Gabriele Munter: From Munich to Murnau

At the Busch-Reisinger Museum, Harvard University Art Museums

(Orig­i­nally published in Art New England, November, 1980.)

Gabriele Munter (1877 – 1962) was one of the founder of Der Blaue Reiter, a group of early 20th century European artists devoted to exploring abstraction in art, whose members also included Vassily Kandinsky, Alexei Jawlensky, and Paul Klee. This first American retro­spective of her work is an important record of a powerful painter’s art and life.

Munter’s work was much influ­enced by Kandinsky, who was her teacher and then lover during the first decade of her life as an artist. Of him she said:

It was he who cher­ished, under­stood, protected, and furthered my talent.”

By 1910 she had come into her own power, and was painting in a complex, original way. For Munter as for Kandinsky, abstraction was a way of seeing and expressing the spir­itual in art and the truths of the world. Her land­scapes, portraits, and still lifes have an almost musical power to stir up ordi­narily inex­pressible feelings and to find almost reli­gious harmonies hidden in the forms and colors of the visible world.

In Blue Mountain of 1912, the moun­tains and river are painted as large, luminous shapes, each shape seen for itself, reduced, and purified to its most essential form. The colors are wonder­fully subtle and complex. They are put down stroke by stroke, with endless tiny vari­a­tions and disso­nances which give the large, slightly flat­tened forms a certain depth and shimmer. Abstraction spir­i­tu­alizes the land­scape through a series of simpli­fi­ca­tions which are always also compli­ca­tions. In the same way the portraits reflect a searching, compas­sionate expression of a subject’s inner char­acter and essential nature. In Reflecting of 1917, a woman sits thinking, resting her head on her hand in a room filled with flowers, corn husks and fruit. The room seems charged with meaning, filled with the woman’s extra­or­dinary presence. Every­thing about her seems wonder­fully alive: the smooth curve of her eyebrows, the shadow on her cheek, the open, fearless eyes that seem to open directly into her soul.

Exhi­bi­tions of Munter’s work were closed by the Nazis during the 1930’s and 40’s. She emerged from the terrible cruelties of the war years with Barren Land­scape, a master­piece. Painted in 1949, Barren Land­scape is a melan­choly painting, a land­scape in a minor key fraught with yearning. The empty road, the dissonant colors, and such pure, lyrical shapes, that the gnawing, grieving sadness of the compo­sition becomes almost unbearably painful at the moment of harmony, reso­lution, and tran­scen­dence which somehow emerges.

Munter was redis­covered and honored in Germany in the 1950’s, and her drawings and paintings from those years continue her life-long dedi­cation to what she called “abstracting and expressing the essential.” Drawings from her last years capture in a few hard won lines the life of a flower. Paintings from flower compo­si­tions are completely abstract, all forms and colors reduced, purified, spir­i­tu­alized. For Munter, art was not about appear­ances, but about real­ities lying behind appear­ances. Abstraction was a way of seeing into the heart of things.

by Rebecca Nemser for

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