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The Myth of the Lone Genius

On the artist Gabriele Münter and freeing her from the shadow of Wassily Kandinsky.

The Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, some twenty-five miles north of Copenhagen on the shore of the Øresund, has a sense of porousness—glass and light everywhere, so many doors between the museum and the sculpture park that inside and outside lose their distinction. There are exhibitions on the Los Angeles–based artist Ed Ruscha and on Pablo Picasso’s surprisingly prolific work with ceramics, but the reason I’ve come is to see a two-floor exhibition on the life and career of Gabriele Münter.

The exhibition, devoted wholly to the sixty-year career of the underknown Berlin-born German Expressionist, includes around a hundred thirty of her works. But before you’re able to focus on her aesthetic breakthroughs—on the way in which she positioned and profiled and photographed women, on her František Kupka–level jumps in artistic style—social conditioning dictates that you look first at the shadow of her long-term lover, the better-known Wassily Kandinsky. History, of course, tends to take for granted that women have been influenced by the men in their lives while the very same men aren’t seen as having been influenced by these women. Viewing art has tended toward the same effect: lonely men are “lone geniuses” while lonely women, those who devote themselves to their art at the expense of love or family, are “art monsters.” 

Prior to the sixteenth century, no one was a genius. Rather, one had genius. The original sense of the word genius was of a “tutelary spirit attendant on a person.” Muses and spirits, almost always in the form of women, influenced the lucky men who channeled them. Great works were a joint effort, a communication with the divine at the service of the community. But as the Enlightenment descended and humanism began to eclipse Christianity, the mind of man slowly became the center of the world. By 1710, new copyright laws in Britain proved a coup for creators—authors could legally own their ideas. Their genius was theirs alone; it could not be copied. The idea of the lone male genius came into being. Upon hearing the term, poster-ready images of Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway, Leonardo da Vinci, Steve Jobs, William Shakespeare, and so many others jump to mind.

Women, however, have more often been cast as muses. Even if we fast-forward to twentieth-century artists, the likes of Marguerite Zorach, Lee Krasner, Frida Kahlo, and Anni Albers are not perceived as lone geniuses but rather as shaped by the men with whom they were associated. Their respective lovers—William Zorach, Jackson Pollock, Diego Rivera, and Josef Albers—are all better-known and all presumed to have influenced these women far more than the other way around.

The dynamic of artistic pairs is no doubt valuable, but male artists have often used these partnerships either from a position of superiority or for destruction—the sculptor Camille Claudel accused Auguste Rodin of stealing her ideas; Picasso emotionally abused his mistresses. History is slower to examine which artistic men owe a great debt to the creativity and insight of their female partners or which wives had their artistic genius stunted by their husbands’ careers.

Gabriele Münter, “Fräulein Ellen Im Gras,” 1934

The idea behind the career-spanning exhibition of Gabriele Münter at the Louisiana is to take a woman who should be one of Germany’s most famous artists and to break her free from Kandinsky—here, she is presented as an artist, separately and simply. Isabelle Jansen, the show’s curator, notes in her recent book on Münter that “through the narrow lens of her relationship with Kandinsky many of her accomplishments have lingered in obscurity.” Jansen hopes to approach “Münter’s oeuvre in all its richness: from classic genres such as portraits and landscapes to interiors, abstractions, and her works of ‘primitivism.’ ”

Münter worked ceaselessly to make herself into an individual and to wield her partnership with Kandinsky as an asset. She prided herself on her fearlessness and boldness of style. “My pictures are all moments of life,” she told Edouard Roditi in a 1958 interview. “I mean instantaneous visual experiences, generally noted very rapidly and spontaneously. When I begin to paint, it’s like leaping suddenly into deep waters, and I never know beforehand whether I will be able to swim.” Her brushstrokes render reality in eerie simplification. A face becomes a hasty series of geometrical shapes, almost clownish. Often, her symbolism becomes literal, her faces appearing to be masks, an idea with which she plays in Maschkera (1940) and Mask Still Life (1940), all of it culminating in what would be called new objectivity—a simple formal language with clear motifs and a quasi abstraction that doesn’t draw attention to the artistic process.

Her female figures defy convention as well: thoughtful protagonists, their profiles arranged like eighteenth-century courtly men—chin on balled-up fist, piercing intellectual stare, as in Woman in Thought (1917), The Blue Blouse (1917), and Still Life with Figure (1910). In her midcareer works, her women begin to look like Edward Hopper’s girls in their light colors and floating solitude, as in Women Listening (1925–1930); but they are, crucially, in solitude, not loneliness, and unlike Hopper’s many ladies adrift in Automats and hotel rooms, Münter’s women appear at ease, having contented themselves to their surroundings and, seemingly, to themselves.

Read the rest of this essay at The Paris Review.

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