The “Under the Open Sky” (“Unter freiem Himmel”) exhibition in the Lenbachhaus art gallery showcases early works by Wassily Kandinsky and his student Gabriele Münter, from when the two became a couple and went travelling together for several years. They would travel light so they could be more mobile, and produced small oil studies directly at the subject of their painting – their works today reveal much more than independence, freedom and longing.
At first glance you could almost overlook just how much this exhibition contains, with its small paintings, photographs and sketchbooks. The “Under the Open Sky” exhibition showcases early works by Kandinsky and his student Münter, who started a relationship during a summer of painting and then went travelling together for a number of years. Packing light, they turned their backs on the studio and set their sights on the horizon, preferring to produce their small oil studies directly in front of their subjects. They were independent and free – and they did not want to overthink their works.
Sarah Louisa Henn, the curator of this exhibition, takes us through the spaces. With dedication and attention to detail, she tells us what she has learned about the couple over the past few months. “For me, flicking through the pages of Münter’s sketchbooks was really special. There was something so private and intimate about it. At the same time, I am delighted that we can show our visitors so much based on the materials the pair created over just a few years: current events, fashion history, emancipation and travelling during colonialism.” This exhibition is particularly good at showing the great in the small.
Gabriele Münter travelled to Munich in 1901. She wanted to be a painter, but as women were not permitted to enter state academies at the time she went to a private art school that was open to both sexes; this was where she met Wassily Kandinsky, initially her teacher and later her partner. He invited her to go on a summer painting trip with him, and this was when she produced her first oil studies. “Münter’s early paintings are rather flat, and she would also use the whole of the background. It was Kandinsky who taught her how to use a spatula and a palette knife. It was only later on that her work became more sketch-like,” explains Henn, pointing out examples in the display cases of each room. The exhibition includes sketches to accompany many of the paintings as well as photographs of both artists.
Gabriele Münter travelled to Munich in 1901. She wanted to be a painter, but as women were not permitted to enter state academies at the time she went to a private art school that was open to both sexes
The years they spent together began almost as tentatively as Münter’s early sketches. During their first and second summers of painting they would go around by bicycle – and the dreamy photos of cycling trips along summery dirt tracks reveal more than just a longing for nature and freedom when considered in the context of the time: for a woman to be cycling was extraordinary at the turn of the century – not to mention impossible if wearing a corset – let alone sitting astride a saddle. Instead of a corset Münter wore a “reform dress”, which was free of any constricting elements. The dress was designed for her by none other than Kandinsky himself, and it included a matching handbag which hung directly on the garment. Henn comments on the couple’s attitude to life: “Both wanted to be modern and free, but that also raises some ambivalences, because the fact that they both came from wealthy families is what made it possible for them to enjoy this lifestyle.”
And there is another thing that we should not forget: behind the carefree photographs and paintings the pair created during their second summer together was the broken heart of Anja Kandinsky, who the artist abandoned to be with his lover. “The private circumstances are part of the story. In a letter to Gabriele Münter, Kandinsky wrote: ‘We can only be together outside of the world’,” curator Henn tells us. He is talking about living outside the society that knows them both; after all, though separated he was still married, and Münter was his student. It was a bittersweet preface to their journeys together.
In 1904 the couple boarded a steamship travelling along the Rhine to Rotterdam. They had with them a Baedeker travel guide that featured a number of recommended highlights; the artist couple visited these and painted many of them too, such as the “picturesque windmills”. “Modern tourism is based on these beginnings and I still see some parallels there,” says Henn. We speak about how Münter documented the everyday lives of people on the journey – though always from a distance, with the eye of a tourist.
Our photographer Frank also notices the aesthetic of her photographs, and wonders what it means for us from today’s perspective if we are reverting back to these pictures and even recreating them in our own holiday snaps. When I ask Henn whether Münter was aware of her talent, she points out multiple photographs while explaining that though some were documentary or private in nature, in many of them the artist was also training her eye. “She understood the artistic medium, but she saw it more as a template for other works. At that time, photography was still struggling for independence as a medium.” A wonderful thing about this exhibition is that Münter’s photographs are considered with the same weight as paintings by the couple.
Most of the photographs were taken when Kandinsky and Münter decided to spend the winter in warmer climes. For the turn of the year between 1904 and 1905 they were in North Africa, on their first visit to the region. The fact that they ended up in Tunisia was partly because the French protectorate country attracted tourists by placing advertisements about “overwintering and colonialisation” in free brochures. “There was a bilingual education system there, you could pay for things in francs and the country also had European-standard travelling infrastructures,” explains Henn. “It was a kind of tourism that developed from a colonialist self-perception. Though the two did not have bad intentions in embarking on this journey, it can be viewed very critically today.”
“Both wanted to be modern and free, but that also raises some ambivalences, because the fact that they both came from wealthy families is what made it possible for them to enjoy this lifestyle.” – Sarah Louisa Henn
We take another look at the photos and sketchbooks that served as the templates for the artists’ oil studies: some show the view from their hotel terrace, while others depict the hustle and bustle on the streets in the medina of Tunis. “We felt it was important to convey both – the critical view, but also the wonderful picture,” says Henn. She mentions Münter’s interest in surfaces and garments, and in the interplay between light and shadow in architecture. She was not looking with just a colonial eye – and yet the artist titled one of her paintings “Straßenbild einer afrikanischen Stadt” (Street scene in an African town), making it a generalised example of a nameless town amid colonial structures. This second glance shows that it is possible – and necessary – to take a multi-layered view in examining the work of the two artists.
The following winter they moved into a villa on the Italian Riviera; they were content there and, perhaps for the first time, began to feel at home. They had their own cook and could appear as a couple in public because no-one knew them locally. After five months though, they moved on. Then Kandinsky lived on the outskirts of Paris for a long time, while Münter rented an apartment in the city and continued her training. Their last trip together was to what is now South Tyrol, to capture the blossoms in Lana. Kandinsky’s work was becoming increasingly abstract by this point; Münter would produce her last oil study with a palette knife here, and soon afterwards her work began to take on an expressionist influence.
“The great art of standing in front of an object and directly capturing the atmosphere,” as Henn describes it, can also be seen in these later works. Given everything that Münter learned from her partner, there is a question as to whether she also had any impact on him. “Her photographic view also had an effect on him, because they moved through different media together. He valued her flair for image detail and composition,” says Henn – reinforcing my own personal takeaway from the exhibition: that Münter’s photographs are outstanding.