Gabriele Münter – Boating (1910)

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.

Gabriele Munter - Boating
Gabriele Münter – Boating (1910), oil on canvas

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.

21 thoughts on “Gabriele Münter – Boating (1910)

  1. Neither Münter’s lover nor her friend looks very happy but it’s the little boy who should be unhappy if anyone. His right eye is about three times bigger than his left.

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  2. I love the verticality! I was just talking to a friend about the lack of vertical paintings in the art world (at least to my limited understanding.) I feel like there’s a lot you can do with a tall, thin canvas. She uses it beautifully to capture Kandinsky’s serious, authoritarian demeanor. And I love the voice you’ve given this critique. It’s lighthearted and compliments the style of the painting, while also contrasting with its context and theme.

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    1. Robert, the reason for the lack of vertical paintings now could be because they are harder to sell than horizontal and square formats. I usually paint vertical or square myself in both my figure and still life work but have been told by galleries that horizontal is better. Landscape usually lends itself better to horizontal.
      You’re right, the vertical composition is a bit daring, and I tried to like this painting, but aside from the composition and some bold color, it kind of reminded me of the work of a talented high-schooler. I did like the black dog however. He might actually be a deep purple but still a nice counter-note to all the bright hues.

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      1. That makes sense. The galleries must have a lot of say in what gets shown, and horizontal paintings are more familiar to people, are perhaps easier to “read.”
        I personally like the primary colors and “naive” aesthetic. I think it purposefully contrasts with the heavier themes Gabriela described. It does feel like you’re looking at the world through a kid’s eyes.

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    2. Landscape-oriented art clearly dominates, but there are plenty of vertical paintings too. CRW Nevinson comes to mind for someone who frequently used vertical formats – ‘A Studio in Montparnasse’ is brilliant for that very reason. There is also George Grosz, who crams his crowds in narrow spaces, and Maurice Utrillo’s cityscapes. Hmm, I can see how this setup works better for cities and modern, dynamic themes.

      I just looked back at what I’ve posted, and this Otto Griebel is my favorite of all the portrait-oriented ones I wrote about:

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  3. Here again we have artist couple , loving to hurt each other, hurting to love each other.
    The view of the boat, almost antagonistic, doesn’t one push the paddle away from those sitting opposite. This is such a fascinating way of depiction. Moving towards or away. In alignment or in conflict. The way love affairs usually are… hard to hold onto, harder to quit.

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    1. That’s such a wonderful way to look at it: “The way love affairs usually are… hard to hold onto, harder to quit.” Pure poetry! I wonder whether the fact that she was doing the paddling was a jab at Kandinsky, like saying “I’m doing all the hard work, I’m the propelling force behind him. I’m directing him, I’m keeping him afloat”.

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      1. That’s what I noticed right away. She was doing the work that a man usually does. (In my world where gallantry still exists in my husband anyway.) I felt like all of the other characters were looking at G. with an intense judgment. All are tight lipped and tight in posture. Note the little boy’s clasped hands between his knees- not the pose of a fun loving child on an outing. Only the dog has the good sense to want to jump overboard. Oh, the lady was screaming her anger, displeasure and frustrations out alright.

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        1. Sandra, it’s refreshing to read your interpretation of this painting. You may very well be right, it’s just hard to guess an artist’s intentions when their style is so simplified. We run the risk of reading too much into it.

          “Only the dog has the good sense to want to jump overboard.” Haha, this really made me chuckle.

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