Der Blaue Reiter
In 1909, art reached a new turning point when the New Association of Munich Artists (Neue Künstlervereinigung München) was officially registered. The group of artists, including Wassily Kandinsky, Alexei Jawlenski, and Adolf Erbsloh, was both loved and hated by society for their avant-garde approaches, their original uses of bright colour, and their comparatively abstract creations. However, one of the most important events during the years of the New Association of Munich Artists was Kandinsky’s departure in 1911, following a request from Erbsloh that his works become more “comprehensible”. Kandinsky and Marc left the association to start something with similar - but unrestricted - values as the New Association of Munich Artists. They called it Der Blaue Reiter.
Der Blaue Reiter was a group of artists aiming to express spiritual and emotional feeling through their art. The name translates to "Blue Horseman" or "Blue Rider", because Kandinsky and Marc both loved the colour blue, and the horse was an important image in traditional German art. The principle members were Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, Paul Klee, Auguste Macke, Alfred Kubin, and Gabriele Münter. Founded by Kandinsky in 1911, the group worked towards exhibitions and a publication for three years before finally disbanding in 1914. The movement is now considered one of the most important periods of expressionism, and the artists who took part are now considered some of the most influential explorers of abstraction.
After the birth of Impressionism, Fauvism and German Expressionism, Der Blaue Reiter came to life in an intensely intellectual environment. Futurism too had been influencing the artistic world since 1909, adding yet more force to the wave of inspiration.
The works of Der Blaue Reiter were formed under the vision of originality and expression, but also the spiritual unification of mankind. The artists came from different countries around Europe (Kubin from Austria, Marc from Germany, Klee from Switzerland, etc.), a factor that may have inspired the aim of finding a common mode of expression for all races and nationalities. Arguably, it was Kandinsky who first searched for an interior method of artistic communication, rejecting representational approaches and concentrating on the emotional influence of the human soul.
I first became interested with Der Blaue Reiter when I saw an exhibit of Kandinsky and Marc’s works at the Norton Simon Museum in Los Angeles, USA. I was confused, but intrigued. I could not understand or try to feel what was being expressed through the works, or why everyone around me was so impressed. When I next had the chance, I dived into as many books about Wassily Kandinsky as I could find, learning more and more about the ways through which these artists saw the world. When I am asked explain what it is about Der Blaue Reiter that makes the group so fascinating, I have my reply ready. Kandinsky felt that black was like “the silence of the body after death, the close of life”. The acceptance of this incredible sensitivity and passion might help us all to a full understanding of Der Blaue Reiter.
Many of the members of Der Blaue Reiter, before joining the group, created works with a mystical element to them. Some images seemed as if they were captured from a dream, or even drawn by a child. Figures in the works were often distorted, shapes had no clear edges, and colours were used in pleasant, soft ways. Paul Klee’s unique works, for example, took various turns through styles. His etchings in the early 1900’s often feature slightly abnormal forms, such as “Two Men Meet Each Believing the Other to Be of Higher Rank” (1903), “Monarchist” (1904) and “Charme” (1904). Each of these works contain the human shape (men bending over into bowing positions, or a portrait of a female head) portrayed in a skewed manner. Even though each portrait is perfectly comprehensible, the style puts the viewer behind different eyes, as if under water, or in a different world.
These works seem almost synchronized with those of Alfred Kubin, a friend of Klee, who was a photographer before being inspired by the works of Max Klinger. Kubin then indulged into his internal emotions and their portrayal through eerie works such as “The Road to Hell” (1900) and “The Phantom Sailor” (1904-5). “The Phantom Sailor” features a lonely head sticking above the surface of an endless ocean, in a terrifying, sombre landscape. The elongated neck and almost tiny, curved shoulders are similar to the wavy, bent figures of Klee’s works. The spooky yet attractive characteristics can be seen in the works of both artists.
Auguste Macke, a German painter, was heavily influenced by Impressionism and gave his works bright, vibrant colours. Prior to joining Der Blaue Reiter, colour in his works is given so much attention that the shapes of the objects lose their validity. In “Gemüsefelder” (1911), Macke paints such a fantastic collection of colours that the path across the landscape seems unreal. It does not seem to fade into the distance; it seems twisted, like the limbs of Klee’s figures or the neck of “The Phantom Sailor”. Macke’s “Clown Dressed in Green” (1909-10) is painted in a way that attracts the viewer to the colours of the clown suit against the grey-blue background, while the clown’s hands seem only like little pink cones of flesh.
Kandinsky’s works are often based on sense of mysticism. The foreground of “Riding Couple” (1906-07) is mostly made up from bright dots of yellow, orange, red, and blue, placed on top of a black cloak of darkness. The effect is magical: Kandinsky creates a kind of fairy-tale image. A beaming yellow castle glows from across the glittering water, and ethereal turquoise clouds float happily in the twilight. The beauty is unreal.
Perhaps one of the strongest feelings that drew these artists together was the passion they felt towards the power of colour. Kandinsky said that by applying different colours, he was making each of them “sing” with intensity. Two examples of the vividness of the colours he chose are “Composition II” and “Improvisation X” (1910). The colours are bold and wild, giving way to the beginnings of abstraction.
Macke’s work “The Macke’s Garden at Bonn” (1911) is flooded with bright colours: the blues swim around the sky, the greens swirl over the ground. Squares and patches of yellow are spread over the canvas, creating a feast for the viewer’s eyes. Marc’s “Indersdorf” (1904), a painting of a wooden construction, is made up of calm, cool colours. However, in the middle of the piece hangs a red outfit, and below lies its reflection. The blue of the sky and the white of the wood seem utterly violated by the contrast of the red, shouting from its central stronghold.
Gabriele Münter’s “Portrait of Marianne von Werefkin” (1909) features the head of the subject in a dim, comparatively life-like manner, while its surroundings are made up of flat chunks of colour. Her scarf consists of two, thin strips of purple and her shirt is one crooked triangle of white. Her hat is made of three dark sections and one light-brown strip for the brim, with four bright orange, blue, and green blobs of colour on top for flowers. Behind this is a light orange background, making the purple scarf scream out to the viewer. Each flat plain of colour is separated by a think black outline, as if drawn by a child, except when bordering the face. This simplistic approach to the portrait highlights the subject’s face, but also Münter’s love of colour. She has formed an arrangement where the latent charm of each colour is released, a stage for a fantastic blast of colourful harmony. The use of complimentary colours (the orange background against the purple scarf, the green flower against the blue flower) is also a favourite technique of Impressionist painters, which has influenced Münter.
Although Alfred Kubin’s engravings rarely boast much use of colour, there are many works that are not in only black and white. Kubin’s work may differ from that of his contemporary Der Blaue Reiter members in the way that his colours are often cold, dark and sombre, but beyond the quiet reds and browns lies an evident love for the impact and intensity of colour. In “The Gaurdian” (1903), it is clear that Kubin achieved an effect that the work could not have without using the light yellow glow rising from beyond the near horizon. The illumination gently rising up into the sky, gently skimming over the stone steps and onto the water surface, is perfected by Kubin’s use of yellow. The light flows and spreads, gently infecting the shadows of dark brown and dark red. The colouring may not be as vivid as some of Kandinsky’s works (such as “Cossacks”, 1910-11), but it still holds the same kind of intensity.
One of the strongest connections between the Der Blaue Reiter artists, before their unification, was the tendency to use flat areas of colour in their works. Kandinsky’s “Church in Marnou” (1910) holds a curving shape of both light green and yellow, with hardly any shading across them, in the centre. To the left is a red diamond shape with almost straight edges. Below the diamond are round dabs of turquoise, and to the right of them stand numerous thick, straight lines of blue. Each patch is almost undisturbed, unmixed. Each patch is its own colour and no other.
In Gabriele Münter’s “The Blue Gable” (1911), each section of colour is clearly defined by thick, black outlines. Nothing blends: even the one feature of the work that has no outline, the cloud, has a definite edge. Every shape is simplified, most into triangles or quadrilaterals.
In “The Macke’s Garden at Bonn” (1911), the yellow drapes in the background are like wavy, bending squares of yellow, without dimension. The blue roof is simply a blue trapezoid, and the shadow of the tree leaves upon the grass is drawn within one line. The world has been simplified through Auguste Macke’s eyes.
Impressionism had influenced many members of Der Blaue Reiter. Gabriele Münter’s “Dark Still Life with Small Figures” (1910) is a blurry painting with dark colours highlighting the luminous object in the middle, and visible brush strokes, disseminated from the impressionist movement. Her painting “Still Life with Porcelain Dog” (1911) contains long, swirling brush strokes on the green-yellow walls, and short, blunt splodges on the woman’s dress and the tree’s leaves. The bright colours used (the yellow of the porcelain, the red of the tree cover, the green of the walls) are similar to those of Impressionist pieces. In Auguste Macke’s paintings he frequently used strong, effulgent colours. They were often of crowded public places (such as “Russisches Ballett” I, 1912). Marc’s “Deer at Dusk” (1909) is made almost entirely of obvious, individual brush strokes, like Claude Monet’s “Woman with an Umbrella”. Marc’s work “Indersdorf” (1904), featuring a red piece of clothing being reflected across an body of water, is also reminiscent of Monet’s “Impression: Sunrise”, which features the reflection of the red-orange Sun.
The tendancy of Van Gogh (a Dutch painter born in 1853) to paint with extraordinary colours and mitigated solidity highlights his importance in the Expressionist movement. In Van Gogh’s work “Starry Night” (1889), the artist puts forth a distorted likeness of the subject to express his personal emotions and feelings. Parts of a painting are coloured to stick out or sink into the background in order to express the artist’s mood. The landscape is exaggerated almost to the point of being a caricature.
Edvard Munch, from Norway, studied the idea of caricature as a mode of artistic expression with a lithograph called “The Scream” (1895). The wavy, thick lines that make up the image curve and bend, lessening the validity of the forms. The lines flow in such a way that the landscape seems to be concentrating on the central, screaming face.
In 1905, four architects, Bleyl, Kirchner, Heckel, and Schmidt-Rottluff formed a group called Die Brücke. The group, based in Dresden and Berlin, and was an important Expressionist team in terms of the context of Der Blaue Reiter. The influence of the use of colours and simplified shapes seen in the works of Die Brücke was strong upon the surrounding artists, such as Kandinsky and Macke, and the passion and community spirit of the group was something that the New Association of Munich Artists, and later Der Blaue Reiter, would have attempted to emulate. Alexei von Jawlenski explains the nature of these works: “the artist expresses only what he has within himself, not what he sees with his eyes."
Erich Heckel’s “Standing Child” (1910) is an example of the simplified way in which the artists of Die Brücke would often create an image. The sky, hills and ground are each one plain of colour (red, green and black, respectively). There is a silhouette of a tree against the sky, and in the foreground stands a simply portrayed girl, totally white with no shading, so that she stands out as much as possible against the blocks of green, red, and black.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s “Seated Woman” (1910-20) is made up of patches and streaks of bright colours, and the face is painted with absolute freedom. The complexion of the face is a strong yellow, the lips are a thick red, and the shadows are green and light blue, indicating a bright, sparkling personality of the subject. It reminds me of Marc’s “Horse in a Landscape” (1910), an image of a red-brown horse standing above rolling yellow fields and floating forests of green. The horse’s mane, swerving through the centre of the piece, is blue, shouting against the colours of the background.
One of the most influential movements for the principle artists of Der Blaue Reiter was Fauvism. It was Fauvists like Matisse that may have initiated Kandinsky’s dislike for the “progress” of society, and the desire to rejuvenate the world through a simplistic “inwardness” in his art. Like many of the works of Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh, and Gauguin, Fauvist pieces contained images made from simplified patterns with limited, if any, shading. The loss of solidity of objects in these works made more room for the forthright expression the Fauvists and other artists wanted to achieve. The idea of abandoning solidity, as controversial as it was, affected and inspired many artists of the time. Every member of Der Blaue Reiter would have been deeply struck by works such as Matisse’s “Promenade Among the Olive Trees” (1906). A more direct link can be seen when one considers Matisse’s collaborations with the New Association of Munich Artists, among which were Kandinksy, Münter, Kubin and Marc. The central boat in André Derain’s “London: St. Paul’s Cathedral seen from the Thames” (1906) is gently simplified, looking slightly square. The colours are allocated to large areas, like the pieces Münter worked on with Der Blaue Reiter.
Four years before Der Blaue Reiter was founded, Georges Braques and Pablo Picasso began what was possibly the most important movement of the twentieth century: Cubism. Picasso and Braques, the latter of which had been working with the Fauves, took Paul Cézanne’s advice that the shapes of nature can all be represented by the cylinder, sphere, and cone. The world was taken apart, analysed, and simplified, before being put back together by the two artists, in whatever way they wanted. The balance of normal subject matter was rearranged into an abstract composition, where all the old rules of artistic geometry were broken. Both artists believed that a true representation of a shape could only be achieved if the shape was observed from multiple viewpoints within one work. Cubists did not aim to portray their subject in a way that it could be seen in from one specific angle. They drew from many angles, portraying as much of the object as possible. In Picasso’s “Woman Ironing” (1904), one can see how the woman’s shoulder looks slightly exaggerated, as if that portion of her body was painted from close up. It is a very early hint of the Cubist ideas and creativity.
Franz Marc was clearly intrigued by the Cubists. Many of his works such as “Dog Lying in Snow” (1910-11) and “Ape Frieze” (1911) have cubist characteristics. In “Ape Frieze”, some limbs of the apes have been simplified to a flat-sided representation, and the tails are more like planks of wood. The dog lying in the snow has an outline that makes the dog appear as if he’s been crudely chiselled from a block of ice. His strong, defined shoulder reminds the viewer of the woman’s shoulder in “Woman Ironing”.
The members of Der Blaue Reiter reached for an emotional and artistic sincerity that is not seen amid the movements that followed. The path of art has led to a time of sarcasm of irony. Like Franz Marc, the optimism of Der Blaue Reiter did not survive the First World War. Kandinsky and the other members strove to unite humanity through pure and simple images; perhaps it was the complexity of the warring world in which they lived that pushed the values of Der Blaue Reiter aside.