The Russian artists Marianne von Werefkin and Alexej von Jawlensky were part of Munich's avant-garde in the early 20th century. They lived on Giselastrasse and had a complicated relationship that, although bad for their mental state, was good for their painting. The Lenbachhaus showed the works of both in an exhibition until the beginning of 2020. Curator Dr Annegret Hoberg talks about the unusual lives of the two.
Ms. Hoberg, Marianne von Werefkin enjoyed a highly privileged upbringing in Russia's high society. How did she get into painting?
Werefkin received a broad education from a young age. She was fluent in the main European languages of German, French and English and was just 14 when her talent for drawing was first encouraged. She was a private student of various artists, because, as a woman, she was not permitted to study at the academy. In particular, Ilja Repin, where she spent ten years, shaped her abilities. It was from him that she learned how to paint in the realism style. Werefkin showed prodigious talent, created portrait masterpieces, and was known as the Russian Rembrandt.
It was through Repin that she met Alexej von Jawlensky, a soldier of the landed gentry whose great ambition was to become a painter. What did Werefkin see in him?
A promising artistic talent. Jawlensky was four years younger than Werefkin – with a great thirst for knowledge. She took him on as her student. And he soon became her lover too.
In 1896 – when Werefkin was 36 – the couple moved from St. Petersburg to Munich. Why was that?
They wanted to liberate themselves from Repin, and dare to make a new start with their art. At that time, Munich was home to the highly-regarded art school founded by the Slovenian artist Anton Ažbe which was located on Georgenstrasse. Kandinsky and many other East European and Russian artists studied here. Jawlensky was keen to join them.
You've only talked about Jawlensky. What about Werefkin?
She took a ten-year break from her art because she wanted to devote herself fully to encouraging Jawlensky's talent.
Werefkin wrote in a letter that as a woman, she should probably be concerned more with the theory of painting than with painting itself, because men were better at it. It's an astonishing assertion, because she was a highly talented artist herself.
But it was all more complex than appears at first sight. I believe Werefkin also needed this time to find a new path to take in her painting. She moved away from realism and more towards the abstract. During this ten years, she carefully studied the avant-garde trends of the time, such as Gauguin. She of course passed what she learned onto Jawlensky, but also applied her insights to her later paintings.
What was life like for the two of them in Munich?
When they arrived, they moved into a grand double residence on Giselastrasse. Werefkin was financially very well provided for, because she received a generous orphan's pension from the Tzar. Living very close by were the Russian artists Igor Grabar and Dmitri Kardowski, who were also studying at the Ažbe school of painting. Jawlensky painted with them from morning to night. They would then return home to eat blinis and buckwheat groats and engage in animated discussions about art. They no doubt had a great time. Werefkin gradually built a salon in her home, where Munich's artistic avant-garde came together and shared their ideas. Guests included artists, writers, and the dancer Alexander Sacharoff, who was painted by both Jawlensky and Werefkin. They also attracted visiting Russians, aristocrats, politicians and museum directors. Werefkin brought lots of different people together in her salon and it remains one of her great legacies. It was also in her salon that the idea of the "Neue Künstlervereinigung München" (Munich New Artist's Association) was born. The association was then founded in 1909. It certainly influenced how local expressionism was shaped.
Although Jawlensky received generous support from Werefkin, it was hardly a recipe for a harmonious relationship between the two of them. What were the dynamics like between the couple?
Their relationship was exceptionally complicated. After just two or three years in Russia, there was a certain cooling in their relationship, because Jawlensky was a womaniser. But he had promised Werefkin's father that he would never leave her. They could not marry, however, because she would have lost her orphan's pension. Yet, Werefkin put up with a lot in Munich, too. Jawlensky at the same time had an affair with Werefkin's young maid, Helene Nesnakomoff, who also bore him a child - Andreas Jawlensky. Despite this, the pair managed to keep a rein on their disagreements. In fact they probably hardly noticed anything was wrong, because they were constantly entertaining guests, and surrounded by people. They rarely spent time alone.
Can you detect traces of their private relationship in their art?
There is a very notable incongruity between the portraits that Jawlensky painted of Helene and of Marianne. He often used Helene as a model. He painted her as a Barbarian princess, as a Spaniard, larger than life as a full-figure portrait, probably when she was pregnant. He created masks of her face. There are only two such paintings of Werefkin, the last created in 1906. He never painted her again.
What was the first picture that Werefkin painted following her ten-year break?
She probably began painting again while in the South of France, where she sketched pine trees and other aspects of the landscape around her. That was at the end of 1906. One of the first real works was produced in Wasserburg am Inn. It is a highly abstract cityscape in pastels, which we also hold here in the Lenbachhaus.
How would you describe her style following her break from painting?
It was a spiritual painting with narrative, figurative themes. She was less interested in expressive colour painting, like Kandinsky and Münter for example. Rather, she veered more towards the symbolism of Edvard Munch and the Swiss artist Ferdinand Hodler. Her works often feature impressive figures that depict scenes of human fate; the relationship between men and women often plays a big part, for example. To emphasise fatalism, she often worked with series and repetitions of figures, such as in her work “Die Schwarzen Frauen” (The Black Women), in which women dressed in dark clothing carry heavy bags to an unknown place.
Did Jawlensky's work also provide the same sort of narrative as Werefkin's?
No, landscapes, still life painting and portraits were more important to him. He used intensive colours, clearly disengaging himself from the natural image. His very personal contribution to expressionism are his colourful heads, which he continued to stylise.
With the outbreak of the First World War, the pair were forced to flee Munich for Switzerland. How did exile change their art?
It had a huge impact. For Jawlensky in particular, it was a great departure. They had to leave all their belongings behind at Giselastrasse. It was tragic. The house was looted during the war, and different tenants moved in. Just about everything that had been left behind was either ruined or lost. They went to Lake Geneva where they lived with Helene and Andreas in incredibly cramped conditions. Jawlensky had a small space by the window where he spent years painting the view over the bushes and trees. He continually added variety and more abstract elements to his works. This was the beginning of his serial works. He wrote in his memoirs that he felt such sadness and pain while in exile that he simply couldn't paint in the same way as before.
Her style persisted until the end of her life. But she didn't paint at all initially because she quickly ran out of money and couldn't afford to buy any paints. She received only irregular orphan's pension payments, and they stopped altogether in 1917. Jawlensky stayed with her, however. The two of them moved to Ascona, where they lived together for three years. So it wasn't just her money that kept them together.
All the same, it must have been hard for Werefkin to live with her partner's lover and their son in such confined accommodation.
Her diary entries reveal her unbelievable suffering. But contact with other artists in Switzerland helped to alleviate the pain a little. Jawlensky did eventually leave her, moving from Ascona to Wiesbaden, never to return. A year later, he married Helene. He wanted Andreas to take his name. Jawlensky cowardly concealed what he was up to, as is often the way of men. But this move marked the end of the relationship between Jawlensky and Werefkin.
Does the place they shared in Munich still exist?
Certainly not as it was. The house was at Giselastrasse 23. Werefkin herself returned in 1920, and later wrote that her home was just a pile of rubble and ashes – and that it cut her to the quick.
Do you think Jawlensky could ever have been so successful if he hadn't met Werefkin?
Probably not. From his background, he would never have made this breakthrough without sponsorship and would never have had the courage to make the move abroad. And I think that to give him the benefit of the doubt, he was rather naive, emotionally weak perhaps, and not particularly assertive. She was much stronger than him. Their love of art bound them together. This is the place where they got on best together. They wanted to achieve something new. And Werefkin was a huge inspiration in this. For Jawlensky, but for other Munich artists too.
The exhibition "Lebensmenschen" was on view at the Lenbachhaus from 22 October 2019 to 16 February 2020.