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Love story in paintings: Wassily Kandinsky and Gabriele Münter

Wassily Kandinsky was twice married officially. However, there was another woman in his life, who saw the creative genius of the father of abstractionism to arise. Gabriele Münter, a young German artist, became Kandinsky’s companion and adherer for long 12 years.
Her own talent did not remain overshadowed by her brilliant friend. Even when she had lost her creative spark for the long 10 years after her teacher, idol, failed husband left, Gabriele Münter saved a large part of his creative legacy at the risk of her own life.
Impressive man in impeccable clothes, a pince-nez, holding his head high and having the appearance of an authoritative person — such Kandinsky entered the school of painting of Anton Ažbe, leaving behind a lawyer’s career. He was 30 years old. After two years at the Ažbe-Schule — alas, not much successful years — Kandinsky entered the Munich Academy of Arts on the second attempt, where Franz von Stuck, "the first German painter" became his teacher. At that time, Wassily almost did not use brushes, preferring palette knife, and mastered bright colours; Stuck forced him to paint in black and white only. Kandinsky mastered drawing, eagerly absorbed new experiences, traveled. France, Italy, North Africa … The hours he spent in the study
A study is an exercise painting that helps the painter better understand the object he or she paints. It is simple and clear, like sample letters in a school student’s copybook. Rough and ready, not detailed, with every stroke being to the point, a study is a proven method of touching the world and making a catalogue of it. However, in art history, the status of the study is vague and open to interpretation. Despite its auxiliary role, a study is sometimes viewed as something far more significant than the finished piece. Then, within an impressive frame, it is placed on a museum wall.
So, when does a study remain a mere drill, and when can we call it an artwork in its own right, full of life and having artistic value? Read more
of jurisprudence "turned pale at the first contact with art, which was the only thing to bring… beyond the bounds of time and space".

Nikolai Seddeler, Dmitry Kardovsky and Wassily Kandinsky in the Ažbe-Schule. Munich. 1897

"Until the thirtieth year of my life, I dreamed of becoming a painter, because I loved painting most of all, and it was not easy to deal with this desire… At the age of thirty I thought: now or never."
Wassily Kandinsky

Phalanx. The first meeting

In May 1901, Kandinsky, Rolf Nitzky, Waldemar Hekkel and Wilhelm Hüsgen created the Phalanx artistic and creative association, designed to bring together artists searching for new ways in art. At the same time, a school opened, in which many participants of the Phalanx taught. It was this school that Gabriele Münter entered when she wanted to get an art education; at the beginning of the twentieth century, it was virtually inaccessible to women. Women could be admitted to the Phalanx, and she enrolled in two classes — sculpture by Wilhelm Hüsgen, and painting by Wassily Kandinsky. What was more important to him: female charms or talent and inquiring sharp mind?
"For me, it was a completely new artistic impression that Kandinsky, in a completely different way than all the other teachers, explained everything in detail and perceived me as a person who was consciously striving for my goals and capable of setting my own tasks," said Gabriele Münter

"You cannot be taught anything. You have everything from birth. The only thing I can do for you is to preserve and nurture your gift so that nothing wrong will stick to it," said Wassily Kandinsky
In summer, students went to the open air in secluded picturesque places in provincial Germany. In 1902, Kandinsky chose the small Bavarian town of Kochel. Wooded hills and green meadows, mountains and shady paths, the shimmering expanse of Kochel Lake — this picturesque area was perfectly suited for sketches… and bike rides.
Wassily Kandinsky in Kochel. 1902
Being obsessed with biking, he freely moved around the area between students working in the open air. Kandinsky was only happy with the company of his student Gabriele Münter, a graduate of the Düsseldorf private art school, who had recently returned after two years of traveling around the United States. Slender and pretty, self-confident, but not completely immersed in the ideas of feminism, Münter also understood the latest trends in painting and art. Soon she became not only a wonderful witty conversationalist for Kandinsky, but also a favourite student. And a little later — his sweetheart.
Art class of the Phalanx school. Kandinsky and Münter stand with their bicycles. Kochel. 1902
However, the teacher was married. Kandinsky’s first wife was his cousin, whom he had known since childhood. Anna Chemyakina met her husband’s decision to exchange a lawyer’s career for the desire to study painting relatively calmly: their family bread was buttered, and her husband’s hobby for drawing could fade away later. By the time Kandinsky and Münter met, the marriage with Anna had been ten years old. The wife wished to come to her husband in Kochel, and Kandinsky urged Münter to leave — and she left. But did she accept it?
Kandinsky and his "dear little Ella" carried on correspondence. "Time will put everything in its place," Kandinsky wrote. "Just wait.." Very little time passed, and the artists met in the summer of 1903 during sketching in the town of Kalmünz. Friendship did not work out: passion captured both of them. The love triangle became apparent, and Gabriele insisted that Wassily inform Anna about the break. There was no scandal: his wife took the news in her stride.
  • Gabriele Münter. Kandinsky painting a landscape
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    . 1903
  • Wassily Kandinsky. Gabriele Münter painting. 1903
Subsumed by each other, Wassily and Gabriele became engaged and went on a journey. This was a new impulse not only for their relationship, but also for creative experiences.
Wassily Kandinsky. Gabriele Munter
Gabriele Munter
1903, 23.7×32.7 cm
They visited Italy and Holland, France and Tunisia, made acquaintance with many celebrities from the world of art. Countries and people passed by like pictures of a "magic lantern"… However, Münter later wrote in her memoirs: "Life was too unstable to be satisfied".
From time to time, Kandinsky met Anna in Munich and demanded that Gabriele leave her studio in Schwabing for this time and leave the city. Münter went to Bonn or Berlin, where her brother and sister lived. These visits were protracted and bleak — Kandinsky was in no hurry to formalize his relations with Gabriele, which was an extraordinary challenge to public opinion for prim Germans. The family tried to dissuade Gabriele from continuing relations with the artist, she resisted… For several years, Kandinsky was torn between Anna and Gabriele; in Germany, he and Ella still lived apart, gaining freedom and happiness only when traveling abroad.
  • Kandinsky and Münter in Dresden. 1905
  • The couple often photographed each other in the same “scenery”
The Swiss tour on foot and by bicycle, then Brussels, Milan… They spent the winter of 1906 in the Italian resort of Rappalo, and in spring, they arrived in Paris. Often in hotels they were refused a common room; it bothered both of them, Gabriele felt humiliated.


Paris captured Münter and carried her away: she rented a house in the suburbs, paid for it a year in advance and began to work actively, while helping Kandinsky in preparing a personal exhibition. A new home, a new life… But both were uneasy in their hearts. Kandinsky felt that the Parisian atmosphere was full of impressionism, which was alien to his thoughts and aspirations. He decided to leave, called Ella with him, and was terribly saddened by her refusal. Münter preferred to move directly to Paris. There, she began to attend the drawing courses of Théophile Steinlen, and later got carried away by linocut. Here, her special "outline" style appeared.
Gabriele was a very gifted graphic artist, able to translate her visual ideas into a clear line. Her ability to perceive the world in simple, contour structures was in perfect harmony with the revolutionary innovations of modern art at the beginning of the 20th century, making Münter one of the outstanding artists of classical modernism
Modernism is more than an art movement. It is a whole complex of changes and processes that took place in culture, art, literature, architecture in the second half of the 19th — the first half of the 20th century. Among the main historical premises of this revolution in art were city development, industrialization and two world wars — processes and events that affected the whole world. Read more Avant-garde is how modern art critics refer the general trend of new artistic directions that arose in world art at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. A very thin line separates it from the concept of “modernism”. Read more
. Her landscapes, filled with delicate coloristic pattern, were painted earlier than the famous views of Murnau created by Kandinsky. With all the love and respect for Kandinsky, Gabriele went her own way in her work. And her teacher learned something from his wonderful student.
"When I start drawing, it reminds me of a sudden jump into deep waters, and I never know in advance whether I can swim. And it was Kandinsky who taught me the swimming technique. I mean, he taught me how to work fast and confidently enough to achieve such a rapid and spontaneous fixation of moments of life."
From the diaries of Gabriele Münter


After another long tour in Europe, Kandinsky and Münter returned to Munich in 1908. Here they rented an apartment in the bohemian district of Schwabing. And in the summer, together with artists Marianne von Werefkin and Alexej von Jawlensky, they visited Murnau, a town 50 kilometers from Munich, in the foothills of the Alps, and fell in love with local landscapes. For Kandinsky, this was the period of the beginning of the heyday of abstract art, new theories in art. He and his associates organized the "New Art Association, Munich" (Neuen Künstlervereinigung München), which included Münter, Werefkin, Jawlensky, artists Adolf Erbslöh, Alexander Kanoldt, Paul Baum, Moissey Kogan, Vladimir Bekhteev, art historians Heinrich Schnabel and Oskar Wittenstein. It was his affair, a breakthrough, a society of like-minded people. Kandinsky worked actively and fruitfully, he was engaged in organizational and exhibition activities. Despite the fact that he did not file for a divorce, the creative achievements of both artists breathed new life into their family union. Gabriele felt herself used, she languished with her position as an unrecognized wife, but she didn’t see much choice — she was still influenced by Kandinsky’s charm, his seething talent and new ideas.
In August 1909, Gabrielle bought a small house in Murnau. On the one hand, there was a shelter, where she could run away from visiting her brother. On the other hand, it was another attempt to encourage Kandinsky to arrange their life officially. Imagine, until 1969, even a married woman in Germany was not considered competent, and until 1977, German frau required the permission of her husband in order to get a job. Imagine now the level of oppressive condemnation that Münter experienced, living with Kandinsky openly!
The house of Gabriele Münter in Murnau was completely restored in 1998−99, there is a museum there now.
Photo source.
She could not help but think about the current situation, even being passionate about the creative arrangement of their life. Turning the house space into their own, the couple pounced on furniture and walls with brushes and paints — both were carried away by "folk motifs".
Gabriele Münter. Interior
1909, 53×71 cm

Photo from Gabriele Münter House-Museum in Murnau (source)

"K. painted my closet in an absolutely special way — cute and funny. A blue horseman sweeps through the middle compartment, followed by a dark horsewoman. He turned back and waved his hand to her, and she rode at full speed: sometimes this joke annoyed me because it was an absolute lie — he never turned around and never said ‘come with me'."

From the diaries of Gabriele Münter

Gabriele wore a national Bavarian drindle costume, and Kandinsky flaunted his leather knee breeches and leggings.

Kandinsky in Murnau. Photo by Gabriele Münter. 1909

There was a garden in the house; Kandinsky and Münter sprinkled weeds and dug their beds, planted vegetables and feasted on berries grown by their own hands.

Kandinsky wrote in his diary: "..Today at four, I arrived with a lot of luggage. It was really hot. I immediately went to the garden and ate a few strawberries. Then I drank some tea. […] Then back to the garden. This is how it is. Not a single berry (that is, not a single currant, etc.) has been stolen. Strawberry bushes seem to be splattered with large drops of blood … Gooseberry is weak — small and very poor. Currants are many and good. Raspberry only appears, but there is much more of it than we thought: we’ll have a few pounds for sure. The potato is good and large (20−25 cm). Cucumbers — the third leaves, healthy … I poured the garden …" (30 June 1911)

Münter the artist fell in love with glass painting and began to take lessons from the local master Heinrich Rambold. Following her, Kandinsky and their common friends, Franz Marc and August Macke, became interested in this technique.
Wassily Kandinsky. "Murnau. Gabriele Münter drawing." 1909
"… The thought of non-objective art was in the air and was reflected in the work of Wassily Kandinsky. One evening at dusk, he saw a stunning canvas, leaned against the wall of the workshop. The artist was amazed by the combination of colors and was surprised to understand that this was his work, standing upside down. At that moment it dawned on him — it’s important not what is shown in the picture, but what thoughts and emotions it arouses in the viewer…" - the biography of Wassily Kandinsky on Arthive
In Murnau, Kandinsky and his fellow artists moved from expressionism
You can hardly tell the exact day or year of the birth of Expressionism, which is usual for all powerful art movements. You cannot draw a border on the map and indicate the territory where Expressionism took its start and got stronger. Overall, it’s all roughly known. Except for one rock-solid spatiotemporal benchmark: Northern Europe on the eve of the First World War. Expressionism is an avant-garde art movement, a new tragic worldview, and a whole set of significant motifs, symbols, and myths. Moreover, it is a revolutionary reaction both to the shabby, lifeless traditional academic art, and the light, idyllic southern impressionistic “appearance” of the world. Read more
to abstract painting. From year to year, the artist went further and further from the real picture of the world, turning it into bright colour spots and lines. And Gabriele did not lag behind him, perfecting her own style, staying in the shadow of her lover, but preserving the bright personality of the expressive genre.

“Concerning the Spiritual in Art”

Kandinsky was not only interested in the garden: he was preparing his famous philosophical treatise "Concerning the Spiritual in Art". The book was published in 1911 in German and was a great success — it was published three times during a year. "There is a crack in our soul, and the soul, if it can be touched, sounds like a cracked precious vase found deep in the earth," Kandinsky wrote in his treatise. Wasn’t this sound — sharp and reverent — like that of the Gabriele’s soul, who didn’t just love, but dissolved herself in Kandinsky, his personality, his creative pursuits? Before Gabriele’s eyes, the fireworks and fountains of Kandinsky’s ideas were embodied on his canvases — from subject to abstraction, from landscapes and figurativeness — to "compositions", "improvisations" and "impressions", music of lines and colour.
In October 1910, Kandinsky arrived in Russia — he arrived alone. And here, he gained a resounding success. His book was praised, Burliuks called him to stay at his native land, all the newspapers wrote about the exhibitions of the Jack of Diamonds in which he took part. Kandinsky returned to Murnau inspired, and celebrated the New Year with his friends, along with Gabriele. But the harmony between the unofficial spouses did not last long: in the summer of 1911, they parted. Kandinsky with his friends plunged into work on the future almanac "The Blue Horseman": heated debate, ambitious plans, the enthusiastic work of all members of the association opened new horizons for artists. He finally divorced his wife Anna, but was in no hurry to offer his hand to Gabriele.

In December 1911, Kandinsky and some of his friends left the "New Art Association", and in a few weeks, they organized their own association and arranged an exhibition.

The Blue Rider

"The name The Blue Rider came up at the coffee table in the garden in Sindeldorf. We both liked blue, Mark liked horses, I liked riders. And the name came by itself," Kandinsky recalled. Despite the fact that the association included nine artists, Kandinsky believed: "The Blue Rider is the two of us". And the "second" was precisely Franz Marc. Not Münter.
In the photo below: members of The Blue Rider group on the balcony of Kandinsky’s apartment at 36, Einmillerstrasse, Munich, 1911/12.
  • From left to right: Maria Marc, Franz Marc, Bernhard Köhler Sr., Wassily Kandinsky (sitting), Heinrich Campendonk, Thomas von Hartmann. Photo: Gabriele Münter and Johannes Eichner Foundation
  • Then Wassily Kandinsky took the camera, and Gabriele Münter move to the left side of the frame
    It has always been important for artists and art collectors how to frame their works of art. We can paraphrase Shakespeare and say,

    “What’s in a frame? That which we call a picture
    In an improper frame will look less nice.”

    Or, perhaps, the picture’s message will be obscured by too ornate or too plain framing. Here, we present a retrospective journey into the history of framing and its evolution, with illustrations and an expert’s commentary. Read more
    . Gabriele’s composition (photo on the left) is perhaps better.
In the autumn of 1912, the artist went to Russia again, his relationship had a breakdown: Gabriele no longer hoped for a happy marriage with her teacher and idol.

War and parting

World War I forced Kandinsky to move to Switzerland. Despite the fact that he considered himself half German, he still did not get German citizenship. Gabriele went with him, as well as his ex-wife Anna, and soon his friends arrived — Werefkin and Jawlensky. Understanding that the war would last a while, Wassily Kandinsky decided to go to Moscow. He broke up his close relationship with Ella, who returned to Munich after some time. Their letters show sadness; Kandinsky does not promise marriage; Münter still hopes to legitimize their long-term relationships. "You have changed. You know very well what you promised in 1903. You must stand by your words!" she wrote on the sidelines of another letter from Kandinsky. And his letter said "I always misled you because I was mistaken about myself"…
Gabriele Münter. Interior with Christmas tree
Interior with Christmas tree
Start XX centuries, 88×72 cm
In 1915, hoping to meet Wassily, Münter came to Stockholm. After several delays, Kandinsky arrived too. He worked at the Ella’s studio, painted a lot, and she helped him sell his work.
Wassily Kandinsky and Gabriele Münter in Stockholm. Winter 1916
In February 1916, the Kandinsky’s personal exhibition opened, and in March, the Münter's exhibition was held, quite a successful one.
Kandinsky left Stockholm on 16 March 1916. There were words of love, there were promises of a wedding… Letter followed. But Wassily Kandinsky and Gabriele Münter never met again.

Final break

On 9 December 1916, Kandinsky wrote to Münter: "I suddenly felt that my old dream was approaching reality. You know that I dreamed of creating a big picture, the meaning of which was to be the joy, happiness of life or the universe. I suddenly felt the harmony of colours and shapes belonging to this world of joy." So the idea was born that the artist embodied in the "Moscow. Red Square" (1916) painting. External and internal Moscow became a new "picturesque tuning fork" for Kandinsky.

Wassily Kandinsky and Nina Andreevskaya. 1916−1920

Here in Moscow, he met his new love — Nina Andreevskaya, who was 27 years younger than him. Inspired by their first phone conversation, the artist threw his feelings out onto the canvas — the "To the Unknown Voice" painting appeared in the summer of 1916. And on 11 February 1917, young Nina Andreevskaya became Wassily Kandinsky’s wife.

The communication with Gabriele has interrupted. The October Revolution only deepened the gap between artists, introducing chaos into thousands of fates. Münter moved to Copenhagen in 1917. She searched for Kandinsky, sent inquiries to various Russian authorities, but she gained no success. Gabriele suffered deeply, she could not paint and took her brushes only after 10 years… In 1920, she returned to her house in Murnau, and a year later she learned that her lover was alive and fit, and married. He had lost his son Vsevolod. And he demanded that she returned his things and paintings, which he left in Murnau.
The demands were sent through a lawyer: Kandinsky did not dare to meet with his former mistress, although by that time he had come to Germany to teach in the Bauhaus. He made every effort to ensure that their paths no longer intersect, and never came to either Munich or Murnau. Gabriele was struck: she directed her feelings outward in a letter to Kandinsky — as many as 40 pages of reproaches and regrets. Since then, they had many years of communication through lawyers, and only in 1926, Gabriele sent 26 boxes with his things and paintings to Wassily.
The opening of the new Bauhaus. From left to right: Wassily Kandinsky, Nina Kandinsky, Georg Muche, Paul Klee, Walter Gropius. Photo by Walter Obschonka. 1926

Gabriele Münter at the age of 80. Murnau. 1957
Photo source.

Gabriele’s decision to accept part of his works as the compensation from Kandinsky (according to another version, she refused to give Kandinsky’s works, leaving them for herself as moral compensation) served humanity a good service after all.
Münter saved the paintings of her teacher and lover; at the risk of her own life, she saved them from the Nazis in the basement of her house. And in 1957, in her declining years, she donated the paintings by Wassily Kandinsky and his personal archive as a gift to the Munich City Gallery.

Kandinsky’s paintings from the Lenbachhouse Museum, Munich, Germany.
Ninety oil paintings, more than three hundred watercolor and graphic works, etchings and lithographs — the legacy of Wassily Kandinsky today can be seen in the Lenbachhouse Museum. It also stores more than two thousand photographs taken by Gabriel over the years of their life together with Kandinsky.
Gabriele Münter lived in Murnau until the end of her days; she died in 1962. The house, in which she has lived with Wassily Kandinsky for five years, is now called Münterhaus. Locals still call it "the Russian House".

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