From her diaries (1905): ‘I am a woman, I lack every [ability for] creation. I can understand everything and cannot create… I don’t have the words to express my ideal. I am looking for the person, the man, who can give this ideal form. As a woman, wanting someone who could give the internal world expression, I met Jawlensky … ‘
I am more a man than a woman. Only the need to please and compassion turn me into a woman. I am not a man, I am not a woman, I am I.
Yet she could write in a letter: My eyes are magical glass [when looking at] the outside world, and it can transform a lot into bewitching beauty. Paris, Munich … they’re all the same. The country is nice, because it is closer to nature and bad because we [Werefkin and Jawlensky] are no longer people from nature. I saw this at Blagodat. The more a person improves himself, the more one is doomed to loneliness. One doesn’t need friends, one needs oneself and anybody who loves you like themselves
Dear friends and readers,
I was wondering how to present my tenth woman artist Marianne von Werekfin as I am so drawn to very specific paintings by her. For example, even in black-and-white one of her pictures remains one of my favorites of all 20th century women’s paintings: are we watching quiet peacefulness or repression with few choices caught up in a harmonious ordered design?
Elsa Honig Fine in her Women and Art describes the painting when seen in color: “All the artist’s sources seem to coalesce …The large green expanses of grass, sinuous blue river and band of red buildings in the background, contrast with the black, white and grey silhouettes of the anonymous strollers. The artist seems more at peace with herself in this painting.
Where better is the darkness, fearful glare and fascinating colors of de-humanized and degraded landscape of unamelioroated industrialism unameliorated expressed than in her
Jordi Vigue in Great Women Masters of Art: ‘There are three motifs in this work: nature, industry and the human being. The industrial village is located on a river. It is surrounded by a powerfully colorist landscape in which the plains taken on a copper tone and the high blue mountains are silhouetted against a yellow and green sky. In the foreground three men carrying a sack across a bridge in front of a village immersed in the twilight. The factory chimney, a symbol of industrialization per excellent, is as high as the old church’s bell tower. This is a narrative scene accompanied by forms with latent meanings. The association of the mangnficence of nature, the darkness of inustry with its chimney emitting green smoke, and the toil of the man bent under a heavy sack are ahead of their time and offer an invitation to reflection.’
In this picture by Werefkin, I think of the many images of lonely old woman carelessly discarded in so much fiction and life. Here the woman seems to matter:
Again Jordi Vigue: ‘Her ideas are expressed in this work in tempera on cardboard, in which the snow covering the hills is green and blue, the furrows and shadows are tinged in red, andthe leafless wintry trees are as black as the phantasmagoric figure of the old lady. In fact, the subject of the painting is simple: an old lady goes to get some pigs that have gotten loose. Nevertheless, the treatment of forms and colors establishes a symbolic relationship with reality that imbues the painting with mystery, like the stories of Poe.’
Werefkin can do the hope of young girls (Autumn, the scene I led with, which reminds me of Bemelmans’ Madeline, books where we read of 12 little girls in a two straight lines), the calm of old age
Here the seeming disorder and beauty and fearfulness of winter worlds, often with a pair of friends or heterosexual couple painted as tiny figures which repeats elsewhere:
Werefkin makes us see war as human beings turned into mindless crawling deadly insects in a row
She paints rather tormented scenes with processions of female figures in black walking on sinuous roads:
From Kochmann (see below): In The Black Women, Werefkin depicts several women dressed in various combinations of black and dark blue garments, tying and carrying white bundles back to a mountain village. The scene is set in the mountains, a line of chalet-style row houses at their base. The women appear to have finished laundering in a thinly rendered purple-colored river, preparing to return home after a hard day’s work … [I add there is an absence of men in many of these pictures]
She can also project the alluring stillness of an evening out in a world of war (note the heterosexual couple):
But a good deal of what Von Werefkin painted is to me also too consciously primitive, crude, glaring and gauche, even cartoon-like, or vague, inconsistent. These are labelled German expressionistic, and hark back to stylistically similar paintings by Paula Modersohn-Becker, only M-B rescues such pictures by the poignancy of the abject children, animals. Werefkin uses this style for depicting the strength of peasant women and men, and stereotypical 1930s kinds of bars. Two from In the Village:
For this blog I am indebted to a friend, Fran, who sent to Women Writers through the Ages (at Yahoo), the URL for an excellent detailed essay by Adrienne Kochmann which is meant to focus on and explain a specific picture. I will quote from Kochmann to provide biography: “Ambiguity of Home: Identity and Reminiscence in Marianne Werefkin’s Return Home, c. 1909:”
Werefkin was born in 1860 in Tula, south of Moscow.8 An aristocrat and a baroness, she was the daughter of Elizabeth Daragan, an artist, and Vladimir Nikolaevich Verevkin, an infantry commander general who had been decorated by the tsar for his accomplishments during the Crimean War. During her childhood, her father’s military career transferred the family to several different residences across the Russian Empire, including (chronologically) Vitebsk in Russia, Vilnius in Lithuania, Lublin in Poland, Moscow, and St. Petersburg. She began her formal art training at the age of fourteen and later studied with the prominent Russian Realist Ilya Repin for ten years.
Through Repin, Werefkin met Jawlensky in 1892. The two shared mutual artistic interests and worked together, spending summers at Werefkin’s family’s landed estate, Blagodat, in Kovno Province, Lithuania. Werefkin established a reputation in Russia as the “Russian Rembrandt” showing her portraits—her primary subject area—at such exhibitions as the First Women Artists Circle Exhibition in St. Petersburg in 1886, the XX Peredvizhnik Exhibition of 1892, also in St. Petersburg, and in 1896 at the art section of the All-Russian Exhibition in Nizhni-Novgorod.
So she belonged to the lesser nobility, with her mother an amateur painter; early on she met a man she seems to have idolized and with whom she would have (for her time) an unconventional passionate relationship for 30 years:
By 1896 they were living in an artist community in Munich, friends with Munter and her partner, Vasily Kanddinsky, and part of movement which included many new and avante garde artists (Munich New Artists Association):
Kochman: In 1896, Werefkin’s father died and, provided that she stay a single woman, allowed her an inheritance of a government pension and the financial means to live independently. That same year, she and Jawlensky moved to Munich and took up residence in adjoining apartments on Giselastrasse in Schwabing, the home of the city’s Eastern European immigrant and artistic populations. There, they became active members of Munich’s avant-garde artistic community, and befriended the prominent Slovenian art teacher Anton Azbe, in whose teaching atelier Jawlensky, Igor Grabar, and Dmitrii Kardovskii, Werefkin’s friends from the St. Petersburg Art Academy, enrolled as students. Werefkin herself, in 1897, formed the St. Lukas Brotherhood, an informal artists’ salon which met at her apartment.
She and Jawlensky became part of an international exhibition society, Der blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider).
1902 was a time of personal crisis; a child was born out of wedlock to a long-time female servant in the house and Jawlensky fathered it. (This reminds me of a child born in Italy when Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley were living there with Byron and Clare Clairmont; it may have been Shelley’s by a maid servant.) Werefkin kept a dairy in French, published many years later, Lettres a un Inconnu, 1901-1905, mostly about art: there she asserted the principle of art seen as a kind of expression of one’s soul or of the internal world.
Kochman: Although Werefkin remained active in the avant-garde art community, she took a ten-year hiatus from painting between 1896 and 1906. The break in artistic production has been traditionally attributed to the attention she gave to advancing Jawlensky’s career, but it is also apparent that she needed the time to develop a new artistic language, as she moved away from the Realist style which had dominated her work in Russia.
She had a more personal style than these other people, seems to have felt her as a Russian ex-aristocrat something of an outsider. Here is a letter she wrote to her brother, Peter, after a visit back to Kovno in Russia: she looks at the city like as if she is making one of her paintings and reacts in an intensely ravaged way, both feeling revulsion from and in love with what she sees:
Convince yourself. Kovno is a treasure-trove for artists. It is gloomy, the lamps don’t make it lighter and the streets are getting darker. Their violet windows hover threateningly in the darkness. The elusive lines of low houses, on them—the glimmer of green and red flames—illuminating rows of shops. Bright green bright red stripes [all] fall on the violet sidewalk. And all those shadows are full of people who only speak about one thing, about love, in the dialect, Polish or broken Russian. Whispers and loud words touch the silence, like the green and red bands of light—the darkness of the night. Something terrible, terrible lies over everything, I feel a shudder, it seems I am in another world, far away from real life. I save myself in a church. Dark, empty. Lights flickering before icons. One sings everything that one has sung before in the past. Some black figures—and the heart is heavy. The tears take one’s breath away and the past rises up again. Home…In Peter’s office, my entire soul starts to ache for him, for that battle for everything that is sweet and good, which is called Russian life. Empty, empty in the house, no one. Whoever comes—doesn’t get his fill of him. And then such a heated rush of love rips out of the [visitor’s] heart, begging one’s pardon and forgetting the trouble behind, that the whole house swells. And I go to my room and stretch out my arms to the West—that it is far away [from here], that I will someday return. Outside those painful sensations—it is horrible to be before these people and their lives. Service and family troubles—a hard beginning, pay raise, promotion—sweet dreams, scandal—daily bread, and their happiness reminds me sweetly, of those who buy “for the people,” and whose food you wouldn’t put in your mouth. I think of Munich and of my health. All that is here is suffering and this horror of beauty and this horrible life and this overbearing literature, and the complete superfluousness of art.
Note how her father forbad her to marry on pain of losing her inheritance: he feared who she would marry. From her diary we can see how insecure she felt as a woman; that she had to try to see herself as man to justify her art. Yet her pictures are meant to be of ordinary people in familiar acts of everyday life. One reviewer at the time said of Werefkin’s pictures that “she catches quick, transitory moods, but beyond mere narrative, she creates rhythmic arrangements by large, strongly outlined color planes that cut into each other.” Werefkin did not date her paintings and they are dated by trying to trace her stylistic changes.
My sources were very vague about an illegitimate child that was born to a servant in her household, Jawlensky was the father: Fran has told the full story clearly in her comments. Perhaps reading Werefkin’s letters, her diary or about her friend, Gabriel Munter, a great painter in her own right (187701962) would turn up more information of about this private agon.
This rare photo of her, cheerful and unpretentious can startle someone who has been imagining her through her paintings alone — it comes from her later years and like Munter’s depiction of her can reassure us a bit
Werefkin seems to have stopped painting again in 1914 (having escaped the war to Switzerland); and broke off from Jawlensky in 1922 after 30 years of life together (again see the comments on this eventually cruel destructive partner). Honig writes that there are very few paintings from these later years; many disappeared shortly after her death in Ascona on 6 February 1938. Vigue says that Werefkin was rediscovered in the 1950s in Rome and Basel by the curator of the Wiesbaden Museum of Art at the time, Clemens Weiler. There is now a Von Werefkin Museum in Ascona, Switzerland.
Adrienne Kochman concentrates on the above painting at length — giving me the feeling that she too is drawn to certain specific pictures: I summarize and paraphrase: Werefkin’s work has “largely been defined by scholars in terms of her associations with Russian literary Symbolism and the Symbolist work of such French artists as Paul Gauguin, Paul Sérusier, and Emile Bernard.” But if she used their techniques (“flattened areas of color, highly saturated hues, and outlined forms”), she was painting about her German experience from the point of view of a Russian woman. She had had a successful career in Russia before she moved to Munich and then she was immersed in the Munich avante-garde. in her painting, as well as personal documents recording her interest in color, have directed analyses of her art in this manner. Werefkin’s artistic concerns however, were also filtered through the lens of her experience in Germany and her native Russian ethnicity. She led a successful artistic career in her Russian homeland in the late 1880s and early 1890s before resettling in Munich in 1896, and was actively engaged in that city’s avant-garde community, and cared about socio-political issues, the failure of the tsarist regime, the coming Russian revolution, the coming European conflagration.
The painting depicts some fifteen women walking down a city street in an unidentified urban setting. Street lamps provide some illumination in an orange-purple sky, casting irregular shadows on the buildings which line the sidewalk. All of the women wear black, shapeless, often hooded garments. They walk in a loose procession down the street alone and in pairs. Their movements appear heavy and slow-paced as they go laden with a child in arm, baskets full of goods and/or large white bundles. Their return home from marketing or laundering appears to be a regular if not daily ritual. The scene is haunting …One might read the red glow within the interior of each door as a suggestion that the home is the traditional center of love, hearth and passion—the domestic sphere dominated by women. The public space of the street outside the protected space of the interior is occupied by masculinized women. And yet, even the space of the street bears qualities of being a place “in between”—where these women are protected and somewhat enclosed. The high flattened walls flanking the low, red- lit buildings block the street from harsher natural elements, such as wind, suggesting there is an expanse beyond the geographic space of the picture plane which is even more raw. It is in this larger area that the world of men is located; it is the space where war is fought and men’s lives are lost.
Kochmann feels Werefkin felt her status as an unmarried woman from an imperialist background. Obviously she found the cityscape deeply “un-home-y” in Freud’s sense, haunting, eerie, disquieting. Her pictures are often of women as beasts of burden at the same time as the rhetoric she heard around her was deeply misogynistic: a woman artist was a “”manwoman;” they had gone against nature, [were] shirking their responsibility as wives and mothers. Around this time she also painted Black Women (see above) and Twins
In black, formless, hiding their sexuality, a kind of widowhood (regarded perhaps as shameful: to me there seems much self-hatred here:
From Kochmann: Two women dressed in mourning sit on a bench holding twin babies in their laps. The babies, contently swaddled in white, form a stark contrast to the women, whose strained grimaces suggest the hardship of raising children alone and the pain of losing a spouse. Werefkin suggests the cycle of life, as the babies come to represent the future and continuation of the family, the women situated in the middle as bringing up the children, and the deceased fathers, as part of the past.
I found helpful a stirring perceptive essay on recent paintings in the NYRB by Jed Pert, “The Perils of Painting Now 62:14 (Sept 24, 2015):55-57, where Perl argues that all paintings are timebound, the general pictorial style of an age a mirror of contemporary turmoil through which the individual artist expresses sincere private feelings and emotions, what matters (he follows Trilling in his essay on “Sincerity and Authenticity”) is how the artist expresses his or her inner experiences, the ambiguities of personal life through a social medium; time-bound styles are public social avowals through which an autonomous self expresses a vision. Yes, this is so for Werefkin.
Yet when we look at the paintings of Werefkin’s years once she goes to Munich they speak to our immediate time: the women are perpetual émigrés, outside the emotional and geographical circle of home — rather like Werefkin. There is Kochmann’s reading of the bereft sense in Return Home: not belonging anywhere; she is no longer part of, a long way from Sunday Afternoon in Spring. She paints pictures as as fearful and nightmarish as Munch’s The Scream, yet more engulfing, a maelstrom:
But maybe she was not bereft. Maybe she was relieved not to have to belong. If what was on offer for the outsider couple was not any kind of Arcadia, it was better than what was experienced inside these circles and lines of people. Here is her couple grown out now old in a Turner-like landscape:
This is Jawlensky’s insightful picture of Werefkin in her prime: look at the expression on her face:
Werefkin’s of a friend, Rosalie Leiss, painted in the same style, only using lines much much more: