Out of Kandinsky's Shadow

Gabriele Munter: Between Munich and Murnau At the Busch-Reisinger Museum Through November 8

PERSUADING FRIENDS to visit an exhibition of an artist as little-known as Gabriele Munter may be difficult, but it is well worth the trouble. Few are familiar with Munter's work; that's a shame. Munter's significant contribution to the Blaue Reiter movement, a reaction to impressionism that stressed abstract forms, merits far greater attention than it has received until now. Her participation in this avant-garde group, however, does not constitute her major achievement; the Blaue Reiter fails to encompass the whole extent of Munter's quiet originality of style.

The collection that Charles Haxhausen, curator of the Busch-Reisinger, and Ann Mochon, from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, have organized suggests an answer to the enigma of Munter's obscurity. The tremendous diversity in the exhibition--which includes lineoleum prints, graphite sketches, and lithographs as well as paintings, but does not cover her photography or special projects like a purse and wall hanging executed by the artist from designs by Wassily Kandinsky--reveals the difficulty of pigeonholing Munter's talent.

To make the situation worse, Munter's style can't be pinned down to one movement. She shows little traditional influence in most of her work, and in others, a definite Symbolist tendency, like her Portrait of Kandinsky, 1906, a lineoleum print that portrays Kandinsky staring out penetratingly against a background of large patches of stained-glass color. Her later Blaue Reiter work shows the influence of artists Jawlensky and Macke, as well as Kandinsky. In Still Life with Sunflowers, a simple outline of a vase supports very simply painted flowers. Using a minimum of strokes, Munter has made the stems stick out at jagged angles like a spider's legs. The flowers stand out in sharp contrast to the wall behind them which is painted in blocks of dark pastel colors. Finally, Munter became interested in religious objects, painting them in many of her later works, often in an mystical way, as in her Still Life with St. George, a painting mostly in dark, eerie blues and greens of two creche figures, two Madonnas, and St. George arranged with flowers and a ceramic hen. The subjects look like toys somberly gathered on a table. They are painted with a few large brushstrokes, giving the general idea of the figurines without including much detail. The large strokes Munter used created a textured surface to the painting, like dried smatterings of oils left on the palette.

PERHAPS THE PRINCIPAL PROBLEM behind Munter's lack of recognition lies in her relationship with Kandinsky, a genuis of the Blaue Reiter group. At first his student, and then his companion for eight years (difficulty obtaining a Russian divorce from his first wife precluded their marriage), Munter's work was constantly, and unavoidably, compared to an artistic giant who towered above her in his achievement. Mochon, in her catalog accompanying the exhibition (worth the price), describes the role of the women in the Blaue Reiter circle as definitely secondary: in the discussion and planning sessions for an almanac to present the viewpoint of the group, the men "formulated and dictated the ideas for the almanac, and the women dutifully transcribed them."

At the same time, Kandinsky provided invaluable guidance and support for Munter during the period of their association, and his influence in many areas undoubtedly aided her development of her own, stubbornly original style. This originality and her diversity of form also give her style the possibility of wider appeal; for example, three lineoleum prints of children's toys, called Playthings No. One, Two and Three, might capture the interest of a conservative-minded audience. The dolls, soldiers and stuffed animals, mostly in pink, yellow, light blue and green, look strikingly life-like. A harshness characteristic of German painting contrasts with the childlike simplicity of the toys.


This exhibition, as well as focusing attention on a worthy but obscure artist, also shows that the Blaue Reiter movement included more than just Klee and Kandinsky. As a woman who persisted in her original interpretation of her time, Munter increased the scope of an artistic movement which helped define modern art, and at the same time, managed to remain involved with her subject in a way that always defied classification.