Murnau - Schloss und Kirche II is an important painting from the ground-breaking period Kandinsky spent in Murnau, Southern Germany. It depicts the medieval castle and Baroque church of the small market town where Kandinsky lived from 1909 to 1911 with his partner and fellow artist, Gabriele Münter. His experiments with colour, perspective and subject matter led to the creation of a new type of painting notable for its bold expression and purity, paving the way for his ultimate venture into abstraction, one of the most important contributions to twentieth century art.

In the spring of 1909 Münter purchased a house in Murnau where she and Kandinsky settled after their peripatetic travels across Europe and North Africa. Its location in the rolling hills, surrounded by the spectacular Wetterstein Alps, became the central subject of their work. The couple was frequently visited by fellow artists from Munich such as Alexej von Jawlensky and Marianne von Werefkin and their intensive exchange of ideas encouraged Kandinsky to paint directly from nature and en plein air. As exemplified in the present work, Kandinsky would paint on easily transportable artist’s boards, allowing him to swiftly capture the intensity of his reactions to the surrounding environment.

Left: Gabriele Münter, Jawlensky und Werefkin, 1908-9, oil on board, Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus und Kunstbau München, Munich © Gabriele Münter / DACS 2020 / Image (c) akg-images
Right: Wassily Kandinsky in Murnau, circa 1909. Photograph by Gabriele Münter © Gabriele Münter / DACS 2020 / Gabriele Münter- und Johannes Eichner-Stiftung, München

During Kandinsky’s earlier stay in Paris, he had seen Fauve works by Matisse and Vlaminck exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants. This experience had a resounding impression on Kandinsky and his subsequent approach to colour, however, it was the magnificence of the landscape and the unique play of light in Murnau that would most influence the artist’s own handling of pigment. For the first time in his work, colour became disassociated from representational form. Liberated from its traditional descriptive function and used in an autonomous way, colour became the vehicle through which Kandinsky was able to imbue a work with expressive power. During this time, the artist developed his painting theories, later published as Concerning the Spiritual in Art in 1911, including the concept that each colour stood for a spiritual sound corresponding to a particular mood and feeling, much as music and individual sounds were able to invoke certain emotions.

Wassily Kandinsky, Murnau mit Kirche I, 1910, oil on board, Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus und Kunstbau München, Munich © Bridgeman Images

Kandinsky’s stylistic experimentation was further emboldened by his discovery of Hinterglasmalerei, the traditional Bavarian technique of reverse glass painting. He adopted its two-dimensional appearance and linear construction to create individual elements of colour, umodulated and clearly distinct from representational purpose. The influence is clearly shown in the present work where the houses, sky and fields become separate fields of colour. As Will Grohmann writes: ‘Colour becomes increasingly crucial. [... They] transport the subject to the sphere of dream and legend [...]. The painter distributes and links the colours, combines them and differentiates them as if they were beings of a specific character and special significance’ (W. Grohmann, Wassily Kandinsky: Life and Work, London, 1959, pp. 60-61).

With Kandinsky’s growing interest in the realm of spiritual expression, he edged ever closer to abstraction. The artist’s first experience with the possibility of formal representation being cut lose from its subject occurred when as a young law student at an exhibition in Moscow, he failed to immediately recognise Claude Monet’s depiction of a haystack. This profound experience allowed the artist to realise the potential of radically freeing form and colour from figurative representation. This early experience of 1896, illustrates the artist’s lengthy and deliberate examination of objecthood, as by 1909 he was not yet prepared to delve completely into pure abstraction. He explained: ‘Nothing is more damaging and more sinful than to seek one’s forms by force [...]. One’s inner impulse, i.e., the creating spirit will inexorably create at the right moment the form it finds necessary. One can philosophise about form; it can be analysed, even calculated. It must, however, enter into the work of art by its own accord, and moreover, at the level of completeness which corresponds to the creative spirit. Thus, I was obliged to wait patiently for the hour that would lead my hand to abstract form’ (quoted in Vivian Endicott Barnett, Vasily Kandinsky: A Colorful Life, The Collection of the Lenbachhaus, Munich, New York, 1996, p. 16).

In Murnau - Schloss und Kirche II, we can see the delicate balance between the two opposing forces of representation and abstraction. The castle and church of Murnau had become the painter’s anchor point in his depictions of the town and one can trace the development of his vision by the difference in approach and treatment of the two landmarks over the period. Evidence of Kandinsky’s imminent step to fully embracing pure, non-objective art can be seen in the four diagonal black lines above the church that take on distinctly non-representational qualities. While asserting the subject of the painting, it is clear that his primary interest is in expressing the transformative and transcendental power of art. As Hans Roethel writes: ‘when Kandinsky returned to Munich, ideologically and practically, the ground was well prepared for abstract painting and yet it needed a final spark to come into being’ (Hans K. Roethel & Jean K. Benjamin, Kandinsky, London, 1979, p. 25) - it was his time in Murnau that provided this spark.

Wassily Kandinsky, Murnau – Landschaft mit grünem Haus, 1909, oil on board. Sold: Sotheby’s, London, 21st June 2017, £20.9 million ($26.6 million)