Gabriele Münter, Maschkera, 1940, oil on canvas, 39 1⁄2 × 30 7⁄8".

Gabriele Münter, Maschkera, 1940, oil on canvas, 39 1⁄2 × 30 7⁄8".

Gabriele Münter

Born in Berlin in 1877, Gabriele Münter lost both parents at an early age. An inheritance granted her an independence seldom experienced by women of the time. While female students were not allowed to enroll in art academies, she was able to afford private art classes in Düsseldorf and Munich. Working mostly in Bavaria, she became a central figure in Expressionism and among the group of artists known as the Blaue Reiter; later she would save hundreds of their works by hiding them from the Nazis. In 1957, Münter donated that collection to the Lenbachhaus in Munich. But she was largely forgotten after her death in 1962, and when she was mentioned she was not seen as an originator in her own right, but rather was perceived and defined via her sometime companion Wassily Kandinsky.

The process of redressing that oversight has been underway since her first survey at the Lenbachhaus in 1992. The retrospective “Gabriele Münter: Pioneer of Modern Art” is her first in Switzerland and introduces the artist as not just a painter but a formidable photographer as well. Curated by Fabienne Eggelhöfer, it presents 174 photographs, drawings, and paintings, along with embroideries and a few personal belongings. The exhibition is organized in a mixture of chronological and thematic sections, beginning with a particular highlight: the photographs that Münter, then in her early twenties, took while traveling in the United States between 1898 and 1900. While her snapshots of family picnics and street encounters shed light on American life, they also show the aspiring artist using the camera in order to study composition, gaining insights that would enrich her future work in other media.

Back in Germany, Münter applied herself to painting. Her landscapes ventured toward abstraction as she aimed to capture nature’s “essence,” as she once noted, while her portraits—whether oil paintings or linocuts—experimented with serial images on almost iridescent background colors, a format that preceded Pop art by almost half a century. She encouraged the children around her to draw pictures that she in turn repainted, seeking to replicate what they had captured. Her palette was consistently colorful, bright, and playful, but through the decades the color blue in particular—potentially an allusion to her early affiliation with the Blaue Reiter—had a special role in her work, appearing in a piece of clothing or the distant mountains, or even used to limn an excavator on a construction site.

With the dawn of the 1920s New Woman, Münter depicted women reading, listening, smoking, or enjoying a walk along the Seine, sometimes casually bold, sometimes in overtly incendiary poses. In the 1930s, another subject emerged: that of the mother and child, a recurring trope not only in Christian art but also in the visual arsenal of National Socialism. And this is where the ambivalence kicks in: Münter did save the work of the Blaue Reiter, yes, but in 1933 she also joined the Reichskunstkammer, the Third Reich’s art-surveilling institution, which encouraged works that were völkisch—racist and nationalistic, or non-Jewish —while curtailing artistic freedom. In 1936, some of Münter’s own paintings were shown in Berlin and Munich in the exhibition “Die Straßen Adolf Hitlers in der Kunst” (The Streets of Adolf Hitler in Art), in which she was the most prominent female artist. After 1937, however, she stopped exhibiting publicly. In a remote corner of this exhibition, two paintings from 1940 might hint at the artist’s thinking at the time. The carnival masks in Maskenstilleben (Mask Still Life) are clearly more ominous than Münter’s frequent depictions of toys and joyous paraphernalia. Maschkera shows participants in the eponymous traditional carnival celebrated in parts of Upper Bavaria, the painting’s creepiest figure wearing what looks like a death mask.

While this exhibition puts the emphasis on the years preceding World War I, Münter’s oeuvre clearly follows the sweeping momentum from the emancipatory rush of the avant-garde through the repression of the Nazi period to the ambiguities of the postwar era of reconstruction. Her work was daring, provocative, and pioneering. But reexamining history is never without risks.