and why there was such a dramatic shift for the entire group when they all worked together in Murnau. This magic soup of new love, light and dramatic relationship with each other in the milieu of the Alps created an opening and immersion into to the spirit of the place, allowing that spirit to emerge into their media. It feels like it is still there, the spirit of sparkling creativity particular to the place, waiting to be uncovered again and again by anyone who gives in to its magical luminescence.
Images in order are:
Studies and Improvisations Wassily Kandinsky
The Bavarian Alps
The town of Murnau
Dining room at Münterhaus where the Blue Rider was conceived
Interior of the Russians’ House Gabrielle Münter
all images by Scott Hess