Painted in 1908, Murnau is a vibrant and variegated depiction of the landscape surrounding the picturesque Bavarian village dating from the first of three summers Jawlensky spent working in the company of Wassily Kandinsky, Gabriele Münter and Marianne Werefkin. Murnau, a small market town some fifty miles south of Munich, was easily reachable by railway and its surrounding moor, with its view of the Wetterstein Alps, provided a compelling visual environment for the artists. Peter Vergo notes that correspondence with the architect Albert Hornig indicates Jawlensky was familiar with the village as early as 1905, but it was not until his sojourn with Kandinsky and Münter that he spent a significant amount of time there, inspired to paint the colourful village buildings, sweeping landscape and distinctive sub-alpine light. This first lengthy stay in Murnau proved a significant turning point for the group's artistic growth and resulted in a period of enormous creativity and productivity for the painters.
Jawlensky had befriended Kandinsky, a fellow Russian, whilst studying under Anton Azbe in Munich. As a tutor, Azbe had advocated the importance of colour over composition and form, thereby influencing his pupil's development towards an expressionist method of painting. Combining these lessons with the theories and techniques of the Post-Impressionist and avant-garde art that he had been exposed to during his travels through Europe, Jawlensky began to forge a new and wholly unique vision with the Murnau group, moving away from the ideal of clarity and precision towards an art of expressiveness, vitality and flux.
It was Jawlensky who took the lead in guiding the group's artistic evolution during the summer of 1908. Following the example set by Gauguin's Synthetist techniques, Jawslensky instilled the importance of integrating visual impressions of the external world with the emotional life of the artist, a perspective that would impact on the Neue Künstlervereinigung München (Munich New Artist's Association), which the three artist's would found in 1909. Describing the impact of Jawlensky's work on the others, Johannes Eichner wrote, 'without a doubt Jawlensky was the most advanced when the group began its work in Murnau. He already knew how to paint in a 'modern way'. He had learnt the School of Pont Aven's method of harnessing colour planes to linear contours' (J. Eichner quoted in Gabriele Münter, The Years of Expressionism, 1903-1920, Munich, 1997, p. 74).
The artists worked together in a communal way, frequently painting the same scenes and discussing the developments and transformations their work underwent, and yet each retained their individual voice. The clearly traced, linear rhythms and short, expressive brush strokes of Jawlensky's Murnau reveals the excitement and freedom he found in this new phase of his career. The painting is an exceptional leap towards abstraction, conveying the painter's desire 'to go beyond the material objects and express in colour and form the thing which was vibrating within me' (quoted in M. Jawlensky, L. Peroni-Jawlensky and A. Jawlensky, op. cit., p. 30). Even the view that Jawlensky has chosen to depict in Murnau, a path passing through a wood, suggests a moment of transition. Beyond the grassy slope and the arching trees of the foreground, barely recognisable buildings have been abstracted to their most essential form or verge on blending into their surroundings entirely. Using the Bavarian tradition of brightly enamelled glass as a springboard for his new formal experiments, Jawlensky gives Murnau an extraordinary spatial recession, compressing the picture plane to place the accentuation on the painted surface itself. Despite the introduction of increasingly intense colours in his work at this time, Jawlensky always sought to find an harmonious balance in his paintings. Murnau's unusual portrait format, with its centralized, vertical composition, avoids jarring contrasts through the symmetry of dense, lush greens in the grass and trees, which are tied together with a spectrum of warm hues to create a unified whole. The result is a dynamic and essentially abstract balance of colour that dominates the painting whilst still adhering to both the forms and the overall mood of the landscape.
Jawlensky consistently described painting as a 'search' and did not want to paint what he saw, but what he felt. Although he would go out to observe and paint the surrounding landscapes of Murnau en plein air, he was more concerned with reaching from within, to express his experience rather than recording what he had seen. He would never completely abandon elements of naturalism, always retaining at least a reference to physical reality, yet his work hovers halfway between figuration and abstraction. Murnau transforms the warm, shimmering late summer light into a sumptuous and harmonious conglomeration of colour and form to articulate the atmosphere and emotion of an inner response to the landscape. By interpreting the landscape in this way, Jawlensky rejects the idea of an objective reality in an attempt to transcend the everyday appearance of things and to evoke a sense of an innate spiritual dimension that he believed holds the world of outer appearance together.