Werefkin 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. Born near Moscow in 1860, she studied art under private tutor Il'ya Repin, in whose studio she met Alexej von Jawlensky, with whom her relationship as mentor, patron and companion would last up to 1920. The couple moved to Munich in 1895, and Werefkin, a forceful personality, established herself as hostess of a salon on Giselastrasse, where Kandinsky and Münter also lived. The foursome's close friendship led to the founding of a secessionist group called the Neue Künstlervereinigung (NKV, New Artist's Association) in Munich in 1909, the spiritualist agenda of which Kandinsky captured in the catalogue to its inaugural exhibition in December of that year: 'We proceed from the belief that the artist, apart from the impressions he receives from the external world, Nature, continually collects experience within an inner world. We search for artistic forms that reveal the penetration of these collected experiences, for forms that must be freed from all irrelevance, in order to forcefully express that which is essential, in short, for artistic synthesis' (quoted in R.C. Washton Long, German Expressionism, New York, 1993, p. 39).
This first NKV exhibition at the Thannhauser Gallery featured one hundred and twenty-eight works by the founding members and guests, including Alfred Kubin and Vladimir Bechtejeff, and, despite the overwhelming negative response, was followed in the September of the following year by a second. The third and final exhibition, which lasted from December 1911 to January 1912, was marred by great tension between the participants. Renegade NVK members ultimately defected to form Die Blaue Reiter, which exhibited concurrently at the Thannhauser Gallery. The present painting Styx by Werefkin featured in this historic final NVK exhibition before the group was ultimately displaced by Die Blaue Reiter. Styx also featured in an exhibition at Galerie Der Sturm, Berlin, possibly in 1912. This ground-breaking gallery was directed by Herwarth Walden, the leading German dealer and patron of the early 20th Century avant-garde art.
Styx shares much in common with Werefkin's Munich paintings from the first decade of the 20th Century in its treatment of social issues, in this case the transport of grain by labourers bent over the weight of their burdens set against a dramatic landscape. Her painting from that period is characterized by its bold simplification, flattened spatial perspective and strong use of colour. In the present painting, simple forms are delineated by thick black contours creating a flattened effect while vivid blocks of blue, green and pink tones describe the river, fields and sky in the background.