Travel Essay: Murnau - Where Kandinsky lost his form

An hour-long train ride going south from Munich Hauptbahnhof, one slowly approaches the picturesque little town of Murnau, nestled in between lakes, moors and the Bavarian Alps. Murnau is not any old Bavarian town, though. Traditional stucco buildings barely hide what the bright and colorful facades cannot:  it is here, where Wassily Kandinsky moved traditional art into the modern, abstract era.


As it frequently happens, a visionary needs a muse and a strong shoulder to help him through his ups and downs. Therefore, any story about Kandinsky’s leap into abstract art would be incomplete without mentioning Gabriele Münter.


While the train ride from Munich to Murnau was similar back in 1909, passengers in those days were not: farmers’ daughters and sons that had been sent to the city to seek employment or learn a craft would be taking the train to visit their families in the countryside. Also among the travellers were wealthy city-folk escaping the urban life for a weekend or a summer, as well as artists searching for new motifs and vistas to paint. One August day that year, Wassily Kandinsky was also sitting on that train, next to him was one of his art students, his muse and secret lover, Gabriele Münter.


Gabriele was a proper girl, well educated, travelled, not an easy flirt. Often referred to as quiet and stern, she had come to Munich from the North, like so many other daughters of well-to-do families, in order to study drawing at the “Damenakademie”, the female counterpart to the more prominent but usually all-male art academies. During the early 20th century, Munich was an important cultural center for the arts. Musicians, artists, writers and actors would mingle in Schwabing, a central part of town, and establish an avant-garde sub-culture, a bohemian life-style, full of creative experimentation. Writer Thomas Mann would have been frequenting Café Stefanie or later the Simplicissimus, running into artist Franz Marc or poet Else Lasker Schüler.

            Gabriele Münter was a talented student, standing out amongst her peers, and was soon taken under the mentorship of Wassily Kandinsky. The Russian emigrant had left his first career as an economist and lawyer behind in order to establish himself as an artist in Munich. By 1902, Kandinsky was teaching painting classes at an art academy called Phalanx School, which was located just one level above the “Damenakademie”. The story goes that a broken heater in the women’s classroom had forced the ladies to walk upstairs and temporarily work with the Phalanx-students until their heating system was back in order. Kandinsky was teaching that day and he immediately noticed Münter’s unique talent. His curiosity about her drawing and painting techniques grew into adoration for her as a woman. He valued her opinion and regarded her as an artist in her own right. Münter, on the other hand, liked his charisma, his philosophical approach to the arts. She also liked his love letters.

On a summer outing in 1903 Kandinsky spontaneously asked Gabriele to marry him, and she quietly accepted. The only problem was that Kandinsky was technically still married to Anja Kandinsky, who he had brought with him from Russia years earlier. He promised Münter, that he would file for divorce so the two of them could wed. Until then, they would have to live their romance discreetly. Münter was not happy with their arrangement, but loved Kandinsky too much, to break off the engagement.


            The couple had come to Murnau several times before – on bike tours, with fellow students and fellow artists Alexei Jawlensky and Marianna von Werefkin. They had fallen in love with the small town situated on a hill, overlooking the lake on one side, the moors with their ever-changing colors on the other, and with the majestic mountain range, “Zugspitze”, the highest mountain in Germany, at its southern tip. They rowed a paddle boat to one of the seven small islands Staffelsee lake for a picnic, and mingled with country folk at the quaint restaurant, down by the moors and the old chapel, called the “Aehndl”. They were so inspired that they started to look for a summer house in the area. It didn’t take long before they had spotted the right property: a unique house reminiscent of Swedish country homes more so than of traditional Bavarian houses. Grey wooden slats covered the upper part of the house, the stucco underneath was painted in bright white and yellow. Light blue shutters and trim accentuated the exterior, a small garden would suit them well. Sitting on a hill, the panoramic view out the living room windows would offer them beautiful views to paint the small town underneath, trains passing by, the church right across, an old hunting castle to the left. Gabriele Münter the house so much, she purchased it in her name in 1909.


Meanwhile, the couple began to decorate their new home to their liking: warm colors in every room, simple furniture to suit their needs. The highlight: Kandinsky painted the staircase with colorful horses, riders and flowers that reminded him of the bright folklore art of his Russian heritage. A rider, he told Münter, is who he identified with most as an artist.

Summers came and went, and while Kandinsky had long ago begun to refer to Münter as his wife, had even introduced her to his family, he had yet to organize the appropriate papers to legitimize their relationship. Their little home in Murnau was called the “Russenhaus” (Russian House) by disapproving local folk, which could not understand the unconventional living arrangements or the unusual work of the immigrant painter and his mistress from the North. Münter quietly endured ridicule by townspeople as well as her family during her 14-year liaison with Kandinsky.

And “unusual” it was: Alexej von Jawlensky, Marianne von Werefkin, Paul Klee, August Macke, Franz Marc and more visited and collaborated. They philosophized about colors as symbols to feelings, to sounds, about wanting to get away from the limitations of shapes. Most of Münter’s best works were created during their time in Murnau and Kandinsky’s formation of Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) along with Franz Marc was monumental. When Kandinsky began to experiment on his first abstract paintings, he sought Münter’s advice and encouragement. She was truly his muse and his lover, but never his wife.


When the First World War broke out in August of 1914, things started to fall apart quickly. As a Russian citizen, Kandinsky had to leave Germany abruptly. At first, Münter followed him to Switzerland – from there he went on to Russia, she was to go to neutral Scandinavia and wait for him until the end of the war. While in Russia, he could finally get everything organized, he said, they could start anew after the war. Münter travelled alone to Stockholm. After a brief reunion in Sweden over the holidays in 1915/16, and a last photo together, Münter waited patiently for the war to end, for a happy reunion with Kandinsky. What she did not know until years later is that Kandinsky had met twenty-two year old student Nina back in Russia, married her and started a family, while Münter had still been waiting for him in Scandinavia.

            Eventually, she returned to her home in Murnau alone, ashamed and disillusioned. Still, as a final act of loyalty to Kandinsky, out of respect for his work and their time together, she quietly hid his paintings behind shelves in a secret room in the basement to protect them from the Nazis, who had put Kandinsky on the list of banned artists (Degenerate Art).


Despite her meager funds, Münter gifted all of Kandinsky’s works and a sizeable portion of her own art to the Lenbachhaus Museum in Munich in the late 1950s. They are on permanent display there.

Gabriele Münter later befriended art historian Johannes Eichner, who eventually moved into her home with her. Although he would become her loyal companion until his death, they never stopped addressing each other formally and they never married. Her gravestone at the catholic cemetery at Nikolauskirche in Murnau is pointed straight at the “Russenhaus”, overlooking an array of brightly colored houses thanks to the influence of the expressionist artist pair, Münter and Kandinsky.