Feeling Blue: Expressionist Art on Display in Munich

Visitors catch a glimpse of the groundbreaking, abstract art created by preeminent 20th century expressionists.

Courtesy of Municipal Gallery in Lenbachhaus. Two riders before the red, 1911, woodblock, © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. (Wassily Kandinsky)

If you spot a blue horse on your next trip to Munich, chances are that you've either been enjoying too much of the local brew, or you're admiring the art at the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus (State Gallery in the Lenbach House).

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The Lenbachhaus, a small museum located northwest of the city center, pays homage to the Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider) group, a loose association of kindred spirits founded in 1911 by Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc and other artists. Though the group's collective work was cut short by the First World War, its ideas marked a major turning point in art history – the birth of Abstract Expressionism.

"Men are blinded. A black hand covers their eyes," Kandinsky wrote in an essay for the 1912 "Blaue Reiter Almanac," an unusual catalogue that combined a wide mix of art forms from many times and cultures.

The Blue Rider artists broke with tradition by rejecting objective ideas of what made art "good." What really mattered, they argued, was what each work of art expressed about its creator's inner state. Expression could take any form – a blaze of brushstrokes; a sprinkle of musical notes; a carved totem or a child's sketch – and the group's exhibitions and almanac showcased the gamut.

"We should never make a god out of form...it is not form (matter) that is generally most important, but content (spirit)," Kandinsky declared in the Almanac. "We should strive not for restriction but for liberation…only on a spot that has become free can something grow."

The Russian-born Kandinsky moved to Munich to study art when he was 30 years old, in 1896. It was a time when many new ideas – such as Jugendstil, a decorative style inspired by the arts and crafts movement -- were sprouting up amid the city's generally staid art scene, but Kandinsky didn't find his niche in any of them. In 1909, he joined a new group called the "New Artists' Association of Munich" where he met the German painter Franz Marc, who shared his view of art as a medium for personal and spiritual expression.

By 1911, Marc and Kandinsky were collaborating to publish an almanac that would be a kind of manifesto for expressionist artists. The name "Blue Rider" sounds a bit mysterious, but it was simply a title they came up with while chatting over coffee one day, according to Kandinsky.

"We both loved blue, Marc liked horses and I riders. So the name came by itself," he explained years later.

The first Blue Rider exhibition was thrown together hastily in December 1911, after the New Artists' Association rejected one of Kandinsky's paintings for its winter exhibition. Kandinsky and Marc, joined by the painter Gabriele Münter (Kandinsky's mistress of the past decade), left the group in protest and put together their own show -- literally right next to the NAA exhibition, since the gallery owner was a friend of theirs – which also included works by Robert Delaunay, Henri Rousseau, August Macke, and the composer Arnold Schoenberg.

Their eclectic exhibition was not well reviewed in the press, but that didn't stop the artists from organizing a second exhibition and publishing the Almanac the following year.

About Amanda Fiegl

Amanda Fiegl is a former assistant editor at Smithsonian and is now a senior editor at the Nature Conservancy.

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