The landscapes that Wassily Kandinsky painted in Murnau between 1908 and 1909 reflect the first full flowering of his art and mark the beginning of the artist's epic pioneering journey into abstraction. Magnifying and intensifying colour to the point where it begins to float freely and operate as a dynamic, abstract and interactive pictorial entity on the painting's surface, these works are the first in all Kandinsky's oeuvre to demonstrate his independence from the formative influences of Van Gogh, Gauguin and French Fauvism and the emergence of a new and wholly unique vision.
Murnau, with its shimmering landscape of rich, radiant and near-autonomous colour set deliberately against contrasting dark shadows presents a near panoramic overview of the leafy skyline of the small and sleepy Bavarian town of Murnau as seen from the rear of the house that Kandinsky shared with his lover and fellow pioneering artist Gabriele Münter. It is a work that offers, in this respect, a fascinating vista of much of the landscape and architecture that would, between 1908 and 1911, witness and distinguish many of Kandinsky's most radical leaps into non-objectivity. It is also one of relatively few landscapes from this period to engage with the subject of modernity. The depiction of the train running through the centre of the landscape at the foot of the hill is a rare inclusion in Kandinsky's work from this period and relates this work closely to Eisenbahn bei Murnau of 1909, now in the Lenbachhaus in Munich.
As its title suggests, Murnau presents a comprehensive view of the town of Murnau, looking towards the railway, the Schloss, and one of the town's main churches, distinguished by its striking Baroque tower, strangely reminiscent of the Russian churches Kandinsky had grown up with. These features, especially that of the church, comprise several of the key architectural features that would become the leitmotifs of many of Kandinsky's most progressive pictorial experiments. Depicting an almost prismatic view of the town - a compartmentalized play of the radiant and contrasting colours of a sunny afternoon - this exquisite landscape is a complex fusion of the intimate and the familiar, the domestic and the sublime that seems to both mirror and evoke the transitional state - halfway between figuration and abstraction - that distinguished so much of Kandinsky's art during this seminal period.
Indeed, it had been Kandinsky's discovery of Murnau, when first visiting with Gabriele Mnter in the summer of 1908, that proved the catalyst for Kandinsky's liberation of colour from form. The small town in the Bavarian Alps not far from Munich and perched on the edge of the Staffelsee held an instant appeal for Kandinsky and Münter who, after first visiting in June, later joined Jawlensky and Marianne von Werefkin for a prolonged sojourn in August 1908, later moving permanently to the area in 1909. The simple rustic life and the vast picturesque expanse of the mountain landscape around Murnau proved highly conducive for Kandinsky and prompted in him both a resurgence of his affection for folk art and inspired his profound sense of the 'spiritual'. Heightening his use of colour to a level of expressionistic intensity, and broadening his brushstrokes to the point where each mark takes on a formal function of its own within the work, Kandinsky's Murnau landscapes rapidly grew to become increasingly abstract statements about the nature of painting itself. The buildings, hills and trees of the Murnau landscape increasingly seemed to become like stage-sets that actively appeared to encourage a painterly departure away from the object based world. His paintings no longer asserted themselves as recordings of visual phenomena, or even of the appearance of an external reality, but as painterly experiments in the new way of perceiving the world that had revealed itself to Kandinsky shortly before he arrived there.
As he recorded in his Reminiscences of this crucial period in his life and the genesis of an abstract art, this new way of seeing derived from the synesthesia of a series of recent events and experiences that 'stamped my whole life and shook me to the depths of my being.' They were: hearing of the apparent divisibility of the atom, a performance of Wagner's Lohengrin at the Court Theatre and a sudden recognition of the abstract qualities inherent within one of Claude Monet's Haystack paintings. These experiences awoke him to an understanding of the illusory nature of the material world of so-called 'reality' and also of painting as a medium of 'fairy tale power and splendour' (Wassily Kandinsky, Reminiscences 1912-13, quoted in P.Vergo & K.Lindsay, eds., Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art, London, 1982, p. 363).
In Murnau, after witnessing the 'advanced' developments that Jawlensky had also recently made in his painting, Kandinsky now abruptly began to 'let himself go'. Thinking 'little of houses and trees' he described how he began, as is visible in this work, to apply 'coloured stripes and spots', making them 'sing out as strongly as I could' (Wassily Kandinsky, quoted in F. Whitford, Kandinsky, London, 1967, p. 31).
Combining his belief in the spiritual 'sound' or resonance of colour with the boldness, intensity and simplicity of Russian folk art and, indeed, the still extant folk tradition of hinterglasmalerei or glass-painting which he had also recently discovered in Murnau, Kandinsky's paintings grew quickly to depict more than external appearances and to evoke a sense of an innate and holistic spiritual dimension binding the material world together. Colour, liberated from its descriptive function and used in a pure, intuitive and autonomous sequence of near rectangular brushstrokes, began to imbue his paintings with an emotive power and an autonomous abstract energy independent of their subject. Painting became an expression of what Kandinsky described in the introduction to his first exhibition of paintings with the Neue Künstler Vereinigung (The Association of New Artists) in 1909, as 'the reciprocal permeation [of the artist's] inner world' as stimulated by the 'impressions' the artist 'receives from the world of external appearances' (Wassily Kandinsky quoted in P. Vergo and K.Lindsay, eds., op cit, p.53).
Murnau. is a work still firmly rooted in the world of external appearance, but one which also seems to be hovering on the edge of abstraction. Self-evidently a pictorial creation of impressions rendered as improvised brushmarks of heightened colour, the dazzling and variegated patterns that they establish define the village landscape while at the same time hovering on the surface of the painting as if only momentarily conveying this vista before disassembling into another non-representational world of their own.