In the often anxious realm of German Expressionism, a world of virility, domination and apocalyptic visions, Gabriele Munter stands alone. One of a very few, remarkable women associated with the movement, she helped establish a style but made no theoretical or metaphysical claims for it, going unpretentiously about her business as an artist, painting still lifes, portraits and landscapes with bold shapes and glowing colors. Her vibrant experiments are currently the focus of a retrospective curated by Expressionist scholar Reinhold Heller, whose substantial research has produced a catalogue that is now the definitive source for Munter studies in English. With loans from German, Austrian and American collections, the exhibition includes 82 paintings, prints and drawings from Munter's early maturity--the Expressionist years coinciding with her artistic and romantic partnership with Wassily Kandinsky. Munter lived to regret that relationship passionately, and it is impossible to consider her work without reference to its impact on her art and life.
She apprenticed herself to the future pioneer of abstraction in 1902, when she enrolled at age 26 in his evening life-drawing class at the Phalanx School, which he had just opened in Munich. "There and then I had a new artistic experience," she is often quoted as saying, "how--unlike other teachers--Kandinsky explained things in detail, clearly, and treated me as though I were a consciously striving person who can set herself problems and goals. That was something new for me and it impressed me." Her astonishment at being taken seriously, with all due respect to Kandinsky's pedagogical skills, is poignant testimony both to the inadequacy of her earlier training (barred from the art academies on account of her sex, Munter resorted to lessons from private tutors and ladies' art associations) and to the then prevailing contempt for women artists. In the exhibition catalogue, Heller describes the misogynist forces that worked to discourage women's artistic aspirations, citing, for example, the art critic Karl Scheffler in 1908: Since woman cannot be original, she can only attach herself to men's art. She is the imitatrix par excellence, the empathizer who sentimentalizes and disguises manly art forms. In Goethe's words, she "is not capable of a single idea" and "takes the knowledge and experience of man as ready-made and adorns herself with it." She is the born dilettante.
Widely read art magazines such as Jugend and Simplicissimus likewise ridiculed women artists, and in this context Munter's persistence seems additionally impressive. Finding a sympathetic mentor in Kandinsky, she pinned her hopes on him. Eleven years her senior, he may well have been a parental surrogate--Munter's father had died when she was nine, her mother when she was 20. The ensuing saga is well known: within a short time, Kandinsky, though married, pressed his student for a romance; by the summer of 1903, they were secretly engaged, pending his divorce. Fourteen years later, Munter was still waiting for him to fulfill his commitment when he abandoned her to marry another woman. As revealed in Heller's biographical chronology, a veritable page-turner incorporating heartfelt letters and diary entries, Kandinsky did not conduct himself nobly in this affair. He even neglected to tell her when it was over. After the war, he stopped writing to her from Russia, ignoring her efforts to contact him, and she learned secondhand of his marriage to Nina von Andreevskaya. His behavior was duplicitous, confused at best, and Munter suffered from it bitterly.
Sue TAYLOR, « Gabriele Münter : Espoused to Art - German Expressionist painter », Art in America, janvier 1999
[1.] My allusion, of course, is to Carol Duncan, "Virility and Domination in Early 20th-Century Vanguard Painting," Artforum, December 1973, pp. 30-39.
Much can made of the fact that too little attention has been paid to Gabriele Munter, one of the only significant female participants in German Expressionism. As a young woman, Munter, who was born in 1877 in Berlin, was a founding artist member of the Neue Kunstlervereinigung (New Artists' Society) in Munich in 1909 and the Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider) group in December 1911. But for most of us she has remained largely defined by her teacher/acolyte relationship with Wassily Kandinsky. It was a professional and personal relationship that in many ways paralleled that of Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin. Munter's dual role as Kandinsky's student and eventually the betrayed mistress of the married artist turned out to be personally traumatic, as well as both good and bad for her work as an artist.
There is no question that Munter's work now needs to be re-evaluated in a context that takes into account recent feminist consciousness. Thus, this traveling exhibition, which began in Milwaukee in 1997 and has toured the United States, should and could have raised our contemporary awareness of a new, re-examined Gabriele, in light of, if not feminist theory, then at least of an awareness of the specific circumstances that circumscribed her art.
While her paintings, prints, and drawings certainly emit a strong visual appeal more than seventy years after they were made, the traveling show of eighty-two works lacked the animating tension and fresh interpretation that could have made this a very good exhibition indeed. Unfortunately, it broke no new ground. Instead, it essentially rehashed what has already been known about Munter for a U.S. audience.
In the catalogue preface, Milwaukee Art Museum director Russell Bowman claims the exhibition merits significance simply because his museum is the steward of one of the most comprehensive collections of German art in the United States. (It is interesting that Milwaukee's eleven Munter paintings constitute the largest cache of her work outside Germany, as well as the largest in a single U.S. museum.) According to Bowman, the most prominent motive for mounting the exhibition appears to have been "to offer an American audience an in-depth view of Munter's extraordinary achievement" (7). The guest curator, Reinhold Heller, professor of art history at the University of Chicago, states that his exhibition is similar in scope to a comprehensive 1992 exhibition of Munter's work organized by Annegret Holberg at the Stadtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus in Munich (8). But he does not describe the ways in which his exhibition is similar to the Munich show, nor does he explain why he would want to imitate it.
Hung chronologically, the exhibition charts Munter's stylistic development from a student into a fully mature artist. (No work after 1920 is included.) All in all, the chronological hanging of the exhibition made the whole scenario seem a little too smug. Perhaps a more effective strategy would have been to group the show thematically, even within a chronological format, especially since the artist's early work depicts the domestic subjects of a woman's world (consider, for example, two color linoleum cuts : Child with Bottle and Washing at the Shore, both ca. 1907-8). The influence of male artists on her development also could have been examined. (Her 1909 oil on cardboard, Still Life, Bedroom, possesses an uncanny resemblance to Vincent van Gogh's painting of his bedroom in Arles; Kandinsky's influence on Munter's improvisational abstractions is unmistakable and is discussed at length in the catalogue.)
The story of Munter's life appears in retrospect to be a classic and formative tale of female dependence, seduction, and betrayal. Though her early years in the United States developed her sense of self-reliance and independence and reinforced her ability to override external authority, her relationship with Kandinsky impeded her mature artistic career. In 1904, she became his mistress and his apprentice and collaborator, even sharing his palette. But even early on, Munter's work appears more austere, harmonious, and attentive to the significance of the mundane than that of her mentor. Kandinsky actually left his wife for her and promised to marry her after they began living together. But, breaking his vows, he never made good on his promise of marriage, and in 1915 he visited her only briefly in Stockholm, where he had fled to sit out World War I, only returning to Germany late in 1920. By 1921, they had formally broken all contact with one another. A property settlement was not reached until five years later. In her manuscript, "Confession and Accusation," written between 1925 and 1928, Munter vented her bitterness: "I allowed myself to be lied to and cheated out of my life. . . . And now I think that even what I gained from him as an artist was only half only a small quarter nothing complete, no totality" (27). The rest of the story is a postlude: by 1929 Munter had formed an apparently happy liaison with the journalist and art historian Johannes Eichner that lasted until he died in 1958. She continued to paint, embarking on a series of pictures depicting the Nazi highway project, the Olympiastrasse, in 1936; later the Nazis denounced her work. She secreted her collection of Blue Rider works in the cellar of her house in Murnau, hiding them first from the Nazis, then from the U.S. occupying troops. She never left Germany during World War II. (While she continued to make art, it is clearly the work of her early years that has earned her an art historical place.) After the war, she was rediscovered, and celebrated, as one of the few surviving members of the Blue Rider group. She died in Murnau in 1962 when she was eighty-five, a year after her first U.S. exhibitions in New York and Los Angeles galleries.
In the exhibition and even the catalogue increased analytical attention should have been paid to the significant cause and effect that the circumstances of Munter's life had on her work. It seems no accident that she evolved beyond expressionist and abstract styles while she was living in Stockholm during World War I. It was there, increasingly detached from Kandinsky's influence, that she loosened her style. (This occurred while Kandinsky was in Russia, waiting out the war himself.) The exhibition's penultimate piece is the lovely Street in Stockholm (May Evening in Stockholm) (1916), in which (in this context) a born-again woman is symbolically emerging through a fallopian tube/portico into the bright life of life. It is followed by The Future (Woman in Stockholm) (1917).
Exh. cat. Milwaukee: Milwaukee Art Museum, 1997. (Exhibition schedule: Milwaukee Art Museum, December 1, 1997-March l, 1998 ; Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus, Ohio, April 18-June 21, 1998 ; Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Virginia, July 13-September 20, 1998 ; Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum, San Antonio, November 3, 1998-January 5, 1999).