THE PROPERTY OF A PRIVATE EUROPEAN COLLECTOR
‘Colour is a means of exerting a direct influence upon the soul.’
Filled with vigorous strokes of bold, luminous colour, Weilheim – Marienplatz illustrates the groundbreaking developments that occurred in Wassily Kandinsky’s oeuvre while living in the small, sleepy market town of Murnau, nestled in the shadows of the Bavarian Alps. Inspired by the dramatic vistas of this picturesque location and the idyllic way of life he found there, Kandinsky reached a breakthrough in his painting, stepping away from the formative influences of Van Gogh, Gauguin and French Fauvism, which had previously dominated his art, and forging his own wholly unique vision. Heightening his use of colour to new levels of expressionistic intensity and broadening his brushstrokes to the point where each mark takes on an autonomous formal function of its own, the landscapes that Kandinsky created in Murnau mark the beginning of his pioneering journey into abstraction.
Following several years of extensive travel throughout Europe, Kandinsky and his companion Gabriele Münter returned to Germany in 1908, settling in Munich once again after sojourns in Paris, Italy, North Africa and Berlin. It was during a short cycling tour outside of the city, in search of suitable locations to work en-plein-air, that the two artists came across the little hamlet of Murnau, perched on the edge of the crystal clear waters of the Staffelsee Lake. The tranquil atmosphere, sub-Alpine light and spectacular scenery of this area left an indelible impression on Kandinsky and Münter and, upon their return to the city, they recommended the town to their friends and fellow artists, Alexej von Jawlensky and Marianne von Werefkin. The quartet spent almost the entire month of August that year in Murnau, often working together in a communal manner, painting the same scenes from different viewpoints, and pursuing similar stylistic experiments in their work. The natural beauty of the broad expanse of the Murnau moors set against the backdrop of the Alpine peaks provided the artists with a compelling visual environment in which to paint, and Kandinsky worked prolifically, producing dozens of views of this tranquil haven and the surrounding landscapes. It was Jawlensky who took the lead in guiding the quartet’s evolution at this time, with both Münter and Kandinsky portraying him as the group’s mentor in their memoirs. Sharing his knowledge of the French avant-garde with his fellow painters, Jawlensky encouraged them to develop a free and expressive handling of colour and form in their work, a lesson which Kandinsky took to heart, and which led him to enter a period of intense experimentation, which would revolutionise his approach to colour and form. As he later recalled, these experiences allowed him to ‘let myself go. I thought little of houses and trees, but applied coloured stripes and spots to the canvas with the knife and made them sing out as strongly as I could…’ (Kandinsky, quoted in F. Whitford, Kandinsky, London, 1967, p. 31).
When the quartet returned once again to Murnau in 1909, meeting in late spring and staying for much of the summer, Kandinsky and Münter took the opportunity to root themselves firmly in the town, purchasing a small, picturesque house on the western edge of the village. The 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.
It became a haven for Kandinsky, removed from the bustle and politics of the Munich art world, a retreat, where he could reflect and take stock of his ideas and his work. He became an enthusiastic gardener and went for long walks in the nearby mountains. Along with Münter, he designed elements of the décor and furnishing for the house, painting a frieze of stylised flowers and folkloric riders along the banisters, and filling the walls with examples of local Bavarian folk art and glass-painting. It was in this idyllic, stimulating environment that Kandinsky defiantly surged ahead of his companions in his pursuit of the expressive potential of colour. Combined with a compositional planarity and simplification of forms that condensed what he saw to the verge of abstraction, Kandinsky liberated colour from its descriptive function, using it instead in a pure and intuitive manner as he sought to imbue his paintings with an emotive power and an autonomous abstract energy. As he later explained in his 1914 text, Reminiscences, he envisioned his colours ‘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, ‘Reminiscences/Three Pictures,’ in K. Lindsay & P. Vergo eds., Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art, New York, 1994, p. 372).
Kandinsky saw the paintings he created at Murnau as formal experiments in a new way of seeing. His interest in this area had been sparked by a series of events and experiences that ‘stamped my whole life and shook me to the depths of my being,’ but which took several years of fermentation to emerge in his own works (Kandinsky, ibid., p. 363): notably hearing about the apparent divisibility of the atom, a performance of Wagner’s Lohengrin at the Court Theatre and the sudden recognition of the abstract qualities inherent within one of Claude Monet’s Haystack paintings. Describing this encounter with the Impressionist master’s work at an exhibition in Moscow in 1896, Kandinsky wrote: ‘And suddenly, for the first time, I saw a picture. That it was a haystack, the catalogue informed me. I didn’t recognise it… I had a dull feeling that the object was lacking in this picture. And I noticed with surprise and confusion that the picture not only gripped me, but impressed itself ineradicably on my memory, always hovering quite unexpectedly before my eyes, down to the last detail… Painting took on a fairy-tale power and splendour. And, albeit unconsciously, objects were discredited as an essential element within the picture…’ (Kandinsky, ibid.).
Executed in thick strokes of vibrant, saturated pigment, the present composition depicts the bright, colourful houses of the Marienplatz, a pedestrianised square at the heart of the medieval town of Weilheim, less than twenty kilometres from Murnau. Delicately balancing representation with abstraction, colour with form, it stands as a striking illustration of Kandinsky’s highly experimental approach to painting during this period. The façades of the buildings that line the edge of the square are captured in an explosion of colour – bright pinks sit alongside luminous shades of yellow, while rich, fiery oranges abut cool greens. The setting sun casts a dark shadow over the lower half of the buildings, cutting diagonally cross their façades to introduce a series of deeper tones which stand in startling contrast to the vibrant play of colour that mark the rest of the street. Throughout the composition, Kandinsky deliberately intensifies and heightens the chromatic impact of each tone and simplifies the linear forms of his vista, to increase the visual impact of the colours. In the lower right hand corner of the composition, two figures in black traverse the pedestrianised square, their forms delineated with just a few brief strokes of dark paint. The woman on the right casts her eyes upwards, as if to admire the sunlight as it hits the architecture that surrounds her. The dazzling and variegated patterns of radiant brushstrokes, meanwhile, seem to hover on the surface of the painting, as if momentarily conveying the scene before disassembling into a non-representational world of their own. The statue of the Virgin Mary and Christ child that sits at the heart of the square, for example, appears to dissolve into an abstract play of autonomous strokes of pigment which echo the glowing tones of the buildings surrounding them, their forms completely independent of the subject they intend to depict. It is this dual aspect of paintings such as Weilheim – Marienplatz – the balance between its representational structure and the intuitively arrived at abstract life of its surface – that would prove the final springboard into complete abstraction for Kandinsky,
By introducing increasingly intense and luminous swathes of pure pigment to his compositions, juxtaposed in a way that no longer slavishly reiterated nature, Kandinsky began to push beyond the visible world and instead tap into what he saw as the ‘spiritual’ realm which lay behind it. 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. In his seminal text, On the Spiritual in Art, the first draft of which he had completed in Murnau during the summer of 1909, Kandinsky eloquently described this phenomenon: ‘Colour is the keyboard. The eye is the hammer. The soul is the piano, with its many strings. The artist is the hand that sets the soul vibrating by means of this or that key’ (Kandinsky, ‘On the Spiritual in Art,’ in K. Lindsay & P. Vergo eds., op. cit., p. 160).
The radical developments that occurred in his art at 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).
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THE PROPERTY OF A PRIVATE EUROPEAN COLLECTOR
Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944)
London, Marlborough Fine Art, Kandinsky: The Road to Abstraction, April - May 1961, no. 27 (illustrated; titled ‘Market Place in a small Bavarian Town’).
New York, Stephen Hahn Gallery, 1964.
Murmau, Schlossmuseum, on loan, 2006.
H.K Roethel & J.K Benjamin, Kandinsky Catalogue Raisonné of the Oil Pantings, vol. I, 1900-1915, London, 1982, no. 318, p. 299 (illustrated).
Gabriele Münter, Munich, by whom acquired directly from the artist.
Hans Konrad Roethel, Munich.
Marlborough Fine Art, London, by whom acquired from the above on 15 February 1961.
New Gallery, New York, by whom acquired from the above on 30 April 1961.
Eugene V. Thaw, New York.
Private collection, New York.
Private collection, Germany.
Acquired from the above; sale, Sotheby’s, London, 5 February 2007, lot 8.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.