In mid-August 1908 Wassily Kandinsky and his companion, the painter Gabriele Münter, arrived in Murnau, a small market town situated southwest of Munich between Lake Staffel and a broad moor, at the foot of the Wetterstein and Karwendal Alps. They had visited the place earlier in the year and recommended it to their friends Alexej von Jawlensky and Marianne von Werefkin, who were also artists, back in Munich. While later staying there themselves, Jawlensky and Werefkin suggested that Kandinsky and Münter return to join them. The two couples took rooms in the Gasthof Griesbräu. For the first time in several years Kandinsky worked among a group of painters, for the next month and a half sharing with them ideas and motifs in and around the town. Possibly during a visit in December to nearby Urfeld am Wachelsee, Kandinsky painted Winterstudie mit Berg, depicting small hillside houses under an early snowfall, aglow in the reflected golden light of the late afternoon sun.
“His restless travelling ceased,” Will Grohmann wrote. “At Murnau in 1908 [Kandinsky] seemed to have achieved the peace of mind he had long been deprived of, and this peace of mind stayed with him after his return to Munich” (op. cit., 1958, p. 54). Following several more visits to Murnau, Kandinsky in August 1909 urged Münter to purchase a house that had become available; the “Russenvilla” became their country retreat from the distractions of the art scene in Munich until the beginning of the First World War in 1914. Kandinsky was attracted to the varieties of terrain he found in the surrounding landscape, and the many subjects within the town itself.
“Clean air and the brilliant light characteristic of the subalpine climate appeared to diminish perspective,” Peg Weiss wrote, “so that hills and mountains seemed to share, at an indeterminate distance, a narrow crystalline plane” (Kandinsky in Munich, exh. cat., The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1982, p. 59). Colors appeared to shine forth in all their sharpness and purity, as if disembodied from the landscape and floating on the mountain air, renderable in bold strokes of the brush. Kandinsky painted in and around Murnau tirelessly, excitedly, “as if a gate had suddenly opened onto a new vista,” Weiss declared. “Kandinsky now experienced a liberation in style that represented a drastic break with the recent past. All at once there seemed to be a way to resolve the dichotomy between his impressionist landscapes and the lyric works that had held his heart in thrall for so long” (ibid.).
Kandinsky had been seeking this revelatory moment, this new beginning in his art, for the past several years. Between May 1906 and June 1907, he and Münter resided in Sèvres, outside Paris, observing the tumultuous art world in the capital. When they arrived, the Fauve movement was in high gear, and by the time they departed, Kandinsky was following the growing interest among the avant-garde in the structural approach to painting, as seen in the work of Paul Cézanne. Kandinsky showed twentyone works at the 1906 Salon d’Automne and won a Grand Prix. He was acquiring a growing reputation for his lyrical and decorative scènes russes, especially as a maker of woodcuts and paintings in tempera.
While in Sèvres, on 4 December 1906, Kandinsky celebrated his fortieth birthday. He considered that he was three years older than Matisse, then the leading, most talked about painter in Paris. The many landscape studies that Kandinsky had panted from nature since 1901 displayed an attractive élan, especially in his free handling of the palette knife, but he realized that his use of color represented no significant advance beyond Impressionist practice. Indeed, it distressed him to recognize that there were many ways in which he had not kept up with the leading artists in Paris, many of whom were much younger than himself, and that he had yet to make his own major contribution to the modernist cause.
The brashly dissonant colors of the Fauve painters had to be reckoned with, Kandinsky understood, as the painters of Die Brücke in Berlin were already embracing in their work, together with the influence of Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Munch. It was not Kandinsky’s practice, however, to simply graft the ideas and means of others onto his work, without the compelling insight of a meaningful personal imperative. Murnau provided that incentive, encouraging Kandinsky to connect with the landscape in a way he had never previously experienced, like a farmer tilling his field, a gardener cultivating his grounds.
In Winterstudie mit Berg, as in other early Murnau pictures, Kandinsky effectively reduced distance and all spatial relationships to the two dimensions of the flat modernist picture plane. Over some rudimentary drawing, he used daubs of color—quickly gauged for effect and spontaneously applied, in a variety of strokes—to evoke forms and project mass. The contrast of saturated tones, light or dark, give equivalent weight to all parts of the composition, creating the effect of a totality detached from any naturalistic moorings and hovering in its own pictorial space. Vaguely recognizable, disembodied landscape elements reveal themselves to the eye, emerging as if at the outermost limits of representation, verging on the threshold of abstraction.
In his Murnau landscapes Kandinsky forged a distinctively Russian brand of Fauvism, as may also be seen in Jawlensky’s concurrent work. Both painters made the experience of light as transformed into color a far more subjective and intensely emotional process than did the French Fauves. For the latter, color was an observable, analyzable, and translatable phenomenon of nature that may be altered to suit the artist’s pictorial needs. For the Russians, the powers of expression inherent in color were strongly connected to a symbolic and spiritual dimension, and tinged with the overtly forceful impulse of expressionism. Their use of pure colors also stemmed from shared and deeply ingrained traditions rooted in native Russian folk and decorative arts.
The success of their recent collaborative efforts led Kandinsky, Münter, Jawlensky and Werefkin to establish the Neue Künstler- Vereinigung München (NKVM) in 1909, for the purposes of publicizing their aims and showing their work, as well as that of like-minded colleagues. For the group’s introductory brochure and the preface to the catalogue for its first exhibition in December 1909, Kandinsky wrote this statement:
“Our point of departure is the belief that the artist, apart from those impressions he receives from the world of external appearances, continually accumulates experiences within in his own inner world. We seek artistic forms that should express the reciprocal permeation of all these experiences—forms that must be freed of 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” (quoted in K.C. Lindsay and P. Vergo, eds., Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art, New York, 1994, p. 53).