You may know of Gabriele Münter as the partner of Kandinsky during the years of the Der Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider group). By all accounts her life was made miserable by her great and no-doubt difficult teacher and long-time lover Wassily Kandinsky.
Kandinsky was hard task master it seems, telling her ‘as a pupil you are hopeless – nothing can be taught you….What I can do for you is merely to guard your talent, to nurse it, and to make sure nothing false touches it’ (Greer, The Obstacle Race, p42). He also showed himself to be ruthless in love, leaving Münter in 1914 to return to Russia and then without explanation married a younger woman and never saw Münter again.
This self-portrait painted in 1909 about mid-way through their 12 year love affair, strikes me as quite a timid one – we see Münter as a cautious woman in a big hat looking out from behind her easel, palette in hand. The strength of the colour work – the rather lovely green shadow under her hat along with the jaunty angle of the body are the elements for me which save the work from being passed over altogether. It lacks the power and personal conviction of some of the other works I have written about and while it’s a great example of how Modernism led us to question everything we thought about art and more, this piece as self-portrait is a conservative one.
And then I looked at this.
It’s in this self-portrait work of 1908 I was able to find Gabriele Münter. I can see her now in context to her life. The hallmarks of Expressionism are all over her face – no pun intended. The rapidity of the mark-making communicates such strength of emotion and is given credibility through the use of shadow; the dark ‘y-shaped’ mark at the base of her chin, propping her face up, forthright and facing herself. The large eyes loom with a sadness that is quite exquisite. And her small mouth as in the above image, still shows her fear, or is it just dismay?
The occurrence of the female artist being relegated to play second fiddle in relationship with the male artist is a theme prominent in art history. Needless to say, the woman’s role was to support the master. And probably within the cultural context of the day, many of these woman thought that to be right and proper – the natural order of things. As women, we are as guilty as others of being unable to see our own contribution to art as valuable.
And so it was with Münter and Kandinsky. Within this frame it’s easy to see the struggle women had to be artists. Strange really, that in most circles it was more acceptable for a young woman to become the unmarried lover of an older man, than it was for her to have her own art practice and to be supported in its development for it own sake.
Click here for snippets about Gabriele Münter’s art and thinking.