Gabriele Münter's search for expression

When art history books discuss German Expressionism in the early 20th century, the name of Gabriele Münter appears on the list of the revolutionary artists whose paintings were shown in exhibitions at the time.

All the same, the work of this German-born artist has been largely passed over since, except on rare occasions. Yet it is clear, on the strength of a number of strong, distinctive paintings currently on view (through Sept. 11) at London's Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery, that Münter deserves much greater recognition.

Although considerably younger than the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky, who was first her teacher and then her companion, her work cannot be dismissed as simply following his lead. In fact, when his work famously became abstract, she did not follow.

This is the first exhibition of her work in Britain, and as its title indicates, it explores her "Search for Expression" during the years 1906 to 1917. In this period, she was close not only to Kandinsky but also to other avant-garde artists in Germany.

Particular friends were the Russians Alexej Jawlensky and Marianne Werefkin - the subject of the bold painting of two figures in a landscape shown here. The four artists worked together, starting in 1908, in the Bavarian country town of Murnau, where they established an association for exhibiting new art. They shared intense interest in folk art, particularly in paintings on glass. These primitive glass paintings greatly influenced their work. Münter also knew the work done in Paris by Henri Matisse and his so-called "fauve" friends. Their vivid color and direct brushwork, concentrating on essences rather than an accumulation of realistic detail, she made her own in this painting.

In the drawing from which this painting derives, she delineated Jawlensky's features. Portraiture was an abiding interest for her. But she effaced these (and Werefkin's) features in the final picture, as Matisse often did.

In Münter's linocuts, she similarly showed she was a master of powerful understatement. Werefkin is characterized, however, by her far-from-understated hat. The same fruity confection appears in a portrait of Werefkin alone that Münter painted the same year.

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