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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