Bernhard Mayer, Zurich (acquired in the 1920s)
Thence by descent to the present owner
Berlin, Der Sturm, Kandinsky Kollektiv-Ausstellung 1902-1912, 1912, no. 68 (first edition) & no. 61 (second edition)
Berlin, Galerie Der Sturm, Der Sturm, 44. Ausstellung, Kandinsky, 1916, no. 5
Bern, Kunsthalle, Gesamtausstellung Wassily Kandinsky, 1955, no. 15, illustrated in the catalogue
Basel, Kunsthalle, Wassily Kandinsky Gesamtausstellung, 1963, no. 91
Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Tel Aviv (on loan 1984-2017)
Jerusalem, The Israel Museum, Monet to Matisse: Modern Masters from Swiss Private Collections, 1988-89, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
Berlin, Brücke-Museum & Tübingen, Kunsthalle, Der frühe Kandinsky, 1994-95, no. 99, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
Zurich, Kunsthaus, Die Sammlung Bernhard Mayer, 1998, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
Zurich, Kunsthaus, Fest der Farbe: Die Sammlung Merzbacher-Mayer, 2006, no. 73
London, Tate Modern & Basel, Kunstmuseum, Kandinsky: The Path to Abstraction / Kandinsky: Malerei 1908-1921, 2006-07, no. 11 (in London); no. 9 (in Basel), illustrated in colour in the catalogue
Berlin, Martin-Gropius-Bau, Tel Aviv Museum of Art Visits Berlin: Modern and Contemporary Art, 2015, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
Will Grohmann, Wassily Kandinsky: Life and Work, London, 1959, no. 25, illustrated p. 351
Donald E. Gordon, Modern Art Exhibitions, 1900-1916, Munich, 1974, vol. II, no. 963, listed p. 417 (titled Landscape)
Hans K. Roethel & Jean K. Benjamin, Kandinsky: Catalogue Raisonné of the Oil-Paintings, New York, 1982, vol. I, no. 277, illustrated p. 265
By Dr Shulamith Behr
In 1937, while in exile in Paris, Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) wrote with pride about the impact of his Murnau landscapes that were still in his collection, ‘the colours have to this day remained completely fresh… as though they are still wet. It was not without good reason that I concerned myself so very much with technical matters.’ We can agree with both Kandinsky and the eminent conservator Rudolf H. Wackernagel that the colour effects of these works are truly astonishing to this day, the consequence of the artist’s versatile talents and knowledge of his techniques. Kandinsky’s gestural exploration of the oil medium was accompanied by his selection of short-haired brushes and a change of support, from canvas or cardboard, to unprimed strawboard. The present painting Murnau – Landscape with Green House (1909) is testimony not only to his adoption of these avant-garde painterly strategies, but also to his collaboration with like-minded colleagues and involvement in the pre-war German art world. Prior to considering the Murnau phenomenon, it is helpful to position Kandinsky’s practices in relation to his experiences in Munich and Paris.
One can ascertain from Kandinsky’s biography that his professional path was by no means straightforward. In 1896, at the age of thirty, he decided to pursue an artistic rather than an academic career; yet his specialist study of Russian peasant law and ethnography was to prove a vital influence on his development. He was not alone in his choice of Munich as a place to train as many of his compatriots, among them Alexei Jawlensky (1864-1941) and Marianne Werefkin (1869-1938), settled there in the same year. A rival to Berlin as an artistic centre, Munich boasted the highly rated teaching institution of the Academy of Fine Arts and a greater availability of exhibiting space. In 1901, however, Kandinsky struck out independently by co-founding the artists’ association known as Phalanx, which was devoted to the reforming principles of Jugendstil or Youth Style, the German term for the Applied Arts movement.
It was in his capacity as a teacher in the Phalanx school that Kandinsky first made contact with Gabriele Münter (1887-1962), who attended evening life-classes under his guidance and was encouraged to pursue plein air painting in excursions to Kochel and Kallmünz in Bavaria. Although Kandinsky was married at the time, he and Münter became lovers and they led a peripatetic lifestyle over the next four years. This concluded with a year spent in Sèvres on the outskirts of Paris where Kandinsky produced small oil studies of the environs. The paint was applied with the palette knife, directly from the tube or occasionally with the brush. The freedom of painting landscape in situ offered Kandinsky the opportunity for modernist experimentation. In contrast, his developed studio work, painted on large stretched canvases in mixed media, drew on medieval imagery and themes of Old Russia.
A major work of this period Das bunte Leben (1907, fig. 2) was exhibited at the Salon d’Automne in 1907, Kandinsky being well aware of Matisse’s unusual pastoral The Joy of Life (1905-06, fig. 3), which was shown in the Salon des Indépendants the previous year. Whereas Matisse located his lyrical fantasy in Collioure in the south of France, Kandinsky’s travels in rural Russia led him to anchor this mythical narrative in the market town of Ust Sysolsk, apparently the centre of Kandinsky’s earlier ethnographic activities. An amphitheatre is created to contain the varied populace, who are portrayed wearing the patterned costume of the local Zyrian peasants. Pagan and Christian images, such as the Madonna and Child, are subordinated to a quasi-pointillist technique, applied over a black tempera ground, and sealed with varnish. Because of their unscientific and rhythmic application, the dots, patches and shapes of colour take on their own independent existence and elude a systematic reading of form and space.
It is difficult to determine whether Kandinsky considered this enigmatic account of things Russian to be marketable; there was a forceful community of Russian expatriates in Paris who exhibited at the Salon d’Automne in 1905, which saw the controversial launching of the French group of Fauvists. For this occasion, the impresario Sergei Diaghilev organised a Russian pavilion; however, Kandinsky didn’t affiliate with this group. It was only after the couple’s return to Munich that, along with Jawlensky and Werefkin, they became actively engaged in transforming painting into the more non-naturalistic art associated with Expressionism.
The radical changes that occurred in Kandinsky’s œuvre in the summer of 1908 are best considered in light of the foursome’s excursions to the town of Murnau. This initiated a period of interaction that involved their testing of the limits of painting within the landscape genre, while intensifying an engagement with notions of primitivism. Located in the south Bavarian Alps, Murnau was a market town with a predominantly agrarian and Catholic population. It was also sought after as a tourist destination and contemporary photographs of the artists give credence to the disjunction of their urbane attire in the country setting. That the architectural cohesion of the town was the result of recent modernisation was of little consequence since it matched their search for rustic simplicity, authenticity and piety. Indeed, so taken were they with the area that Münter purchased a property there in 1909, which became a retreat for members of the Neue Künstlervereinigung München, an exhibiting association of artists that they co-founded in January of that year.
It was Jawlensky who first drew their attention to Bavarian and Bohemian glass painting and to the technique known as Hinterglasmalerei (reverse glass painting). A substantial collection was owned by a local brewer in Murnau, Johann Krötz. Münter started her own collection recreating the votive corners of Bavarian interiors. She copied traditional examples of this genre (images of patron saints), both she and Kandinsky learning the technique from Heinrich Rambold, a glass painter still active in Murnau. Notwithstanding the fact that the production of folk art had long been part of a thriving industry – stimulated by the expanding tourist economy of the region – the group cherished the neo-romantic belief in the innocent religiosity and naïve originality of folk artists. No doubt, as ethnographer cum artist, Kandinsky delighted in the transnational and cultural parallels between Russia and Germany.
Jawlensky was the most conversant with avant-garde developments in Paris. He had exhibited with the Russian group of artists at the Salon d’Automne of 1905 and his acquaintance with Synthetist aesthetic theory was updated by a period spent in Matisse’s studio during 1907. Hence, in the painting Summer Evening in Murnau, of 1908-09 (Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus Munich), he negotiated paths between a Matisse-inspired modernism and the lessons offered by the linear-bound planes of folk art. Based on the near complementary colours of purple and orange, the paint application varies from thin washes, through to the textured impasto of the blazing sunset. Encouraged by Jawlensky’s example, in the present painting Murnau – Landscape with Green House (1909), Kandinsky gave up the palette knife in favour of short-haired brushes and larger, unprimed boards.
In view of its scale, the work indicates that Kandinsky had come to regard the landscape genre as worthy of a fully worked-up ‘painting’ rather than a mere ‘oil study’, albeit that the exposed ground and hautes pâtes brushstrokes give the appearance of in situ painting. To retain the freshness and nuances of direct colour application, Kandinsky refrained from varnishing his works from 1909 onwards. Interestingly, this richly orchestrated painting rather than the preparatory oil study (1908, fig. 7) was exhibited and purchased in Kandinsky’s lifetime. The latter, produced concurrently with Münter’s photograph of Pfarrstrasse (fig. 8), reveals the site-specific nature of the street and houses, Kandinsky opening up the vista above the railings of the fence and abutting garden.
It was in Murnau that Kandinsky’s somewhat academic practice of retaining firm distinctions between his ‘paintings’, ‘oil studies’ and ‘coloured drawings’ was turned on its head. Indeed, between 1909 and 1914, visionary landscape was to become the basis for his major abstract compositions.
Dr Shulamith Behr is an Honorary Research Fellow at The Courtauld Institute of Art, London
1 Letter to Galka Scheyer, 29 June 1937, in Jelena Hahl-Koch, Kandinsky, Stuttgart, 1993, p. 330
2 Rudolf H. Wackernagel, “Watercolor with ‘Oil’ …, Oil with ‘Watercolor’, and so on: On Kandinsky’s Studio and his Painting Techniques,” in Vasily Kandinsky: A Colorful Life, Helmut Friedel (ed.), Cologne, 1995, p. 561
3 The German-Jewish publisher and art dealer Herwarth Walden (1878-1942) became the artist’s agent in 1912. See Riccardo Marchi, “‘October 1912.’ Understanding Kandinsky’s Art ‘Indirectly’ at Der Sturm,” Getty Research Journal, no. 1, 2009, pp. 53-74
4 See Peg Weiss, Kandinsky and Old Russia: The Artist as Ethnographer and Shaman, New Haven & London, 1995, pp. 49-50