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As a founding member of Der Blaue Reiter group, Gabriele Münter's art, and her relationship with Wassily Kandinsky, played a significant role in charting the emergence of a new visual vocabulary in modern art. Münter was one of a very few remarkable women working at the centre of Munich's avant-garde circle during a time of rapid change and intense creativity, and her paintings helped promote a spontaneous, intuitive approach that held the influence of folk art and the desire to convey spiritual energy as its vital source.
From a young age, Münter possessed a keen ambition to be taken seriously as an artist, and in 1901 she enrolled in the short-lived, experimental Phalanx School, of which Kandinsky was a co-founder. The school was one of the only places in Germany that women could study alongside men and assert the validity of their work, and for the first time, Münter found a mentor that could truly enable her to progress as an artist. Kandinsky's recognition of her natural talent and his encouragement of her ambitions were crucial for Münter's development and during the summers of 1902-3, she joined his plein-air landscape painting lessons in Kochel, Walchensee and Kallmunz, where she became intimately involved with the married painter. For the following four years, Münter travelled extensively with Kandinsky through Europe and North Africa, where she familiarised herself with the aesthetic ideas present in the work of van Gogh, Gauguin, the Fauves and Matisse - influences that would begin to emerge in her painting after the couple returned to Germany. Having returned to Munich from Berlin in April 1908, the couple began touring the Bavarian countryside near Munich in search for a place to spend time together, visiting the areas around Staffelsee and Starnberger See when they came across the village of Murnau. Excited by the picturesque township, with its dramatic Alpine backdrop presiding over swaths of open moorland, Münter and Kandinsky joined their friends Marianne von Werefkin and Alexej Jawlensky to paint the village and the surrounding landscape. During this first stay, the group worked intensively together to forge a new type of painting characterized by its bold simplification, flattened spatial perspective and vivid use of colour. Münter's paintings, along with the work of her artist companions, underwent a massive transformation in Murnau. The swift transition in her art towards a distillation of form was almost immediate, 'After a sort period of agony', she later recalled, 'I took a great leap forward - from copying nature - in a more or less Impressionist style - to feeling the content of things - abstracting - conveying an extract' (Münter quoted in A. Hoberg, Wassily Kandinsky and Gabriele Münter: Letters and Reminiscences 1902-1914, Munich, p. 14). This profound change of style in Münter's art was inspired by the expressivity and sincerity found in children's artwork, which she had begun to collect in 1908, and the outlined planes of pure colour found in the traditional Bavarian glass painting common to Murnau. Jawlensky, who was well acquainted with the Pont-Aven school of artists and the Nabis, also played a major part in the evolution of her new style, introducing the idea of 'synthesis' between the observable world and an expressive response to form and colour.
For Kandinsky, Jawlensky, Werefkin and, above all, Münter, Murnau was the 'laboratory' of the group's hugely influential experiments, and in 1909 she purchased a newly built house in the village, which became a hub of artistic activity. In the same year, the group would collectively found the artist's association Neue Kunstlervereinigung München (NKVM), an exhibiting association that would further promote the members shared aim to express both external impressions and internal experiences in painting. Tensions caused by artistic differences amongst the NKVM members would lead to a schism after their third exhibition in 1911, forming the impetus for the establishment of Der Blaue Reiter, whose founding members included Münter, Kandinsky, Jawlensky, Franz Marc, August Macke, Paul Klee and the composer Arnold Schoenberg. These early years spent living between Munich and Murnau were the most productive and progressive for Münter. Although she did not share Kandinsky's drive towards a transcendental form of non-objective art, she developed an intimate form of expressionism, extracting the essential qualities of form to create clearly defined, primitively rendered images of the landscapes and society that surrounded her.
In Murnau, Münter developed a personal style of painting from which she would deviate only slightly throughout the rest of her life, but the onset of the First World War would change the landscape of the Munich art world irretrievably. A number of Münter's close colleagues, including Franz Marc and August Macke enlisted and were killed during military service, whilst Kandinsky and Jawlensky, as Russians, were forced to leave Germany. Münter stayed with Kandinsky in Switzerland for a time before he left for Russia, but after a brief reunion in Stockholm in 1916, the couple would part permanently. The break-up of her relationship with Kandinsky took an enormous emotional toll on Münter and she would paint little during the 1920s, until she met the art historian Johannes Eichner, who encouraged her to renew her career. During the thirties and forties, her art was vehemently criticised by the National Socialist Party, thereby limiting her artistic activities until after the war, when her contribution as a major participant in the revolutionary reinvention of colour, form and meaning in painting became truly appreciated.
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