Sotheby’s has announced a Kandinsky work from 1910 painted during the artist’s crucial residency in Murnau when he discovered the key relationship between color and abstraction. The painting features his lover Gabriele Münter. There are only four works depicting Münter from this period and this is the last left in private hands. And the work was originally owned for many years by Kandinsky’s peer and fellow artist at Murnau, Alexej von Jawlensky.
If that triple dose of distinction isn’t enough to attract you to the £3-5m painting, we can add that the work hasn’t been offered publicly or privately for 50 years:
A glorious celebration of colour and form, Gabriele Münter im Freien vor der Staffelei dates from a key period of development for Kandinsky and marks the artist’s definitive transition into the abstract. Depicting Kandinsky’s companion and lover – the painter Gabriele Münter – at her easel in the surroundings of the Bavarian mountains, it is also testament to his close collaboration with like- minded artists during these formative years working in Murnau and Munich.
Kandinsky and Münter met when she began taking classes at the Phalanx School in 1902 and they quickly became close. From the very first they travelled out of Munich into the Bavarian countryside to draw and paint together, and in 1908 they discovered the small town of Murnau in the foothills of the Alps. They recommended it to their friends and fellow-artists Alexej von Jawlensky and Marianne von Werefkin and the group spent the summer there, returning over the following years. The Alpine landscape surrounding Murnau was to have a profound effect on their art and this was augmented by the spirit of collaboration and experimentation between the four friends. As Reinhold Heller explains:
‘The development was communal […]. The artists collaborated, frequently painted identical scenes and, together, discussed the remarkable transformations their work underwent. Long, if not always deep, friendship made such interaction possible. Kandinsky, Werefkin and Jawlensky had known each other since at least 1897 […]. This close association also sought to fulfil the frequent arcadian modernist vision of a utopian community of artists unrestrainedly outside the urban confines of cities’(R. Heller, Gabriele Münter. The Years of Expressionism (exhibition catalogue), Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee (and travelling), 1997-99, p. 70).
Gabriele Münter im Freien vor der Staffelei offers a particularly valuable insight into this hugely formative relationship. Münter appears in four paintings from this period – of which the present work is the only one still in private hands – and this depiction of her in front of her easel vividly conjures the spirit of productivity and creativity that characterised their time in Murnau. The close ties between the group members are further emphasised by the provenance of the present work which initially belonged to Jawlensky. He kept it in his collection – perhaps as a memento of those happy, productive years in Murnau – until his death in 1941, when it passed to his wife Helene.
The unique context of Murnau was key to Kandinsky’s move towards abstraction. From an early stage in his artistic career, Kandinsky was aware that his pursuit of his own form of expression was leading him toward an entirely new visual idiom. In a letter to Gabriele Münter written on 2nd April 1904 Kandinsky wrote: ‘Without exaggerating, I can say that, should I succeed in this task, I will be showing [a] new, beautiful path for painting susceptible to infinite development. I am on a new track, which some masters, just here and there, suspected, and which will be recognised, sooner or later’. As predicted, in the years that followed Kandinsky travelled further towards abstraction than any painter previously, and as Will Grohmann observes in his celebrated monograph on the artist, it was 1910 that marked Kandinsky’s ‘epoch-making breakthrough to the abstract’ (W. Grohmann, op. cit., p. 62).
Kandinsky’s first major breakthrough was his discovery that colour, when disassociated from representational concerns, could become the principal subject of a painting. Taking his cue from musical composition, Kandinsky determined that every colour corresponded with a particular emotion or ‘sound’. As Will Grohmann writes, ‘Color becomes increasingly crucial. [… They] transport the subject to the sphere of dream and legend. This was the direction of development. The painter distributes and links the colours, combines them and differentiates them as if they were beings of a specific character and special significance. As in music, the materials now come to the fore, and in this respect Kandinsky stands between Mussorgsky and Scriabin. The language of color – just as in those composers – calls for depth, for fantasy’ (ibid., pp. 60-61).
This revelation was due in part to the journey the artist took to Paris in 1906 and his acquaintance with Fauve paintings by Derain, Delaunay and Vlaminck, as well as his appreciation of Cézanne’s brushwork in his late works. Though, as Hans Roethel writes: ‘when Kandinsky returned to Munich, ideologically and practically, the ground was well prepared for abstract painting and yet it needed a final spark to come into being’ (H. K. Roethel & J. K. Benjamin, Kandinsky, London, 1979, p. 25).
It was his visits to Murnau and the surrounding landscape and artistic milieu that provided this spark. Through constant experimentation and extensive preparatory work Kandinsky’s artistic means developed from an essentially figurative Fauve style to pure abstraction. By 1910 he had found the language he sought, with sweeping lines, beautiful iridescent patches of colour and kaleidoscopic compositions. This is exemplified in the present work; the figurative remains, but the composition is radically altered and the colours have taken on a new vibrancy and autonomy. Kandinsky achieves a delicate balance between the subtle figuration of Münter herself and the almost completely abstracted landscape that surrounds her. It is a powerful illustration of Kandinsky’s pioneering pictorial language and his unique and important contribution to the history of twentieth century art.