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A woman of much importance

An extensive exhibition of 20th-century artist Gabriele Münter’s work shines a spotlight on a masterful painter deserving greater recognition

Gabriele Münter’s self-portrait (1908-1909) in the exhibition catalogue, along with postcards of (from top left) Kandinsky and Erma Bossi at the table (1912), Portrait of Marianne von Werefkin (1909) and The Birds’ Breakfast (1934). Photograph: Christine Madden

Her self-portrait in 1909 reveals much. Cover her face, and you see the beginnings of expressionism, already veering into abstraction. Then remove the covering, and the painting morphs into impressionism, dominated by the delicately painted detail of her face. The eyes timid and anxious, the lips pressed together nervously. The enormous hat, garlanded with daisies, looming over her head like a protective helmet. This woman is intensely aware of herself and feels a wistful longing, anxiety and insecurity in her picturesque surroundings. Even while she’s depicting herself with astonishing talent and an exceptional feel for colour.

Born in Berlin in 1877, Gabriele Münter was a prolific painter and graphic artist of the 20th century who, remembered chiefly as a member of the Expressionist Blaue Reiter movement in southern Germany and lover of Russian Expressionist Vasily Kandinsky, tragically faded into relative obscurity. A vibrant retrospective of her work in Munich’s Lenbachhaus – a modern art museum that has her to thank for its international renown – describes her development as an artist and displays her masterful, brilliantly colourful work.

Münter’s beginnings as an artist can be traced back to a trip she took with her sister after the death of her parents to visit relatives living in the US. Receiving the gift of a camera, she began to experiment with photography, taking atmospheric, painterly, often comical photographs of places in Missouri, Arkansas and Texas. They’re not so much snapshots as visual narratives. Her street scenes, landscapes and portraits – sometimes featuring the long, slim shadow of the photographer – reveal themes she would often repeat in her paintings.

She moved to Munich in 1901 and began to study painting in earnest. As a woman, she was unable to attend a state art academy, so she enrolled first at the art school of the Munich Women’s Art Society, then at the progressive Phalanx school – where Kandinsky was an instructor. They fell in love and had a secret affair, leading to their engagement, although Kandinsky was married. When the school shut down, they travelled throughout Europe and to Tunisia. Taken with the alpine landscape in southern Bavaria, Münter purchased a house in Murnau in 1909, which became the centre of the Blaue Reiter movement, spearheaded by Kandinsky, Franz Marc, Alexej von Jawlensky, Marianne von Werefkin, August Macke and herself.

Gabriele Münter’s portrait of Marianne von Werefkin (1909) in the poster for her Lenbachhaus exhibition “Malen ohne Umschweife”. Photograph: Christine Madden

After the beginning of the First World War, Kandinsky returned to Russia; and Münter spent 1915-1920 in Scandinavia. Kandinsky visited her one last time in Stockholm in 1916, but then never answered her letters. He had divorced his wife in Russia in 1911, but then married another, younger woman in Moscow. He didn’t let Münter know; she had to find out about it from others. After an angry exchange of correspondence, she refused to hand over the many paintings that were still in “their” house in Murnau. When the Nazis gained ascendance in Germany and vilified “degenerate” art – weirdly dedicating an exhibition in Munich to the modern art they found decadent and depraved – Münter and her new partner, art historian Johannes Eichner, wrapped the paintings in newspaper and hid them in the cellar behind jam jars. Years later, for her 80th birthday, she made a present of them – more than 80 of Kandinsky’s paintings as well as hers and those of other exponents of the Blaue Reiter – to the civic gallery in the Lenbachhaus, turning it instantly from a small provincial collection into an internationally famous museum.

Despite her possession and preservation of these paintings, Münter spent the remaining years of her life still painting but in relative poverty. She tried to swap her paintings for bread, milk and meat, not with frequent success. (There must be dozens of residents of Murnau kicking themselves for not taking her up on the exchange.) She was shy and overshadowed by Kandinsky and the other male artists in her circle – and exhorted by her later partner Eichner to paint nice pictures people might like to hang in their living rooms – so she kept to herself. She died in 1962, leaving her estate to the Gabriele Münter and Johannes Eichner Foundation. Her relative obscurity in comparison with her Blaue Reiter colleagues is puzzling, especially as there had been extensive exhibitions of her work, for example in Copenhagen and Stockholm.

Throughout her life, Münter absorbed the spirit of the avant-garde artistic movements of the early 20th century, and her oeuvre shows a mastery of Impressionism, Expressionism, New Objectivity, and includes graphic arts techniques such as wood and linoleum printing. Her work features paintings of masks reminiscent of James Ensor’s, African influences like those of Picasso’s circle in Paris, and local folk and religious art. She – as well as some of the other artists in her circle – also studied the Central European traditional art form of reverse-glass painting (Hinterglasmalerei), which exerted a strong influence on their style.

Münter is celebrated for her exceptional and expressive use of brilliant, vivid colour in her landscapes, portraits and abstract work. And apart from that one telling self-portrait, she crops up frequently in other paintings – usually from behind, looking into the scene herself. She wants the viewer to look not at her, but with her at what she sees. And her vision of the world is astonishing.

Gabriele Münter: Malen ohne Umschweife continues at the Lenbachhaus until 8 April 2018

Display of Gabriele Münter’s portrait of Marianne von Werefkin (1909) in front of north wing of the Lenbachhaus. Photograph: Christine Madden

Rebels with a cause

Sarah Bakewell, author of How to Live, or a Life of Montaigne, and At the Existentialist Cafe, tells her Munich audience why existentialism is the rock-and-roll side of philosophy

Writer Sarah Bakewell, author of ‘At the Existentialist Cafe’, signing books at the Literaturhaus München. Photograph: Christine Madden

AT THE RISK of looking like the PR for Munich’s Literaturhaus, here’s another report on an event in their programme. Apparently English writer Sarah Bakewell doesn’t often tour, but she made an exception and paid the venue an exclusive visit to promote her engaging book, At the Existentialist Café. In a question-and-answer session with Austrian literary critic Sigrid Löffler, with passages from the book read by German actor and singer Wiebke Puls, Bakewell described her enduring love affair with existentialism with easy-going humour and enthusiasm. Better than straight philosophy, Bakewell’s book invites us into the cafés and jazz clubs with the existentialists, whose lives she describes with the arch affection of an intimate. Löffler describes Bakewell as the “master of presenting images in relaxed, chatty language”.

Any apprehensions of a dry-as-dust scholastic treatment of a supposedly defunct philosophical movement should be dispelled by the book’s subtitle: ‘Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails’. The philosophers inhabiting this engaging book Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus and others had gained a reputation for being worthy, serious, embodiments of “stuffy old Europe” in American circles. But, argues Bakewell, these people were the rock-and-roll celebrities of mid 20th-century Paris, where they represented youth, rebellion and (sexual) freedom.

Far from propounding a rarefied body of thought, distanced from the world we inhabit, the existentialists were writing about “the problems of living, of the world, of love, of desire and what it means to be a human being”, says Bakewell. Their philosophy is imbued with passion and immediacy, which is why, she says, “existentialism never goes out of fashion for 16-year-olds” – a reference to her own discovery of their dynamic work when she was a teenager.

They felt their ideas had the power to change the world

They also sometimes acted like teenagers, quarrelling and falling out with one another. But, as Bakewell explains, this is because they their ideas mattered so much to them, that they felt their ideas had the power to change the world.

They lived with an admirable intensity and immediacy that we, in our technology-addicted world, no longer seem to feel. Separating ourselves from the bold fact of our physicality, the active reality of our existence, we crave easy thrills and, often virtual, distraction and disruption – nothing like the rebellion and revolt the existentialists thought, felt, advocated and put into practice.

Existentialism, Bakewell believes, has a new validity and urgency in the 21st century. “The existentialists asked questions that we need to think about now,” she states, “the big question of freedom.” The leaching of our freedom in the current political climate, she says, is accompanied by scientific discoveries about the brain, that we don’t make conscious decisions, that we’re ruled by hormones, etc. “It’s an old argument with scientific justification,” she explains, “but it doesn’t answer the question of freedom: what is my life and what am I going to do with it?”


‘The Cassandras in the world are never asleep’

Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka – playwright, poet, ‘anatomist of the workings of power’ – shows a Munich audience he is still well able to pounce

Wole Soyinka, speaking at the Munich Security Conference, 17 February 2017. Photograph: Christine Madden

THE BUZZ in the lecture hall in the Literaturhaus München becomes more subdued as the minutes tick by – Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka, scheduled to speak as part of the Munich Security Conference, is late. The audience were told yesterday that he was flying in from Los Angeles. Is the flight delayed? Or – in this age, one can’t help leaping to drastic worst-case scenarios – had something more sinister happened?

He arrives then, to enthusiastic applause, flanked by the deputy director of the MSC. It appears that Soyinka’s arrival occurred at the same time as “our chancellor’s” and in the worldwide political pecking order, her security took precedence. (It is, after all, a security – not a literary – conference.)

Literally an éminence grise with his eye-catching shock of white hair, Nobel laureate Soyinka explains what sets Cassandra and her heirs apart: “listening to the quiet, hearing the sounds of danger”. Soyinka has been speaking and writing with her voice for decades – he was imprisoned for using it in the 1960s when the government interrogated then imprisoned him for almost two years. He also criticised the 20th-century concept of “négritude”, current among intellectuals using it to oppose a mentality of colonial racism. Being deliberately outspoken about their ethnicity did not give Africans power but put them on the defensive. “A tiger does not proclaim his tigritude, he pounces,” he stated. Most recently in Africa, Soyinka says, “the voice of Cassandra was heeded” when former Gambian president Yahya Jammeh was finally forced to step down after repudiating the results of an election he did not win.

Again he used that voice – the result of experience, of human knowledge, the practice of integrity – in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall. He relates how then French president Mitterrand convoked a conference of Nobel prize laureates. Asked for his opinion, Soyinka said that one of the few scientific principles he had retained from his schooling was that nature abhors a vacuum. The eastern bloc had crumbled. Had the rest of the world thought about what would take its place? “I think,” he told them, presciently, “it will be religious fundamentalism.” Only a few weeks later, the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran issued the fatwa against writer Salmon Rushdie for the publication of his novel The Satanic Verses. It was, as he explained, the first act to show the militancy, the disregard for humanity and lack of conscience of a movement that has now ascended to be the issue of our era.

‘What you call an enemy is very important’

“People say there was no warning,” Soyinka challenges, “but there is always a warning. The Cassandras in the world are never asleep.” He cites two examples in 20th-century literature in which her voice was loud and clear. Max Frisch’s The Fire-Raisers (also known as The Arsonists) describes how a normal, seemingly innocent lodger takes over the house of a bourgeois family until he and his cohorts have taken it over turned it catastrophically upside down. In Eugène Ionesco’s The Rhinoceros, we see the effect of “peer pressure, wanting to conform”, says Soyinka. “Do I want to stand out? Oh, my neighbour, his children are already grow their horn,” he quips. You wouldn’t want to cause a disruption or make them feel bad. These plays offer a stark depiction of how easily the moral framework of society is disrupted to a point at which it can’t be reversed without cataclysmic struggle. “What greater warning do we want from literature?” he asks.

To do that, you have to oppose power with freedom, not bow before it in submission. “And what you call an enemy is very important,” he warns. He mentions the western use of the names Isis or Isil to describe the Islamic fundamentalist movement in the Middle East with scorn. They are not a state, he insists; to give them that name gives them a status, credibility. In the Middle East, in Africa, they are called Daesh. The Cassandras of this world refuse to show deference to those who control with force, with submission, with domination. “You have to show them your contempt,” he says. “If we listen to Cassandra, we can escape becoming rhinoceroses.”



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