Herbstlandschaft mit Baum is a painting that Kandinsky made whilst staying in the small market town of Murnau, near Munich. Kandinsky and his companion Gabriele Münter had first come across the village in June 1908, and returned to stay with their artist friends Alexej von Jawlensky and Marianne von Werefkin soon afterwards. The location of Murnau in the rolling hills by the Staffelsee, with its view of the Wetterstein Alps, presented a compelling visual environment for these artists. After years spent travelling throughout Europe and North Africa, Kandinsky decided to share his time living between the artistic hub of Munich and the small, sleepy town of Murnau, representing a new phase of undisturbed and intense creativity for the artist. Murnau held an instant appeal for Kandinsky and Münter. The reality of a simple, rustic life lead close to nature, reminded Kandinsky of his beloved Russia and he encouraged Münter to purchase a newly built house there in the spring of 1909, which came to be known as the Russenvilla. The brightly coloured traditional Bavarian architecture and the vast picturesque expanse of the mountain landscape around Murnau, proved highly conducive for Kandinsky, prompting in him both a resurgence of his affection for folk art and inspiring his sense of the 'spiritual'.
Herbstlandschaft mit Baum was executed in his third year of living periodically in Murnau, and is a fine example from this crucial period in Kandinsky's epic and pioneering journey towards abstraction. Leading up to his first summer in the village in 1908, Kandinsky's art had undergone several stylistic changes, from Impressionist landscape studies to Jugendstil inspired images based on Russian folksong and legends. All this was to change in Murnau. Consolidating his experiences and influences, Kandinsky struck out on a new path, formulating his own intuitions about the possibilities of painting. The intensive exchange of ideas with his artist colleagues lead to the creation of a new type of painting notable for its bold simplification and expressivity. Heightening his use of colour and broadening his brushstrokes to the point where each essentially abstract mark of the brush takes on a formal function of its own within the work, Kandinsky's Murnau landscapes grew increasingly abstract.
Kandinsky's paintings incorporate a thoughtful assimilation of myriad sources of inspiration, and in Murnau his paintings began to reflect the influence of Van Gogh, Gauguin and the Fauves - an influence that emerges at least two years after his time travelling through Europe and living in Paris. Jawlensky had had personal contact with Matisse and the Pont-Aven school and his chromatically intense images, based on a 'synthesis' between the observable world and the artist's emotional experience of it, in part instigated this change in Kandinsky's work and supported his theories on colour. This idea of synthesis and of colour, liberated from its descriptive function and used in a pure and autonomous way, became the primary medium through which Kandinsky sought to instill a sense of an emotive and essentially abstract phenomenon in the mind of the viewer. Working also as an art critic writing for the Apollon magazine in St. Petersburg in January of 1910, Kandinsky had bemoaned the conservative tastes of the Munich public and the soullessness of the Munich school of painting, with its 'wretched persistence in studying the organic and organic structure' (quoted in K.C. Lindsay and P. Vergo, (eds.), Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art, New York, 1994, p. 62). Kandinsky saw that change was necessary and described the recent exhibitions of French Fauves and Van Gogh in the city as 'bombs' exploding the existing staid atmosphere. Kandinsky's work took up the charge of challenging current tastes and mores. As he wrote in his introduction to the first exhibition of his paintings with the Neue Künstler Vereinigung (The Association of New Artists, formed alongside Jawlensky and Münter in 1909), his 'point of departure' was 'the belief that the artist, apart from those impressions that he receives from the world of external appearances, continually accumulates experiences within his own inner world. We seek artistic forms that should express the reciprocal permeation of all these experiences - forms that must be freed from everything incidental, in order powerfully to pronounce only that which is necessary - in short, artistic synthesis. This seems to us a solution that once more today unites in spirit increasing numbers of artists' (reproduced in P. Vergo & K. Lindsay (eds.), Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art, London, 1982, p. 53.)
Herbstlandschaft mit Baum is part of Kandinsky's transition toward pure painting, where the representational world is depicted in an increasing state of disintegration. Kandinsky maintained that his art stems from tradition and did not propose a radical break from the past but an organic growth toward something new. In 1910, he had yet to create his first truly non-objective painting, but was still tied to naturalistic motifs - finding in the external world the means to convey inner experience and to visually express emotion. Kandinsky knew where his art was heading to a certain extent, but he felt that his slow release from representative form was a necessary part of his evolution, 'As yet, objects did not want to, and were not to disappear altogether from my pictures,' he explained, 'it is impossible to conjure up maturity artificially at any particular time. And nothing is more damaging and more sinful than to seek one's forms by force. One's inner impulse, i.e., the creating spirit, will inexorably create at the right moment the form it finds necessary. One can philosophise about form; it can be analyzed, even calculated. It must, however, enter into the work of art by its own accord, and moreover, at the level of completeness which corresponds to the creative spirit. Thus, I was obliged to wait patiently for the hour that would lead my hand to abstract form' (quoted in V. Endicott Barnett, Vassily Kandinsky A Colourful Life, New York, 1996, p. 16).
Although Herbstlandschaft mit Baum keeps an allusion to the landscape, with its cluster of houses nestled between farmland and mountain peaks, its colour and structure are a construct of Kandinsky's visual imagination. Kandinsky maintains the impression of foreground, mid-ground and background, but diffuses the individual elements of the subject matter into a composition of vibrant colour zones, dissipating his painting's reliance on the representational world or traditional spatial perspective. Using the rich, autumnal landscape as the basis for an exploration of colour, form and line, Kandinsky intensifies the atmosphere of the composition to the extent that he appears to articulate a specific feeling rather than a scene from nature. Having adopted the two-dimensionality and linear construction seen in Russian icons and the traditional Bavarian glass painting he had seen in Murnau, the darkly outlined planes of rooftops and fencing are stacked one behind the other, compressing space further. The geometrical precision of the rooftop contours sits upon a blur of pure colour that breaks free from formal constraints to convey inner content, passing beyond an interpretation of the landscape to the creation of an image which, though suggested by the seen object, exists by virtue of its own power as a painting.
Here we see Kandinsky asserting the 'objecthood' of the picture, but his primary interest lies beyond the material structure of painting itself, and in his desire to express what is beneath external appearances. Kandinsky's life's work was based on the belief that art, like religion, must disclose a new order of experience; he felt that both were capable of describing exalted states and epiphanies of the spirit. Shortly before Herbstlandschaft mit Baum was executed, Kandinsky had completed his first manuscript for his landmark treatise Über das Geistige in der Kunst (On the Spiritual in Art), which outlined his ongoing aim to convey the transformative and transcendental potentials of art and his desire to raise the mind to a higher sphere of perception. In the document and in his essay Soderzhanie I forma (Content and Form) from the same period, Kandinsky compares colour to sound, explaining that just as musical sound acts directly on the soul, so too do colour and form. He recognised that colours, like music, have physical effects, that they can be combined to induce certain moods and emotions. This feeling is evident in Herbstlandschaft mit Baum, where the intention is also to use colour to produce an aesthetic and spiritual response in the viewer. Using a dissonant arrangement of cool blue and green tones contrasted against warm reds and bright yellows, the painting vibrates and resonates with a colourful and emotive life of its own.
On the Spiritual in Art was finally published in 1912, the year of Kandinsky's first solo exhibition in Berlin, of which Herbstlandschaft mit Baum was a part. The retrospective exhibition had been organized by the art-dealer Hans Goltz, who had initially planned for it to be shown in Munich on his own premises and had even produced an accompanying catalogue. However, the first showing of the exhibition would actually take place at Herwath Walden's Galerie Der Sturm, whose inaugural exhibition in March of 1912 had been a display by Der Blaue Reiter, Kandinsky's newly founded association of artist's that included Jawlensky, Franz Marc, August Macke, Paul Klee and Gabriele Münter. For his solo exhibition, the present work appeared in the catalogue as no. 53, Kleine Studien, but, according to Gabriele Münter's handwritten annotations in a copy of the exhibition catalogue held in the archives of the Städtische Galerie in Munich, the correct title is Herbstlandschaft mit Baum. As with the earlier exhibitions of the Neue Künstler Vereinigung , people felt they were being deliberately mocked and confused. Where new forms of expression appropriate to new subject-matter were being revealed, the public and critics saw only incompetence and the scurrilous outpourings of a sick mind. But for Kandinsky, the exhibition was a demonstration of his very specific ambitions to slowly reduce painting to its very essence, which he clearly defined in his catalogue foreword: 'This collection shows that my aims have always remained the same, but have only gained in clarity, and that my entire development has consisted only in the concentration of means necessary to attain this goal, means that gradually liberated themselves from everything that was for me incidental', thereby affirming his belief that new art must grow from that which comes before (quoted in P. Vergo & K. Lindsay (eds.), ibid., London, 1982, pp. 343-344).