Expressionists – Kandinsky, Münter and The Blue Rider

Tate Modern, 25 April – 20 October 2024



“I do not want to paint music.  I do not want to paint states of mind.  I do not want to paint colouristically or uncolouristically.  I do not want to alter, contest, or overthrow any single point in the harmony of the masterpieces of the past.  I do not want to show the future its true path.”  So wrote Wassily Kandinsky in 1914, somewhat defensively, in response to art criticism which he felt had “often been rebarbative and has shouted falsehoods into the ears of many who were inclined to hear.” He went on to say that the main error of art historians was to assume that an artist works for praise or admiration or seeks to avoid criticism.  On the contrary, he asserted, the artist obeys the categorical commands of a voice which is none other than God’s.

The Blue Rider (Der Blaue Reiter) means two things: a diverse group of avant-garde artists from a variety of countries and backgrounds who gathered together in Munich pre-First World War to share their beliefs and enthusiasms; and the name of the Almanac which they produced to showcase their works and ideas.

The main figures in the group were the Russian Kandinsky, the German Franz Marc, Kandinsky’s German former pupil and lover Gabriele Münter, the Russian Marianne von Werefkin, Frenchman Robert Delaunay, the American Elisabeth Epstein and Swiss-born Paul Klee.  The group had strong links with the composers Thomas de Hartman (born in Ukraine) and Arnold Schoenberg (Austrian, an established painter in his own right), and looser links with a large range of artists including Matisse, Braque and Picasso.  It was typical of the group to travel extensively around Europe.

Robert Delaunay: Circular Shapes, Moon No1, 1913.  Lenbachhaus Munich.

Within the group artistic approaches and aims varied, but they were all eager to promote a modern art which stretched forward beyond impressionism and there was an atmosphere of collective endeavour, friendship and support.  They shared a common desire to express spiritual truths through art and Kandinsky’s 1911 book, On the Spiritual in Art, remains influential to this day.  The group sought connections between visual art and music; they saw the spiritual and symbolic associations of colour; and they sought a spontaneous, intuitive approach to painting.  From this mix true Abstraction would emerge, mainly in the work of Kandinsky, less than a decade later.

The Almanac, which was intended to be an annual publication, only appeared once, in mid-May 1912 (also translated and republished in Britain).  The onset of war prevented further editions, and indeed led to the disbandment of the group.  The Almanac contained reproductions of more than a hundred artworks and scholarly articles on many aspects of contemporary art including spirituality, cubism, children’s art, Chinese art, theatre and music.  There were two associated exhibitions held in Munich in 1911 and 1912, the first also touring many European cities.

This exhibition at Tate Modern provides a feast of great work and is best taken slowly over at least two hours.  The paintings, almost all figurative, generally exhibit the use of big bold colours and striking representations of people and animal forms.  Undoubtedly Kandinsky emerges as the star of the show (something I am sure he would have resisted) but the contributions of his associates are almost as compelling.

Although not religious in the conventional sense, most members of the group based their art on a search for spiritual fulfilment.  Franz Marc said, “I’m striving to intensify my feeling for the organic rhythm of all things, trying to feel myself pantheistically to the quivering and flow of blood in nature, in trees, animals, the air…”   And in a letter to Münter Kandinsky once claimed that she did not properly understand “Joy, the most beautiful, purest joy, which does not spring from man, is not made by man.  The divine feeling that suddenly almost makes the everlastingly unclear seem quite clear.”

Franz Marc: In the Rain, 1912.  Lenbachhaus, Munich.

The role of the women in the group is particularly noteworthy.  It should be remembered that at the time female students were not admitted to fine arts academies and the art schools which were open to them generally prepared women for typically “feminine” occupations such as textile design.  Münter was a relatively wealthy young woman of independent means and prior to meeting Kandinsky had spent two years in the southwest of the United States where she had developed great skill as a photographer.  The exhibition shows a good variety of these pictures and later ones she took in Tunisia.

Also, Bavaria at that time was quite prosperous and culturally sophisticated, providing a middle class with the purchasing power to support an artistic community.  Munich was a relatively liberal and open environment which attracted marginalised artists from less tolerant societies.  A person seeking unconventional romantic partnerships or those exploring their gender identities would be more comfortable here than in many other European centres.  Münter and Kandinski were a couple for twelve years but never formally married.  Neither did Marianne Werefkin who refused her partner of twenty-seven years Alexej von Jawlensky, also one of the group.  Resenting traditional gender roles, Werefkin stated: ‘I am not a man, I am not a woman, I am I.’ She shared affinities with artists, particularly in the theatre, who felt safer in an environment which allowed for greater expression of personal sexuality.  She supported and painted the androgynous dancer Alexander Sacharoff.

Marianne Werefkin: The Dancer, Alexander Sacharoff, 1909.  Museo Comunale, d’Arte Moderna, Ascona.

I was not quite convinced by the curators’ structuring of the show to include small separate spaces labelled Sound, Colour and Light.  In the Sound section attendees are invited to spend a while listening to some of Schoenberg’s music, in front of a Kandinsky painting inspired by such an event.  In a busy gallery I rather doubt that this will work.  In the section labelled Light, Kandinsky’s Improvisation Gorge is illuminated by a light installation by contemporary artist Olafur Eliassoning which slowly cycles through three different colour temperatures to bring out different aspects of the work and to encourage us to question our response to different colour palettes.  Again, I am not sure whether patrons of the show will have the patience for this.

Wassily Kandinsky: Improvisation Gorge, 1914.  Lenbachhaus, Munich, in the section labelled Light.

What is very pleasing, however, is the inclusion of other art which fascinated The Blue Rider group themselves.  It was in keeping with their generally outward-looking, transnational curiosity.  They were avid collectors of folk art from Bavaria, Central and Eastern Europe and South and East Asia and Japan.

Unknown Artist: The Dove of the Holy Spirit, Mid-19th Century. Gabriele Munter and Johannes Eichner Foundation, Munich.

In summary: an extremely enjoyable and informative exhibition of works by a small group of artists who, together for a relatively short time, fostered a collective energy which helped push art firmly forwards into the 20th century.

Of course in many respects a show like this begs the big question: when will London have a major exhibition of Kandinsky’s later, purely abstract works – some of the most joyful painting in existence, in my opinion? Not in the foreseeable future I was told.  Also, I asked one of the curators about Kandinsky’s theatre piece, Yellow Sound, which apparently has never had a successful production.  “Watch this space,” was the enigmatic reply.

© Graham Buchan 2024