Auguste Macke
Promenade, 1913. Lenbachhaus Munich, Donation of Bernhard and Elly Koehler 1965
Artillery Row The Critics

The brighter side of German Expressionism

The expressionists breathed fresh life into familiar subjects

Here in Britain, we tend to think of the German Expressionists as a miserable, misanthropic bunch, painting dark, distorted pictures of fat capitalists and consumptive prostitutes carousing in decadent nightclubs. However, that’s only half the story. This colourful exhibition at Tate Modern is about the brighter side of German Expressionism — an idealistic group of artists called Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), who lived and worked in Murnau, a quaint market town in Bavaria, during those halcyon days before the First World War.

Unlike their gloomy peers, Max Beckmann and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, or their glum successors, George Grosz and Otto Dix, these Blaue Reiter artists were more interested in nature than dystopian nightlife. Their subject matter was conventional: landscapes, portraits, still lifes… It was their approach which was revolutionary. Inspired by a range of genres, from Old Masters to Folk Art, they breathed fresh life into familiar subjects. Their bold, vivid style married realism and abstraction, infusing every scene with fierce emotion. Rather than simply painting what they saw, they painted what they felt.

The human story behind this show would make a very good romantic novel, or a Merchant Ivory movie starring Helena Bonham Carter and Daniel Day-Lewis. It’s a plotline with a bit of everything: love and death, war and peace, and a guest appearance by Hollywood’s favourite villains, the Nazis… 

Our tale begins in 1901, when a wealthy young German woman, Gabriele Münter, comes to Munich to study art. Munich’s official art school, the Kunstakademie, doesn’t admit female students, so she takes private lessons from an artist ten years her senior, a Russian émigré called Wassily Kandinsky.

Kandinsky isn’t an established artist — he’s just another wannabe — but he’s talented and charismatic, and when he takes Münter to Murnau to teach her landscape painting, they become lovers (luckily for him, she’s never heard of #MeToo). They set off on an illicit odyssey around Europe — bankrolled by Münter — in search of artistic inspiration, and to avoid Kandinsky’s wife. 

In 1908, they end up back in Murnau, where Münter buys a house. This house becomes a hub for all their arty friends from Munich, in particular a Russian couple, Alexej von Jawlensky and Marianne von Werefkin, and a German couple, Franz and Maria Marc. In 1911, they publish The Blue Rider Almanac, a sort of manifesto which becomes the name of their collective, a name which evokes their vague mysticism, and their affinity with the natural world.

There’s nothing debauched about their lifestyles — they’re far too busy painting — but they’re liberal and bohemian, three of them are foreigners, and only the Marcs are married. Their neighbours are simple farming folk, conservative and devoutly Catholic. They call this house “The Russian House.” Turns out they’re right to be wary. In 1914, Germany and Russia go to war. Kandinsky, Jawlensky and von Werefkin are given three days to leave the country. Marc enlists in the Kaiser’s army, and dies in 1916, at the Battle of Verdun.

After the war, Kandinsky and Jawlensky both return to Germany, but Jawlensky and von Werefkin separate, and Kandinsky never sees Münter again. Belatedly, she learns he’s remarried, to a woman half her age. 

When Hitler comes to power, Kandinsky and Jawlensky are condemned as degenerate artists and their work is removed from galleries, to be destroyed or sold abroad. Luckily, the Nazis never discover the huge stash of their work which Münter keeps hidden in her cellar. Her own work has been largely overlooked by the chauvinistic art establishment. In this respect, the Nazis are no different. She lives a quiet life in Murnau and survives the war. 

In 1957, on her 80th birthday, Münter bequeaths her private art collection to the Lenbachhaus Museum in Munich, making it, overnight, the gallery with the best and biggest Blaue Reiter collection in the world. The size and scope of this collection is a revelation. Many of these paintings have gone unseen for half a century, hidden in her house in Murnau, presumed lost during the war. She dies in 1962, aged 85, the last survivor of the Blaue Reiter. Her clandestine collection, now at the Lenbachhaus, forms the basis of this new show.

Franz Marc
Cows, Red, Green, Yellow, 1911.
Lenbachhaus Munich

Since her death, 62 years ago, Münter’s reputation has grown and grown. This exhibition is a continuation of that process. Does she deserve equal billing with Kandinsky? Not really. Yes, it was an injustice that, for so long, her own work was a mere footnote in his biography, but it now feels as if the pendulum has swung too far the other way. Ditto the work of Marianne von Werefkin and Maria Franck-Marc, which also features prominently in this show. Yes, they’re significant artists in their own right, and they deserve to be recognised as such, rather than being dismissed as the wives or girlfriends of famous men. However does their work deserve the same prominence as the work of their partners, Jawlensky and Franz Marc? I don’t think so.

Jawlensky’s work is incredibly vigorous and vibrant, Kandinsky is toying with new forms of abstraction, and Marc is doing something utterly unique. His haunting paintings of the animal kingdom have an almost pantheistic quality. There’s been nothing remotely like it, before or since. Their female counterparts are striking, but there’s really no comparison. No shame in that: these are three of the greatest painters in the history of modern art. 

Yes, it’s terribly unfair that these women were written out of art history, deprived of proper training, reduced to playing second fiddle to their menfolk. Marc and Kandinsky are billed as joint authors of the Almanac, when it was clearly a team effort. Kandinsky wrote a self-serving memoir (taken on trust by art historians) in which he hogged the credit for Der Blaue Reiter. He treated Münter pretty badly, but there’s no justice in art. Münter’s work is worthy of respect but Kandinsky’s work stands above it.  Shits have always prospered, and nice guys (and girls) often finish last.

If any artist in this exhibition has been denied their proper due, it’s August Macke

If any artist in this exhibition has been denied their proper due, it’s August Macke, who died fighting for the Kaiser on the Western Front, in the first month of the First World War. Aged just 27 when was killed, he left behind a rich body of work, of astonishing beauty and maturity. At 27, Franz Marc was only just getting going. At 27, Kandinsky hadn’t even started painting. 

Marc also perished on the Western Front, two years later, but at least he reached the age of 36. If Macke had lived another nine years, like Marc, or another 50 years, like Kandinsky, who knows what he might have achieved? He’s still remembered in Germany, but in Britain he’s virtually unknown. If any two artists deserve star billing in the title of this show, it’s surely Marc and Macke. If they’d survived the trenches, they could have lived until the 1970s, and the story of German Expressionism might have been entirely different — not a tale of chaos and despair, but a tale of light and hope.

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