When Female Artists Stop Being Seen as Muses


The Big Picture

On the work of Gabriele Münter.


Gabriele Münter, Fräulein Ellen im Gras, 1934.


The Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, some twenty-five miles north of Copenhagen on the shore of the Øresund, has a sense of porousness—glass and light everywhere, so many doors between the museum and the sculpture park that inside and outside lose their distinction. There are exhibitions on the Los Angeles–based artist Ed Ruscha and on Pablo Picasso’s surprisingly prolific work with ceramics, but the reason I’ve come is to see a two-floor exhibition on the life and career of Gabriele Münter.

The exhibition, devoted wholly to the sixty-year career of the underknown Berlin-born German Expressionist, includes around a hundred thirty of her works. But before you’re able to focus on her aesthetic breakthroughs—on the way in which she positioned and profiled and photographed women, on her František Kupka–level jumps in artistic style—social conditioning dictates that you look first at the shadow of her long-term lover, the better-known Wassily Kandinsky. History, of course, tends to take for granted that women have been influenced by the men in their lives while the very same men aren’t seen as having been influenced by these women. Viewing art has tended toward the same effect: lonely men are “lone geniuses” while lonely women, those who devote themselves to their art at the expense of love or family, are “art monsters.” 

Prior to the sixteenth century, no one was a genius. Rather, one had genius. The original sense of the word genius was of a “tutelary spirit attendant on a person.” Muses and spirits, almost always in the form of women, influenced the lucky men who channeled them. Great works were a joint effort, a communication with the divine at the service of the community. But as the Enlightenment descended and humanism began to eclipse Christianity, the mind of man slowly became the center of the world. By 1710, new copyright laws in Britain proved a coup for creators—authors could legally own their ideas. Their genius was theirs alone; it could not be copied. The idea of the lone male genius came into being. Upon hearing the term, poster-ready images of Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway, Leonardo da Vinci, Steve Jobs, William Shakespeare, and so many others jump to mind.

Women, however, have more often been cast as muses. Even if we fast-forward to twentieth-century artists, the likes of Marguerite Zorach, Lee Krasner, Frida Kahlo, and Anni Albers are not perceived as lone geniuses but rather as shaped by the men with whom they were associated. Their respective lovers—William Zorach, Jackson Pollock, Diego Rivera, and Josef Albers—are all better-known and all presumed to have influenced these women far more than the other way around.

The dynamic of artistic pairs is no doubt valuable, but male artists have often used these partnerships either from a position of superiority or for destruction—the sculptor Camille Claudel accused Auguste Rodin of stealing her ideas; Picasso emotionally abused his mistresses. History is slower to examine which artistic men owe a great debt to the creativity and insight of their female partners or which wives had their artistic genius stunted by their husbands’ careers.


Portrait of Gabriele Münter, 1935.


The idea behind the career-spanning exhibition of Gabriele Münter at the Louisiana is to take a woman who should be one of Germany’s most famous artists and to break her free from Kandinsky—here, she is presented as an artist, separately and simply. Isabelle Jansen, the show’s curator, notes in her recent book on Münter that “through the narrow lens of her relationship with Kandinsky many of her accomplishments have lingered in obscurity.” Jansen hopes to approach “Münter’s oeuvre in all its richness: from classic genres such as portraits and landscapes to interiors, abstractions, and her works of ‘primitivism.’ ”

Münter worked ceaselessly to make herself into an individual and to wield her partnership with Kandinsky as an asset. She prided herself on her fearlessness and boldness of style. “My pictures are all moments of life,” she told Edouard Roditi in a 1958 interview. “I mean instantaneous visual experiences, generally noted very rapidly and spontaneously. When I begin to paint, it’s like leaping suddenly into deep waters, and I never know beforehand whether I will be able to swim.” Her brushstrokes render reality in eerie simplification. A face becomes a hasty series of geometrical shapes, almost clownish. Often, her symbolism becomes literal, her faces appearing to be masks, an idea with which she plays in Maschkera (1940) and Mask Still Life (1940), all of it culminating in what would be called new objectivity—a simple formal language with clear motifs and a quasi abstraction that doesn’t draw attention to the artistic process.

Her female figures defy convention as well: thoughtful protagonists, their profiles arranged like eighteenth-century courtly men—chin on balled-up fist, piercing intellectual stare, as in Woman in Thought (1917), The Blue Blouse (1917), and Still Life with Figure (1910). In her midcareer works, her women begin to look like Edward Hopper’s girls in their light colors and floating solitude, as in Women Listening (1925–1930); but they are, crucially, in solitude, not loneliness, and unlike Hopper’s many ladies adrift in Automats and hotel rooms, Münter’s women appear at ease, having contented themselves to their surroundings and, seemingly, to themselves.

Münter was born in 1877 to upper-middle-class Protestant parents. Her father died when she was nine and her mother when she was twenty. In 1902, at age twenty-five, she fell in love with Kandinsky, who was a decade older and already married. They had met in Munich, where he was teaching an evening nude drawing course at the experimental Phalanx School, where she was a student. They became engaged a year later (Kandinsky was still married to Anna Chimiakina), and Kandinsky painted his first portrait of Münter that year and another two years later. In the first, he depicts Münter at her easel, standing in the yard, leaves around her feet—a precocious would-be artist. In the second, from 1905, he portrays her deep in thought—a woman of independent ideas.


Gabriele Münter, Woman in Thought II, 1928.


They lived together in a village in Murnau, Germany, and in Rorschach, Switzerland, and they helped form Der Blaue Reiter, a prewar group of mostly Munich-based avant-garde artists that attempted to turn art back toward nature and mysticism, often depicting horses (the group’s name means “The Blue Rider”) and gauzy German fields. Including Franz Marc and August Macke, it is the group for which Münter has historically been best known.

Kandinsky and Münter undoubtedly influenced each other. “Paint like a man,” Kandinsky encouraged her, and taught her how to use a palette knife to allow for more spontaneity. “He has taught me to work fast enough, and with enough self-assurance,” she said in the Roditi interview, “to be able to achieve this kind of rapid and spontaneous recording of moments of life.” Kandinsky was also one of the few men Münter had met who believed in the possibility of female talent. “German painters refused to believe that a woman could have real talent, and I was even denied access, as a student, to the Munich Academy,” she said. “It is significant that the first Munich artist who took the trouble to encourage me was Kandinsky, himself no German but a recent arrival from Russia.”

In turn, she helped launch his interest in color and abstraction. “Suddenly I felt that my old dream was closer to coming true,” he writes in a 1916 letter to her. “You know that I dreamt of painting a big picture expressing joy, the happiness of life and the universe. Suddenly I feel the harmony of colors and forms that come from this world of joy.” And she helped dismantle his ideas of “masculine” versus “feminine” painting. “Münter doesn’t paint feminine subjects, she does not work with feminine materials, and does not permit herself any feminine coquetry,” he writes in a 1913 exhibition catalogue introduction. “Nor, on the other hand, are there any masculine charms.” Rather, he realizes, art does not have to be masculine or feminine. Her paintings, he concludes, “were inspired, not by a desire for outward display, but by a purely inward compulsion.”


Gabriele Münter, Dame im Sessel schreibend, 1929.


Although they each gave themselves to the other, they also hurt each other. Kandinsky would frequently become jealous when Münter showed interest in other artists and would say condescending things like, “Woodcuts … might be much too much for the small, poor Ella.” He was also known for patting her head. After Kandinsky and Münter spent fourteen months living together in Paris between 1907 and 1908, Kandinsky returned to Russia, where he divorced Chimiakina, as he’d long promised to do. But instead of returning to be with Münter, with whom his relationship had grown rocky, he married Nina Andreevskaya. Münter waited for him in Stockholm, but he never came. He never wrote. In 1921, he sent a lawyer to collect a few of his paintings, and the lawyer informed her of Kandinsky’s marriage to Andreevskaya. Kandinsky had instructed his lawyer to leave Münter a few paintings, as payment for “moral damages.”

Münter vowed to abandon art. I want “to find myself in something else,” she writes. Thankfully, she didn’t. She would paint for another three decades. Her husband in her later years, the art historian Johannes Eichner, wrote about how Münter’s memory of Kandinsky plagued their marriage. She and Eichner lived a secluded life. Toward the end of her life, one might have seen her in the vein of the lone genius—or the art monster. But that’s also too simple—for Münter or for any artist. Kandinsky was of great importance to Münter and vice versa. They were genius and muse to each other. He painted her, and she painted him.


Gabriele Münter, Boating, 1910.


In Münter’s Boating (1910), she paints herself with her back to the viewer, rowing a boat. She paints Kandinsky, however, atop the prow, looking out while she rows toward blue hills. Münter understood that while Kandinsky’s genius could be self-contained, hers would be cast in relation to his, even challenged by his. No matter her efforts, his selfhood would be complemented by hers while her selfhood would be constantly threatened, perhaps even eclipsed by his. He would forever be at the prow, facing the viewer; she would be forever silently rowing, turned away from the world. It’s a painful picture of the way things felt to her then, but it’s a beautiful painting—one of her very best in the solo show she’s long deserved.


Cody Delistraty is a writer and critic in Paris.