In order to explain to the public the difference between the intentions and practice of 19th-century painting and the entirely different expressive means of the new generation of artists, an almanac was produced in May 1912 by Piper-Verlag of Munich. Entitled Der Blaue Reiter and edited by Kandinsky and Marc, it was originally intended to be a periodical, but went through only one edition, which was reprinted in 1914. The almanac contained essays written exclusively by artists on subjects related to the fine arts. The carefully produced volume proved in retrospect to be the most significant programmatic writing on art of the 20th century. Kandinsky and Marc set out in individual essays their conceptions of the subject-matter of art and its formal expression. They reproduced works of art of very diverse styles, epochs and cultures, such as medieval book illustrations, religious paintings on glass, child art, and carvings and other objects from non-European cultures, juxtaposed with illustrations of their own works (e.g. Marc’s The Steer, 1911; New York, Guggenheim). In this way they reminded the reader that the endeavour to achieve a particular means of expression had always determined artistic form, not only for the artists of the Blaue Reiter. Their principal aim, however, was to explain the new subject-matters and means of expression used by the artists of their own group. On this point Kandinsky wrote: ‘None of us seeks to reproduce nature directly … We are seeking to give artistic form to inner nature, i.e. spiritual experience’. He then went on to stress that as the artists’ souls were different, so their motifs varied. However, they had in common the quality of bringing into their pictures only those details of nature that served ‘the inner purpose of the particular work’. In 1912 Kandinsky also expounded his ideas in Über das Geistige in der Kunst.
Meanwhile, Alexei Jawlensky and Marianne Werefkin left the NKVM in 1912 and began contributing works to Blaue Reiter exhibitions. They had initially remained loyal to the circle in the NKVM headed by Adolph Erbslöh (1881–1947). However, after the publication of the group’s Das neue Bild, which also came out in 1912 as a kind of counterblast to the almanac, disagreements within the NKVM sealed its fate. Its proposed fourth exhibition failed to materialize, and with Werefkin and Jawlensky, Wladimir von Bechtejeff (1878–1971) also announced his resignation. Jawlensky’s work, in particular, exemplified the Blaue Reiter’s use of form and colour to represent the artist’s inner state as well as the subject depicted (e.g. Head of a Woman, 1912; Berlin, Alte N.G.).
As compared to other associations of artists at the beginning of the 20th century, the Blaue Reiter was marked by a sense of a spiritual mission. However, the painters of the Blaue Reiter were indebted to such other avant-garde movements as Futurism, Fauvism and Cubism; for example, the Futurist depiction of sequences of movement influenced Macke and Marc. Contemporary French developments, in particular the Orphism of Delaunay, had a decisive influence on Klee, Marc and Macke, who visited him in Paris in 1912. The French art that Klee saw was reflected in his graphic art (e.g. Garden of Passion, etching, 1913; e.g. New York, MOMA). Delaunay’s depiction of interpenetration of forms influenced such works as Marc’s The Tiger (1912; Munich, Lenbachhaus; for illustration see Marc, Franz). Such influences were not merely stylistic but helped to express in their art the deep convictions of Kandinsky’s analytical spirituality and Marc’s pantheistic philosophy.
The desire to represent inner experience was exemplified by Kandinsky’s gradual advance towards Abstraction. He first studied the laws inherent in forms and colours through contemplation of nature before the Blaue Reiter period. Finally he produced painted compositions without any link to objective reality that consisted of a pure play of colours and forms analogous to music. This was Kandinsky’s highest goal, achieved in such works as Composition VII (1913; Moscow, Tret’yakov Gal.). Marc represented animals, whom he saw as beings less distorted by culture than man: he depicted them as embedded in surrounding nature, even producing compositions in which the subject was broken up almost entirely into prismatic structures. He thus attempted to create images whereby man too might again feel his unity with the cosmos. His thesis in the almanac, ‘that art is concerned with the deepest things, that renewal cannot be a formal matter but a rebirth of thought’, clearly expresses his concerns. With this conception Marc took his place in the tradition of mysticism, pursuing no lesser goal than to produce through his work ‘symbols which belong on the altars of the coming intellectual religion, behind which the technical producer vanishes’. His final work before the outbreak of World War I consisted of almost entirely abstract paintings such as Playing Forms (1914; Essen, Mus. Flkwang).
It goes without saying that such aims and works made heavy demands on the beholder. However, the strength of the Blaue Reiter artists remained their openness to different forms of communication. They realized that the widespread need for spiritual renewal in a materialistic age sought expression in the most diverse ways. The group saw themselves as developing a spiritual principle that would draw together these various forces to give them the greatest possible impact on the outer world. Admittedly the reaction of the public did not meet the hopes and expectations of Kandinsky and Marc. In the preface to the second edition of the almanac a hint of resignation can be discerned. Kandinsky wrote: ‘One of our aims—in my eyes one of the main ones—has hardly been attained at all. It was to show, by examples, by practical juxtaposition and by theoretical demonstration, that the question of form in art is secondary, that the question in art is predominantly one of content … Perhaps the time is not yet ripe for ‘hearing’ and ‘seeing’ in this sense’. Moreover, Marc quoted a dictum of Theodor Däubler: ‘Everything in this world can only be a beginning’.
The outbreak of World War I put an end to the common endeavours of the Blaue Reiter. Kandinsky had to leave Germany and returned to Russia via Switzerland. Macke was killed in the Champagne region in the first weeks of the war. Marc, whose search for ‘pure form’ in his sketchbook from the battlefield had also led to Abstraction, died at Verdun in 1916. Klee served in the rear of the Front, Münter lived in Sweden, and only Kubin stayed above the mêlée in his refuge at Zwickledt near Wernstein am Inn. Although the Blaue Reiter did not survive World War I, the Blue four group was formed in 1924 as its successor by Kandinsky, Jawlensky, Klee and Lyonel Feininger.
From Grove Art Online
© 2009 Oxford University Press