In 1911 an unsuccessful landscape painter, supported by 140 other artists, published a pamphlet called A Protest by German Artists. It stated:
In view of the great invasion of French art, which for the past few years occurred in the so-called progressive art centers of Germany, it seems to me a necessity for German artists to raise a warning without being deterred by the objection that their only motivation is envy.… Let us repeat it again and again: a people can be raised to the very heights only through artists of its own flesh and blood.1
It was a not unfamiliar cry: throughout the nineteenth century German writers had repeated the message summed up in Hans Sachs’s address at the end of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg calling for German art to be kept pure and free from Gaulish frivolity and corruption (Welschen Dunst mit welschem Tand). It had been promulgated again by Julius Langbehn in his best seller of 1890, Rembrandt als Erzieher (“Rembrandt as Educator”), and by Houston Stuart Chamberlain in his equally popular (especially with Kaiser Wilhelm II) Grundlagen des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts (“Foundations of the Nineteenth Century”), published in 1899, which saw the history of German art as “a struggle between our innate tendencies and those foreign ones forced on us.” And for that matter, to judge by Ian Buruma’s discussion of Hans-Jürgen Syberberg in The New York Review of December 20, 1990, these are ideas that are still found today.
At the beginning of the twentieth century this was a mood that had been encouraged by the rapid introduction of new styles in painting, sculpture, and the applied arts that had accompanied each of the recent splits in the German art world, with one “Secession” leading to another, and with the “advanced” artists of one decade often becoming the reactionaries of the next. Throughout the nineteenth century—especially of course in France—artists had been rebelling against the established academies and official salons and had looked for new ways of showing their work in rival “Salons des Refusés.”
In Germany by the end of the century the situation had become particularly dramatic. This was partly because Germany’s increasing economic strength and rapid urbanization had caused many social and political tensions and raised questions about Germany’s mission in the world and German national identity so that many people were asking, “What is German?”
In the art world the question arose especially from the fact that, as Robin Lenman has pointed out in a recent article,2 state and municipal patronage of the arts in Germany was on a particularly large scale, so that the relation of art to the state became of central importance for artists trying to make a living. Those artists who were not included, or who thought themselves inadequately represented in the large official exhibitions held in the major German cities, had economic as well as aesthetic reasons for creating new outlets for their work. As the painter Lovis Corinth remarked, on joining the Munich Secession in 1892, “I had the instinctive sense that I could get-ahead in this clique.”
The first of these Secessions was that in Munich in 1892, the subject of an interesting and well-researched study by Maria Makela, following to some extent the model of Peter Paret’s pioneering book of 1980 on the Berlin Secession. Similar movements were started in other German cities, for example Düsseldorf and Dresden. In Austria the Vienna Secession was founded in 1897. (A recent introduction by Frank Whitford to the art of Gustav Klimt3 gives a good brief outline of its history, in part drawing on Carl Schorske’s analysis in Fin-de-Siècle Vienna , which remains a model for all of us of this kind of cultural history.) Each of these movements had its own characteristics and its own emphasis, but artists moved from one city to another: many Munich artists went to Berlin at a time when the imperial capital seemed a richer and more dynamic place than Munich for all the latter city’s agreeable qualities. In each center it had been the controversy over the showing of foreign art that had been one of the principal issues over which the split took place.
Initially the Secessions remained comparatively conservative in style, though this did not stop the commandant of the Berlin garrison from forbidding officers to visit the Secession show in uniform, thus equating it, as Peter Paret writes, “with cabarets of dubious repute.” In fact the Berlin Secession presented an administrative and artistic challenge to the official artistic establishment with which the Kaiser had close connections. (It was characteristic of Wilhelm II that he believed that he knew more about art than the directors of his museums, just as he thought himself as great an expert on submarine warfare as his admirals.) The Munich Secession began by emphasizing naturalism in opposition to the sentimental scenes of Bavarian peasant life popular among local painters and patrons, but it too was protesting against the elaborate grandiose state portraits and history paintings of Franz von Lenbach and especially Anton von Werner, the director of the School of Fine Arts in Berlin and a trusted spokesman of Wilhelm II, whose drawing master he had been.
Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century it was Munich that was the artistic capital of Germany. The collections that King Ludwig I had assembled before 1848 and the handsome neoclassical buildings that housed them, the number of artists living and working in the city (some 9,000 by 1894, rising to 14,000 in 1907), the vitality of the theatrical and musical life—even if King Ludwig II’s patronage of Wagner and the composer’s increasing financial demands and irregular private life combined with the king’s mania for building vast castles and palaces to cause political crises—all made the Bavarian capital an attractive place for artists, both German and foreign, as well as writers, to say nothing of visiting connoisseurs and tourists.
In 1868 the Münchener Künstlergenossenschaft had been founded by royal charter and took over responsibility for organizing exhibitions and staging public events such as the pageant in honor of Prince Luitpold, who became regent for the mad Prince Otto after the death of the unfortunate—and equally mad—Ludwig II. As Maria Makela describes it:
Six horses pulled an elaborately decorated float, the centerpiece of which were four allegorical figures of genius sitting on a platform supported by gilded columns. Holding palm branches, they were surmounted by a sign inscribed with the words “Luitpoldus, artium protector.”
(And indeed the regent was in fact an enlightened patron of art.) Munich already had a grand exhibition space, the Glaspalast built in 1854, and it was largely because of quarrels about what should be shown in it and who should select the works that the Verein Bildender Künstler Münchens, soon known simly as the Münchener Secession, was founded in 1892. A manifesto published in June of that year was quite clear about the economic motives for the Secession:
Exceptional changes have occurred in the last decade in the art world. Ceaseless production has replaced comfortable creation, and exhibitions, sporadic in bygone days occur now in unbroken succession.…
Early in the seventies the demand for Munich pictures increased in a way that was never anticipated. Both the talented and the less gifted had their hands full and were hardly able to keep pace with the great demand of the art dealers. These “golden days” lasted into the eighties, and the Munich art community lived by and large on American and English money. But meanwhile a powerful stimulus enlivened foreign art, and many artists of different nationalities suddenly surprised the world with exceptional originality and productivity.… This competition was to become especially dangerous for us Munich artists. For while the majority of us—under the spell of the art market—remained artistically on the level of the sixties [other] countries had joined the great modern currents that were then flooding all of Europe. It was not long before Munich art was deemed provincial in foreign countries.…
What the new association aimed at was raising the standard of exhibitions in Munich: “For the viewer, it is tiring and antipathetic to work through a labyrinth of very disparate art products.” And the consequence was that “the representative Munich exhibitions must be elite exhibitions,” and this necessarily involved including good foreign works.
The new association would be modern and forward-looking, but it would also be economically competitive in an art market which in Munich seemed to be in decline. One of the artists involved later admitted that
the main concern of most was: Will you do better here, will you be better hung? There were only a few idealists who thought of the whole, of something lofty, of progress.
What was at stake was not just private patronage but also the extent of state patronage of contemporary art; and this depended largely on the particular political situation of Bavaria.4
The unification of Germany under Bismarck and the consolidation of the German Empire in 1871 still left considerable power to the governments of the individual German states. This was particularly true of Bavaria, which retained a strong sense of national character and national traditions. Under the constitution of the empire, Bavaria had, for example, retained the right to a separate army and a separate postal service, as well as separate diplomatic representation abroad, as the price of King Ludwig II’s reluctant agreement to the King of Prussia assuming the title of German emperor. While the individual states each paid a contribution to the central budget, they still retained wide powers over taxation and expenditure as well as control over education. The political situation in Bavaria was complicated by the fact that 71 percent of the inhabitants were Roman Catholics, so that the Catholic political party—the Center party—was of increasing importance, winning a majority in the Bavarian parliament early in the new century, while Catholic pressure groups inevitably had considerable influence in attempting to prevent the exhibition of “indecent” pictures. (Danae by Max Slevogt was removed from the Secession exhibition in 1903.)
Yet the authorities could be surprisingly tolerant. Although the Bavarian government under clerical pressure had supported the proposal in Berlin to introduce laws against obscenity applicable to the whole of the empire, they responded to counterpressure from a large number of artists and writers and in the event withdrew their support from the proposed law, which was in fact rejected.5 As a result, in the absence of a law applicable to the whole Reich, the rules about censorship varied very much from one part of Germany to another, and local police and magistrates retained considerable discretion, which some of them in Munich were prepared to use in the interest of the artistic community.
The inhabitants of Munich were very conscious of the advantages to their city of its reputation as a center of artistic life. Indeed politicians saw in Munich’s artistic renown some compensation for the loss of sovereignty in 1871: “If in the course of our political development we have had to relinquish certain political privileges,” the Bavarian foreign minister declared in 1890, “we nevertheless do not want to let ourselves be supplanted in the domain of art.” And John Lavery, one of the seventeen painters from Glasgow (the so-called Glasgow Boys) who exhibited in the annual exhibition of the Genossenschaft in 1890 believed that in Munich “the status of a painter was equal to that of a general in the army; he was covered with decorations at public functions and saluted as a person of distinction.” One of the issues that had led to the founding of the Secession was the invitation to foreign artists to send work to the annual exhibitions, though even among Secession members there was soon a movement to limit the number of foreign works shown: in 1893 more than half the exhibitors were foreign; as a result of complaints by Munich artists the number had fallen to 17 percent by 1908.
It was not only the public respect for art of all kinds that made Munich attractive for artists and writers from all parts of Germany and abroad; there was also the charm of its notorious Bohemian life—even if the Munich sections of the recently reissued Diary of an Erotic Life by the playwright Frank Wedekind suggest that the erotic charms of Munich were perhaps overrated, since during his early years in Munich in 1889–1890 he seems to have spent much of his time trying unsuccessfully to pick up girls in cafés or in the Englisches Garten and then going back to masturbate in his lodging. (He was to have more success in Paris.) Nevertheless, when he finally settled in Munich some years later Wedekind seemed to represent all that was most advanced and emancipated; his plays were banned—the most famous of them, Frühlings Erwachen (Spring’s Awakening), a bleak and intense study of the problems of adolescence, though published in 1891, was repeatedly prevented by censorship from public performance and was not staged until 1906—in Berlin, not Munich, which had to wait another two years. In the 1890s he was, until he quarreled with the editor, a regular contributor to Simplicissimus, the Munich periodical that mocked the conservative values and pretentiousness of Germany and was repeatedly prosecuted for the vaguely phrased offense of “Grober Unfug” (roughly, causing a public nuisance). Wedekind served a term of imprisonment for the crime of Majestätsbeleidigung (insulting the emperor) for his satirical verses on the Kaiser’s much-publicized visit to Palestine in 1900.
Wedekind not only provided songs for the famous Munich cabaret, the Elf Scharfrichter (Eleven Executioners), he was also an indefatigable performer, and for some years supported himself as a chansonnier and actor until he began to make an adequate living from his plays. A founding member of the Munich Society for Modern Life, he stood for all that was new and advanced in the coming twentieth century. As a playwright he was one of the founders of the expressionist theater and a pioneer of twentieth-century frankness about sex and its destructive powers—notably in his two Lulu plays, Earth Spirit (Das Erdgeist) and Pandora’s Box (Die Büchs der Pandora), in which Lulu destroys her lovers, male and female, and finally, ruined and destitute, perishes at the hands of Jack the Ripper. He loved masks and disguises and saw human beings as figures in some cosmic puppet play. For him the theater had become a symbol, just as he himself seems a symbol of Munich’s bohemia. In his play The Marquis of Keith, in which the central figure is a confidence trickster who is raising money for the construction of a palace of the arts in Munich, Wedekind makes a cynical comment on the relation between money and the arts in the city, an aspect of Munich which one of the characters sums up by saying, “Munich is an Arcadia and at the same time a Babylon.”6
The artists of the various Secessions were not only hoping to change the art market and the taste of their patrons, they also hoped to change life and society. As Carl Schorske writes of the Vienna Secession, “The Secession movement…manifested the confused quest for a new life orientation in visual form.”7 One result was a revolution in the applied arts. The movement developed in many centers in Germany and soon became known under the general title of Jugendstil after the Munich art magazine Jugend founded in 1896. The decorative arts showed how open many members of the Munich Secession were to international influences: there was a retrospective of the English artist Walter Crane in 1896, and in 1899 the Secession combined with the recently founded committee for arts and crafts representing the Munich craftsmen to mount an exhibition which not only included works by Munich artists such as Richard Riemerschmid, a painter turned furniture designer and one of the founders of the arts and crafts movement in the city, but also examples of the Belgian Henry van de Velde, the Scotsman Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the American L.C. Tiffany, the Frenchman René Lalique, the Russian Peter Carl Fabergé, and many others. It was in Munich too that the most influential of all such bodies, the Deutsche Werkbund, was founded, though it was soon to move to Dresden and then Berlin.8
The applied arts showed even more clearly than the work of the painters how diffuse and contradictory the modern movement had become. Indeed one of the characteristics of “advanced” art in Germany at the beginning of the century was, as Seth Taylor points out in his study of the influence of Nietzsche on certain aspects of Expressionist literature, Left-Wing Nietzscheans, the tension between the artist’s desire to become socially involved in the problems of an increasingly urbanized, society and the equally strong desire to withdraw from the world into a rural Arcadia was never really resolved: “The longing for social involvement was contradicted by a libertarian desire to withdraw from society completely.”9 Similar contradictions can be seen in the styles adopted by painters and designers: on the one hand there was a desire for a new simplicity and a return to nature; on the other hand the convoluted forms of much art nouveau work, however much they may have originated in natural patterns, became as elaborate and overwrought as anything produced by their nineteenth-century predecessors against whom they were reacting. 10 The conflict of styles could also occur in the work of a single artist: one has only to compare Richard Riemerschmid’s elaborately ornamented Doorway to the Room for an Art Lover exhibited at the Paris Universal Exposition in 1900 with the pared-down simplicity of his tables and chairs illustrated on the preceding pages of Maria Makela’s book.
The eclecticism of the Secession painters in Munich emphasizes the fact that their organization was more concerned with exhibiting their work than in developing a common style or a common aesthetic theory, and the decline of the Secession was as much due to clashes of personality and the collapse of the Munich art market as to purely stylistic causes. Certainly a contributing factor was the personality of Fritz von Uhde, who became president of the Secession in 1899. Uhde had spent ten years as an officer in a Saxon cavalry regiment before becoming a professional painter and this may have contributed to the authoritarian abrasiveness of his manner. One critic described him as a “very characteristic personality of the military state that was Germany. He symbolizes that brute force to which nothing…was holy and which did not hesitate to attack even the most pitiful performance with insolent barrack-room jokes.”
This was combined with a feeling of insecurity and doubt about his own painting and his own position in the art world, so that it is not surprising that, although he had been largely responsible for the founding of the Secession, he was also largely responsible for its decline. Already in the 1880s he had established himself as an emancipated naturalist artist: his picture Suffer Little Children to Come Unto Me (1884) shocked many people for its depiction of Christ sitting in a village schoolroom receiving nineteenth-century Bavarian peasant children; his Difficult Path exhibited in 1890 had originally been called The Journey to Bethlehem and, in Ms. Makela’s words, “portrays Joseph and the pregnant Mary as contemporary Bavarians, seen from behind as they trudge through fog along a muddy path at dusk.” This naturalism, described by one Catholic politician as the modern tendency “to pull down the Christian idea to the level of ordinary existence,”11 was in fact more shocking than any purely stylistic innovation, but some critics on the other side thought that Uhde had not gone far enough. Vincent Van Gogh wrote on seeing a reproduction of Suffer Little Children:
I cannot stand such a Santa Claus as Uhde painted in that little school—the little school is very beautiful, though. Uhde himself—oh I am sure he knows it quite well, and that he has only done so because the honest people of his country want a “sujet” and “something (conventional) to make them think,” otherwise he would have to starve.12
Maybe there is something in Van Gogh’s criticism and in Maria Makela’s view that ultimately the social message of Uhde’s religious and peasant paintings is certainly not one of social revolution but rather a counsel of patience with the injustices of life. Perhaps his best paintings are those depicting quiet middle-class domestic scenes (e.g., Near the Veranda Door or In the Autumn Sun, both reproduced by Makela), works that used his freer impressionist technique for plein-air paintings around his home at Dachau—a village that in those years was a kind of Bavarian Barbizon still untarnished by what was to happen there later.
By the beginning of the new century Uhde’s leadership of the Secession was proving disastrous. He rejected any association with the applied arts, and many of the best practitioners left Munich for other cities. He quarreled with the leaders of the Berlin Secession and especially with his former friend and associate Max Liebermann: he had already denounced a Munich periodical for its “Semitic sympathies” after it had published an article saying that Liebermann was a better artist than Uhde. But above all the Secession seemed to have stopped favoring advanced art and was losing the support of some of the most interesting painters in Munich, while there were complaints that by organizing, for example, exhibitions of Old Masters from private collections it was no longer fulfilling its original function of promoting contemporary art.
Underlying this uneasiness was an increasing slump in the Munich art market. The Bavarian state, which had continued buying work by Uhde and other Secessionist artists, was forced by the Catholic Center party to reduce its expenditure on art. By now it was in Berlin rather than in Munich that contemporary art in Germany was most successfully marketed. There was a growing sense that Munich artists were failing to reach the new outlets for art developing abroad and especially in America. As a result, the question of the representation of German art at the St. Louis World Exhibition in 1904 became a major political issue. The Kaiser himself was determined that only conservative academic art should be shown in the German pavilion and interfered unashamedly to ensure that this was so. Uhde issued a statement on behalf of the major Secession groups in Germany—Munich, Berlin, Dresden, Karlsruhe, Stuttgart, Weimar:
We protest against the claim that the exhibition will be a mirror of German art. We demand that the German Secessions receive the recognition their achievements deserve.
The plea was in vain; and the paintings sent to Saint Louis were denounced by Simplicissimus:
Journey westward, syrupy-sweet
German art and German beauty!
Journey west, be sure to greet
All whose stomachs aren’t queasy.13
By 1904 the Secessions, and especially that in Munich, were in disarray: there was a renewed prejudice against foreign art and at the same time new painters all over Germany were seeking new directions and formulating new aims.
One of the new artists in Munich made quite clear what he thought of the Secession’s exhibition in 1902:
Hanging on the walls, it seems, are the “same old things” we saw long ago, only somewhat faded—pictures that take as their point of departure the literal repetition of nature and thus forfeit the luster of the artist’s intentions.
The writer was Wassily Kandinsky, a Russian who had come to Munich in 1896 at the age of thirty and joined the large colony of Russian artists in the city, many of whom were experimenting with new styles and seeking a new kind of modernism. (As always, new art seemed subversive in other ways: and the Munich police were keeping an eye on those Russian students who attended private readings of plays by Wedekind.)
Kandinsky soon became an important figure in the Munich art world. While teaching at the Phalanx, a short-lived private art school, he met Gabriele Münter, a gifted and original young painter who had recently arrived from Berlin and had enrolled as a student in Kandinsky’s school. (Women were still excluded from the Munich Academy of Fine Arts.) Kandinsky and Münter lived together until 1914, when Kandinsky, as an enemy alien, had to return to Russia on the outbreak of war. They were to part in some bitterness, and a legal agreement to divide their property was not reached until 1926. Under the terms of this agreement, Gabriele Münter retained the pictures Kandinsky had left behind in Bavaria in 1914. She lived until 1962, for her last thirty years in the house in the country town of Murnau which she had shared with Kandinsky and where she had started to paint again after a gap of some years.
In 1957, on her eightieth birthday, Gabriele Münter presented a large collection of works by Kandinsky as well as paintings by herself and other friends and associates in Munich before 1914 to the Städtische Galerie in Munich. This collection and other important donations are now housed, ironically, in the mansion that belonged to Franz von Lenbach, the rich and successful painter of official portraits and one of the main figures against whom the young painters in Munich at the turn of the century were reacting. A fine study by the gallery’s director, Armin Zweite, with biographies of the artists and commentaries by Annegret Hoberg on the paintings reproduced, The Blue Rider in the Lenbachhaus, Munich provides an excellent indication of the riches of the collection and valuable information about Kandinsky and Münter and their associates Franz Marc, Alexei Jawlensky, August Macke, and Paul Klee.
It was Kandinsky and his friends, especially Alexei Jawlensky, another Russian artist who had been in Munich since 1896, who launched a successor to the Secession, the Neue Künstler Vereiningung München (the New Artists’ Association, Munich), and Kandinsky became its first chairman. It was an attempt to introduce new life into what Kandinsky thought was the stagnant atmosphere of the Munich art world. “When I returned to Munich a year ago,” he wrote,
I found everything still in the same old place. And I thought: this really is that fairy kingdom in which pictures sleep on the walls, the custodians in their corners, the public with their catalogues in their hands, the Munich artists with their same broad Munich brush-strokes, the critics with their pens between their teeth. And the buyer, who in former times went indefatigably with his money into the secretary’s office—he too, as in the story, has been overcome by sleep on the way, and left rooted to the spot.
The new group was certainly successful in organizing exhibitions. With the assistance of Hugo von Tschudi, the new director of the Bavarian museums, who had been sacked by the Kaiser from his post as director of the National Gallery in Berlin because Wilhelm II disapproved of his purchase of works by Daumier and Courbet, they found a dealer, Heinrich Thannhauser, who gave the group its first show in December 1909, and then in September 1910 a second exhibition with an impressive number of works from abroad—by Picasso, Braque, Derain, Roualt, and others. Munich seem once more to be an international center, and the exhibitions toured a number of cities in Germany and seem to have had a certain commercial success. (Neither Makela nor Zweite nor Mark Rosenthal in his Franz Marc: Pioneer of Spiritual Abstraction tells us much about this aspect or the financial situation of the painters, though it is clear that many of the group including Kandinsky, Münter, and Jawlensky had some private means.)
In practice, however, the aims and styles of the artists involved in the Neue Künstler Vereinigung were too diverse for the group to last, and after a bitter quarrel about the rejection of a work by Kandinsky for the 1911 exhibition, the Neue Künstler Vereinigung split up. The dissidents organized a rival show, the “First Exhibition of the Editors of the Blaue Reiter,” the name chosen for one of the key documents of the modern movement the Blue Rider Almanac.
In this venture Kandinsky was joined by Franz Marc, a thirty-one-year-old painter born and trained in Munich, but who had also made several visits to Paris. He described his first meeting with Kandinsky—a man fifteen years older than himself—in a letter to his wife, Maria:
I am in something of a hurry since there is a Schoenberg concert this evening, at which we shall of course be meeting the whole Vereinigung: like me they are all looking forward to it. Yesterday evening I went…to Jawlensky’s apartment and spent the evening talking to Kandinsky and Münter, who are wonderful people. Kandinsky is the most charming of them all, even more so than Jawlensky. I was completely captivated by his refinement and distinction: altogether a splendid fellow. I can well understand why Münter, whom I liked very much, is madly in love with him.
Marc provided a link between Munich and Berlin and between the Blue Rider and the very different artists of the older group Die Brücke and the circle around the Berlin dealer and critic Herwarth Walden’s literary and artistic weekly, Der Sturm; and Marc collaborated with Walden to organize an important exhibition in Berlin in 1913. There, too, Marc met Walden’s recently divorced wife, the poet Else Lasker-Schüler. By a kind of attraction of opposites Marc and his wife, both of whom hated the city and lived a quiet country life, became great friends of the neurotic, fanciful, essentially urban Lasker-Schüler. She loved Munich—“Munich is a paradise that is never lost; Berlin is an asphalt safe-deposit,” but the Marcs’ attempt to improve her mental state by taking her to stay in the Bavarian countryside was not a success: “We brought her back to Sindelsorf to recover,” Maria Marc wrote to her friend Elizabeth Macke,
but she couldn’t bear the loneliness and the silence in the countryside. For years she has been living in Berlin, between four walls and in and out of coffeehouses, and the sudden change did no good at all but simply upset her suffering nerves.
But this odd friendship between the painter and the older poet had important artistic results—Marc’s Postcards to Prince Jussuf. (Prince Jussuf of Thebes, in exotic dress bedizened with cheap fake jewelry, was a role Lasker-Schüler had invented for herself). The originals of these twenty-eight beautiful small works, sent by Marc to Lasker-Schüler between 1912 and 1914, are now divided between the Bavarian state collections and the Nationalgalerie in east Berlin (will German unification reunite them?) and are reproduced together in a fascinating book by Peter-Klaus Schuster, which tells us in a small space much about Marc’s art and personality as well as those of a remarkable poet.
Kandinsky and Marc were the editors of the Blue Rider Almanac, which finally appeared in May 1912. Kandinsky later explained the origin of the name: “We made up the name…over coffee in the leafy garden at Sindelsdorf. Both of us loved blue. Marc—horses, I—riders.” The Almanac was in fact a kind of showcase for very many of the most interesting developments in contemporary art and it also reflects some of the influences that contributed to them. In it there are reproductions of works by Picasso, Matisse, and the Douanier Rousseau among others as well as pictures by Kandinsky, Marc, and their friends; there are examples of the other major group of expressionist artists from Dresden and Berlin, Die Brücke (stylistically more coherent than the painters of the Blue Rider). But alongside EI Greco and Cézanne there are children’s drawings, Bavarian peasant glass paintings and votive pictures from Bavarian and Russian churches, and many examples of ethnic art from all parts of the world. But the Almanac does not only deal with the visual arts: there are songs by Schoenberg (to words by Maeterlinck), Alban Berg, and Anton von Webern (a setting of a poem by Stefan George). There is a sketch by Kandinsky himself for an expressionist opera which indeed suggests some of his own abstract paintings in its description of the stage pictures. There are theoretical discussions—of the use of quarter tones in music, of the significance of symbolism in the music of Scriabin—and texts by Kandinsky himself, including a long essay “On the Question of Form,” which, together with his “On the Spiritual in Art” published a few months previously, provides a theoretical justification of the abstraction into which his painting was moving.
The Blaue Reiter reflects and synthesizes (a favorite word of Jawlensky’s) many of the cultural currents in pre-1914 Munich.14 The Symbolists at the end of the nineteenth century had been intensely concerned with “the Spiritual.” In France this had involved some of them with the Rosicrucian revival of the 1890s, and the symbolist heritage left a strong imprint on the Munich painters and writers, among them the poet Stefan George. They were interested in the new spiritualist movements, especially Theosophy, whose apostle Rudolf Steiner was widely read in advanced artistic circles in Germany (Kandinsky had copies of several of his works in his library), while the Russians in Munich brought with them their own tradition of mystical speculation.
At the same time new artistic techniques—the achievement of the Paris Cubists, the art of Robert Delaunay with its new theories of color, the musical experiments of Schoenberg—were combining with a fascination with the “primitive” and with peasant and child art to lead artists along new paths. The paths were soon to diverge, however. For example, in spite of the closeness of their friendship, Marc and Kandinsky were moving in different directions—Kandinsky into expressing spiritual values by means of total abstraction, Marc by developing color symbolism (interestingly analyzed in Mark Rosenthal’s book) and expressing his spiritual values in the paintings of the animals about whom he felt so deeply. By 1914 the Blue Rider group, like its predecessors, was beginning to break up. Jawlensky and Macke were worried by Kandinsky’s move into abstraction; Marc was disappointed that the plans to issue a second Almanac had come to nothing: “The common herd is unable to follow us; the path is too steep and untrodden.”
But it was events beyond their control that ensured that the group could not last. When war broke out the Russians had to leave Munich, Kandinsky for Russia, Jawlensky for Switzerland. Although Paul Klee, who had met Macke and Marc in 1911 and taken part in the second Blue Rider exhibition, stayed in Munich, he was called up in the German army, and though not sent to the front, his work was constantly interrupted just at the moment when he was entering a new phase with an extremely personal vision inspired by his visit to Tunisia with Macke in the spring of 1914. Most serious of all perhaps was the death in action of both Macke and Marc, Macke within a few weeks of the outbreak of war and Marc at Verdun in 1916.
Yet the Blue Rider had reestablished Munich as a cosmopolitan center and its work had been a gesture of defiance against those who, like the author of the 1911 Protest by German Artists, wanted to protect German culture from foreign influences. Although the war and defeat led to a new and more virulent nationalism in Germany, nevertheless some at least of the Blaue Reiter artists continued after the war to shape the modern movement in Germany, as Kandinsky, Klee, and others found a new outlet for their ideas and teaching in the Bauhaus. Munich however was never to be the same again. The revolution of 1918–1919, although it included the brief tragicomical episode of the Munich Soviet Republic in which some of the anarchists from Munich’s bohemia briefly came into their own, was followed by an oppressive conservative reaction. More sinister still, the bohemian world of Munich became a world in which the wildest nationalist and racialist doctrines proved stronger than the spiritual ideals of the previous decades. It was in this world that Adolf Hitler, described in the Munich directory for 1914 as a painter and architect, was to make his first appearance as a political orator. Munich instead of being an international artistic capital was, to its shame, to be granted by the Nazis the title of Capital of the Movement, Hauptstadt der Bewegung.
April 11, 1991
Peter Paret, The Berlin Secession: Modernism and Its Enemies in Imperial Germany (Harvard University Press/Belknap Press, 1980), pp. 186 ff. ↩
“Painters, Patronage and the Art Market in Germany, 1880-1914, Past and Present, No. 123, May 1989. ↩
Frank Whitford, Klimt (Thames and Hudson, 1990). ↩
For a valuable detailed account of the economic situation of Munich artists, see Robin Lenman, “A Community in Transition: Painters in Munich 1886–1924,” in Central European History Vol. 10, March 1983. See also his “Politics and Culture: The State and the Avant-Grade in Munich, 1886–1914” in Richard Evans, ed., Society and Politics in Wilhelmine Germany (Barnes and Noble, 1978). ↩
See R.J.V. Lenman, “Art, Society and the Law in Wilhelmine Germany: the Lex Heinze,” in Oxford German Studies, Vol. 8 (1973), pp. 86–113. See also Lenman’s valuable unpublished Oxford D. Phil. dissertation, “Censorship and Society in Munich 1800–1914” (1975). ↩
Frank Wedekind, Gesammelte Werke, Vol. IV (Munich and Leipzig: 1913), p. 24. ↩
Carl Schorske, Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture (Knopf, 1980), p. 209. ↩
See Joan Campbell, The German Werkbund: The Politics of Reform in the Applied Arts (Princeton University Press, 1977). ↩
Seth Taylor, Left-Wing Nietzscheans: The Politics of German Expressionism 1910–1920 (Walter de Gruyter, 1990), p. 55. ↩
A handsomely produced monograph by Annelies Krekel-Aalberse, Art Nouveau and Art Deco Silver (Abrams, 1989), illustrates many examples of both trends, and also shows, in such objects as a silver caviar dish or a tea caddy set with amethysts, the opulent class for whom the craftsmen were working. ↩
Lenman, Oxford D.Phil. dissertation, p. 24. ↩
The Complete Letters of Vincent Van Gogh (Thames and Hudson, 1958), Vol. 2, p. 396. ↩
Peter Paret’s translation. The original reads: ↩
For a good discussion of these see Rose-Carol Washton Long, Kandinsky: The Development of an Abstract Style (Oxford University Press/ Clarendon Press, 1980), especially chapter 2. ↩