‘Painting is like a thundering collision of different worlds that are destined in and through conflict to create that new world called the work.’ (Kandinsky, from ‘Reminiscences’ in K.C. Lindsay & P. Vergo, eds., Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art, New York, 1994, p. 373).
‘In my studies, I let myself go. I had little thought for houses and trees, drawing coloured lines and blobs on the canvas with my palette knife, making them sing just as powerfully as I knew how.’ (Kandinsky, ‘Reminiscences’ in K. C. Lindsay & P. Vergo, eds., Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art, New York, 1994, p. 367).
‘I sought – impossible though it might seem – to capture on the canvas the “chorus of colours” (as I called it) that nature, with staggering force, impressed upon my entire soul’ (Kandinsky, quoted in ‘Reminiscences’ in K.C. Lindsay & P. Vergo, eds., Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art, New York, 1994, p. 361).
When Wassily Kandinsky first discovered the small Bavarian market town of Murnau in the summer of 1904, he wrote almost immediately to his lover and fellow artist Gabriele Münter to tell her of its charms: ‘it is very, very beautiful…The low-lying and slow moving clouds, the dusky, dark-violet woods, the gleaming white buildings, velvety-deep roofs of the churches, the saturated green of the foliage remain with me; I even dreamt of these things’ (Kandinsky, in a postcard from the artist to Münter, dated 25 August 1904, quoted in H. Fischer & S. Rainbird (ed.), Kandinsky: The path to abstraction, exh. cat. London, 2006, p. 208). Perched on the edge of the crystal clear waters of the Staffelsee lake, above the moorland plateau of Murnauer Moos near Garmisch, Murnau had become a popular destination with visitors from nearby Munich at the start of the Twentieth Century, its broad views of the imposing peaks of the Alps, tranquil atmosphere and bracing, fresh air appealing to those in need of a break from city life. The sheer beauty of the landscape left such an indelible impression on Kandinsky’s psyche that when the artist rediscovered Murnau almost four years later, in the midst of a trip through the Bavarian countryside with Münter, he became enraptured by the town and its environs once again, seeing not only the splendour of its natural setting and the seemingly endless array of captivating views, but also the myriad of potential motifs it offered his painting. Over the course of the following six years, Kandinsky would escape to Murnau whenever possible, spending weeks at a time in the picturesque hamlet, completely immersed in his painting. It was here, surrounded by the dramatic mountain vistas of the towering Alps and rolling green hills of the Murnau moors, that the artist finally found a way to move beyond the formative influences of Van Gogh, Gauguin and French Fauvism which had previously dominated his art, and develop instead a wholly unique, ground-breaking visual style that would transform his oeuvre and provide Kandinsky with the final springboard into complete abstraction.
Following their brief visit at the start of the summer of 1908, Kandinsky and Münter returned to Murnau in the August of the same year, spending an extended sojourn in the town alongside their close friends and fellow artists, Alexej von Jawlensky and Marianne von Werefkin. During this trip, the quartet would often venture out into the landscape on painting excursions, working together in a communal manner and painting the same scenes from different viewpoints. Kandinsky worked prolifically during this visit, producing dozens of views of this tranquil haven and the surrounding landscapes. Wishing to develop a more permanent base in the town and build on these early experiments, Kandinsky successfully persuaded Münter to use a portion of her inheritance to purchase a small, newly built villa on the western edge of Murnau in June 1909, which Kandinsky had apparently ‘fallen in love with at first sight…’ (Münter, quoted in V. Endicott Barnett, Wassily Kandinsky: A Colorful Life, The Collection of the Lenbachhaus, Munich, New York, 1996, p. 193). The small cottage, which had recently been built as a holiday-home by a local carpenter named Streidel, stood on a slope opposite the castle and the church, and swiftly became known as the Russenhaus (The House of the Russians) amongst locals.
Once the purchase was finalised, the Russenhaus became a haven for Kandinsky, removed from the bustle and politics of the Munich art world, a sanctuary where he could reflect and take stock of his ideas and his work. Spending weeks at a time ensconced in their Murnau retreat, Kandinsky and Münter enjoyed a simple, quiet way of life, passing their days in the flourishing gardens surrounding the house, embarking on long walks across the pastures and amongst the foothills of the Alps, and painting en plein air. Although Münter was from northern Germany and Kandinsky from Russia, the pair fully embraced local Bavarian traditions and culture. They often dressed in traditional costume – Münter in dirndls, Kandinsky in lederhosen – while local folk art, specifically the centuries-old tradition of reverse glass painting known as Hinterglasbilder, became a source of fascination for both. However, it was in the drama of the topography, the purity of the air, the unique play of light, and the scale and magnificence of the mountains, that Kandinsky found his true inspiration. He would venture out into the pastures surrounding Murnau to paint directly before nature, using small pieces of board to create compact, spontaneous ‘studies’ which captured the inherent energy and spirit that the artist felt before the landscape.
Created in 1910, Studie für Landschaft (Dünaberg) is a prime example of the intense, expressive nature of the oil studies Kandinsky created during this period. According to the catalogue raisonné of the artist’s oil paintings, the work is related to two other compositions by Kandinsky - one other study, known only from a pencil sketch found in the Gabriel Münter archives, and the 1913 oil painting Landschaft (Dünaberg bei Murnau) in the collections of the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg (H. K. Roethel & J. K. Benjamin, Kandinsky, Catalogue Raisonné of the Oil-Paintings: vol. I, 1900-1915, London, 1982, no. 467, p. 464). The composition appears to have been inspired by a view found just a stone’s throw from the Russenhaus, in the Dünaberg area of Murnau, and focuses on the gentle incline of a group of neighbouring hillsides, which appear to overlap and converge as they recede into the distance. Several buildings are visible amongst the rolling, colourful slopes, including several white washed houses which appear to be nestled in the space between the two hills, while in the far distance, the red triangular summit of the town’s Burgfried (castle tower) is just visible above the crest of the furthest hill. The rhythmical, vertical black lines which appear to the left of this tower, meanwhile, may represent the hop poles used to support the crops of the Murnau brewery, which were a common feature of the fields surrounding the town, and a powerful symbol of the agrarian traditions of the area.
As with many of Kandinsky’s paintings completed during the summer of 1910, the forms in Studie für Landschaft (Dünaberg) are reduced to a bare minimum of detail, executed in flat plains of resplendent colour which flow in fluid ribbons of paint. This extreme simplification of form, from the rough geometric shaping of the cluster of buildings at the centre of the composition to the pyramidal vegetation of the trees which dot the hillsides, enhances the chromatic impact of each tone used in the scene’s construction. Indeed, it is in the vibrancy of its colours, the richness of its tonal contrasts and the depth of its pigments, that the true subject of the painting lies. The details of the view give way to spontaneous, fluid strokes of pigment, dissolving into a dazzling play of rich, luminous colour. The golden meadow which cuts diagonally across the scene is elegantly balanced by the array of deep purples and blues which dominate the sky, while clouds of delicate lilacs and soft pink hues skim across the tops of the hills. Freed from a purely descriptive role within the structure of the painting, the colours take on a new level of expressiveness, pushing the potential of the painted image beyond reality and connecting it to what Kandinsky termed the ‘inner necessity’ of the artist.
Colour had always been a central pillar of Kandinsky’s aesthetic, stemming from a formative experience he had as a teenager, when he ‘gradually saved up enough money to buy myself a paintbox containing oil paints. I can still feel today the sensation I experienced then – or, to put it better, the experience I underwent then – of the paints emerging from the tube. One squeeze of the fingers, and out came these strange beings, one after the other, which one calls colours – exultant, solemn, brooding, dreamy, self-absorbed, deeply serious, with roguish exuberance, with a sigh of release, with a deep sound of mourning, with defiant power and resistance, with submissive suppleness and devotion, with obstinate self-control, with sensitive, precarious balance. Living an independent life of their own, with all the necessary qualities for further, autonomous existence, prepared to make way readily, in an instant for new combinations, to mingle with one another and create an infinite succession of new worlds’ (Kandinsky, from ‘Reminiscences’ in K. C. Lindsay & P. Vergo, eds., Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art, New York, 1994, pp. 371 – 372).
It was this expressive element of each colour, the idea that they contained within themselves an inherent energy and character that could evoke in the viewer different emotions and memories, which came to underpin Kandinsky’s painterly explorations throughout his time in Murnau. By introducing increasingly intense and luminous swathes of pure pigment to his compositions, juxtaposed in a way that no longer slavishly reiterated nature, Kandinsky sought to convey a sense of the mysterious, spiritual truth which he believed lay beyond the familiar, tangible, visible world. In his writings on the subject, he passionately proclaimed that colours contained an essential power, which, when combined in an intuitive, free manner, could embody the mysterious ‘truth’ that exists behind the external world of impressions. Through this bold, expressive approach to colour, Kandinsky sought to evoke a sympathetic vibration in the viewer, setting up a direct line of communication to their soul and unleashing in them a specific reaction as they encounter the painting.
It was this dual aspect of paintings such as Studie für Landschaft (Dünaberg), the balance between the representational structure and the intuitively arrived-at abstract life of their expressively coloured surfaces, that brought Kandinsky to the threshold of complete abstraction and immersion into what he believed was the spiritual realm of non-objectivity. As such, the paintings created in Murnau resound with pictorial colour harmonies and complex juxtapositions and counterbalances of form which teeter on the brink of recognisability as he sought a means of expression which could transcend external reality. Throughout the experiments of the Murnau period, Kandinsky maintained that his art did not propose a sudden, radical break from the past, but rather an organic growth toward something new. The artist knew where his painting was heading to a certain extent, but he felt that his slow release from representation was an essential part of his evolution. ‘Nothing is more damaging and more sinful than to seek one’s forms by force,’ he explained, ‘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 analysed, 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’ (Kandinsky, quoted in V. Endicott Barnett, Vassily Kandinsky: A Colorful Life, The Collection of the Lenbachhaus, Munich, New York, 1996, p. 16).
Studie für Landschaft (Dünaberg) emerged during a pivotal moment in Kandinsky’s career - the radical developments which had occurred in his art as a result of his time in Murnau inspired Kandinsky to become engaged, once again, in the avant-garde art world of Munich. Driven by a wish to play an active role in the spread of new ideas and a desire to raise public awareness about the dramatic artistic changes occurring at this time, Kandinsky co-founded a new exhibiting society in Munich. In January 1909 he, along with Münter, Jawlensky and Werefkin, joined with the artists Alfred Kubin, Adolf Erbslöh and Alexander Kanoldt, as well as the art historians Heinrich Schnabel and Oskar Wittgenstein, to form the Neue Künstlervereinigung München – the New Artist’s Association of Munich – known by its initials NKVM. The core of the association originally consisted of painters close to the Murnau quartet, but the membership soon expanded to include writers and theoreticians, as well as artists working in quite different fields, such as the sculptor Moshe Kogan and the dancer Aleksander Sakharov. Kandinsky was elected to serve as the group’s first chairman, and they staged their inaugural exhibition at Heinrich Thannhauser’s Gallery in December 1909. Reviewing the exhibition for the St. Petersburg arts review Apollon, Kandinsky explained the shared vision which united the members of the NKVM: ‘The whole strength, the whole energy of this small exhibition resides in the fact that every member understands not only how to express himself, but also what he has to express. Different spirits produce different spiritual sounds and, as a consequence, employ different forms: different scales of colour, different “clefs” of construction, different kinds of drawing. And, nonetheless, everything here is the product of one shared aim: to speak from soul to soul. It is this that produces the great, joyful unity of this exhibition…’ (Kandinsky, quoted in J. Hahl-Koch, Kandinsky, London, 1993, p. 132).
One of the earliest owners of Studie für Landschaft (Dünaberg) was the Dresden-based collector Ida Bienert, who was a revolutionary presence within the city’s artistic milieu at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, hosting lively salons of the avant-garde in her home, and actively supporting young artists amongst her circle. She began her collection in 1911 with a landscape by Cézanne and went on to purchase works by Picasso, Klee, Dix, Nolde, and of course, Kandinsky, while in the 1920s, a growing interest in Constructivism led her to commission Mondrian to design the interiors of the salon at her villa in the Dresden Südvorstadt, a project that, unfortunately, was never realised.