Ahh, the quintessential love story: Girl meets boy. Boy is married to his cousin. Girl wants boy to divorce and marry her. Boy doesn’t.
Wait, wait, wait. Let’s rewind. Gabriele Münter met Wassily Kandinsky in 1902. Back then, she was this driven 25 year old art student, financially independent, having just inherited a large amount of money, and was returning to Germany after two years spent in the United States. Since women weren’t granted permission to enroll at the Academy, Münter was relieved to find a great teacher in the person of Wassily Kandinsky, founder and director of the progressive Phalanx art school.
“That was a new artistic experience, how K.[andinsky], quite different from the other teachers, explained things in a thorough and detailed manner, and regarded me as a conscientiously striving individual to whom one could entrust tasks and set goals. That was new to me and made quite an impression”, wrote Münter after one of her first classes.
Kandinsky, at the time, was 36 years old and married to his first cousin, Anya Semyakina, though it is believed the marriage had run its course by then. He pressed Münter to accept his love and trust the intensity of his feelings, while his pupil demurred, reluctant to engage in a secret affair. In a letter written on October 10, 1910, that she never sent, Münter confessed to him:
“My idea of happiness is a domesticity as cozy and harmonious as I could make it & someone who wholly & always belongs to me — but — it does not have to be that way at all — if it does not come about & if I do not find the right man — I am still very content & happy I intend now to find pleasure in work again . . . . At any rate I have always so despised & hated any kind of lying & secrecy that I just could not lend myself to it. If we cannot be friends in the eyes of the world I must do without entirely — I want no more than I can be open about & I want to be responsible for what I do — otherwise I am unhappy.”
Eventually, Anya Semyakina agreed to grant Kandinsky the divorce and the couple separated in 1904, but it took another seven years for the divorce to become official. Meanwhile, Münter and Kandinsky were living, traveling (to Holland, Tunisia, Italy and France) and working side by side, inspiring one another.
In 1908, Münter bought a house in the small Bavarian town of Murnau that would serve as a love nest, a workshop and an intimate salon for their artist friends. Artistically, those were her most prolific years, painting up to five artworks a day between 1908 and 1910. Emotionally, too, it was a honeymoon period that was abruptly interrupted in the following years by Kandinsky’s increasingly frequent solo travels – a growing distance expressed not only in miles, but also in fading feelings.
Münter’s Boating has become an emblematic painting of their time spent at Murnau. Painted in her characteristic style, as if seen through the eyes of a child, with primary colors and simple shapes, it shows a boat on a lake, with mountains and a mostly overcast sky as the backdrop. In the boat, rowing, is the artist herself with her back turned to us. Seated are Marianne von Werefkin – a close friend and colleague – and the son of her husband, fellow painter Alexei Jawlensky. What captures the attention, however, is Wassily Kandinsky himself, depicted in complete opposition to Münter’s pose: he stands tall and proud, facing us, gazing with scrutinizing eyes. The two lovers form a vertical line, indicating perfect unity, but the rapport shown is one of subordination. Perhaps Münter had assumed that role knowingly, out of pure love or artistic respect, yet in hindsight the painting reveals an unbalanced relationship that was bound to fail.
The couple separated soon after World War I started, Kandinsky never doing good on his repeated promise to marry Münter… but that’s a story for another time.