Awakening in spring, revelry in autumn, retreat in winter: the passage of the seasons as depicted in works of art Three examples from Munich’s galleries.
Sarah Louisa Henn, curator:
“Wassily Kandinsky and Gabriele Münter got to know each other through painting: Kandinsky was Münter’s tutor at the Phalanx private art school. By 1903, they were officially a couple – though as Kandinsky was still married at the time, their relationship was socially unacceptable and they could not live together in Munich. As Kandinsky wrote in a letter to Münter: ‘We can only be together outside of the world.’ This was probably one of the reasons why the couple travelled extensively from 1904 onwards. They started their travels in Tunisia in 1904, though they found the weather there rather unexciting as it was less of a contrast from the cold German winters than they had hoped.
The next year they set off for the Mediterranean coast, to the Riviera of Flowers in Liguria. This time they loved the destination – perhaps not least because they were able to make a home together for the first time. They lived in a large villa with a cook and enjoyed being seen as an ordinary, accepted couple. As well as that, they devoted themselves to their art while in Liguria. Both artists decisively opposed the academicism which dominated at the time, preferring to paint in small formats, quickly and in a sketch-like manner. They would apply paint directly with a spatula or palette knife as they worked, giving their paintings a vibrancy which is still striking today. This ‘view from the window’ is also anything but a studio piece; the intent with this painting was to quickly capture a raw impression on the canvas.
The work depicts a wintry garden landscape characterised by green and earthy brown, unlike German winter scenes which are typically white. In fact Münter did also paint some pictures of snow-covered beaches during the same period, so evidently the weather was not consistently warm. Then with the arrival of spring, their domestic bliss came to an abrupt end. Kandinsky had a terror of snakes, and when these started to emerge from hibernation and slither through the garden again, the lovers had to leave.”
Wassily Kandinsky: Rapallo – view from the window
Achim Hochdörfer, Director of the Museum Brandhorst art gallery:
“At first glance, all you see when you look at pictures from the Bacchanalia cycle are smoky, khaki-coloured smears. As always with Twombly though, the pieces play on references. The name of the cycle comes from a quotation by Baroque painter Nicolas Poussin, who was an important role model for Twombly. Like Twombly, Poussin lived in Italy and saw the classicist legacy there as a free counter-world to absolutist, religious France. He painted multiple pictures with the theme of Bacchanalia – fertility festivals lasting for several days in March and which honour Bacchus, the god of intoxication.
According to tradition the celebrations would be wild and boisterous, and Poussin actually painted them as orgies too. Twombly refers to Poussin not only by means of the title, but also by incorporating a tiny reproduction of the Baroque painting into each of his pieces. However, Twombly moves the Bacchanal to autumn, as also reflected in the earthy colours he chooses. The exact subject matter of the painting is left open by the artist, though the subtitle ‘5 Days in October’ offers a vague reference to some event. Sexuality was always an important theme in Twombly’s art, and the connection with intoxication is also expressed in the cloudy, smoky streaks we see. However, this is all anchored in the theme of cycles and seasons, as it is in Poussin’s work and in historic Bacchanalia festivals as well. Sexuality and intoxication, both rather private matters for us today, are on display here as essentially a public function – as the foundation for the perpetual act of becoming. In this sense, change is eternal.”
Cy Twombly: Bacchanalia – Fall (5 Days in October)
Other articles that may interest you: There are many other works by Cy Twombly on display in the Museum Brandhorst art gallery. His Lepanto cycle is a monumental study on life, history and light. The paintings are displayed in a room with lighting conditions designed specifically for the cycle.
Mirjam Neumeister, Head Conservator:
“Jan Brueghel the Elder focussed extensively on the theme of seasons, which was very popular in his time. Allegory of Winter stands apart from the cycle it is part of, and what is very interesting is that it is the only one of the four representations to look into an interior space. The painting presents the viewer with a somewhat confusing setting: some type of living room, but it is open on one side, revealing a view of a city winter scene. Ice skaters can be seen in the background – ice skating was popular at the time and is depicted in numerous Dutch paintings. But the indoor space is at the centre of the composition, indicating that life retreats into the home when winter comes. We can see a celebration taking place here.
These days we associate winter with cold and scarcity, but during the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period, winter stood for well-stocked pantries, for relaxation and feasting. In short, it was the pleasant time of the year. That is also reflected here by the sumptuous dishes on display: there are typical winter vegetables such as leek and celery, but also fish, ham and even waffles like the ones we eat today. Winter was the only season when indulgence was permitted. Brueghel even makes subtle references to other excesses, by means of the masks symbolising Carnival for example, which also takes place during winter. However, Brueghel is a man of morals above all else: he respects the will to indulge, but wants to impose strict limits on it. The couple at the table – an old man and a still rather youthful woman – symbolise lust and desire.
The danger that these vices pose is alluded to with another symbol: one of the paintings on the wall depicts the mythical hero Paris, whose desire famously started the Trojan War after he declared Aphrodite to be the most beautiful of the goddesses in return for Helen’s love. Brueghel intends to warn us here that sensuality leads us astray – moderation should be our watchword!”
Jan Brueghel the Elder: Allegory of Winter
Alte Pinakothek München
Other articles that may interest you: Pieter Bruegel, father of Jan Brueghel, was renowned for his depictions of rural life. In our “Munich people looking at pictures” series, our author spends four hours with his “Land of Cockaigne” painting in the Alte Pinakothek art gallery.