Der Blaue Reiter

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Der Blaue Reiter dissolved with the outbreak of World War I in August 1914. Kandinsky, a Russian citizen, was forced to return to his homeland, and Marc and another Blaue Reiter artist, August Macke, were killed in action.

Der Blaue Reiter was formed in 1911 in Munich as a loose association of painters led by Vasily Kandinsky and Franz Marc. They shared an interest in abstracted forms and prismatic colors, which, they felt, had spiritual values that could counteract the corruption and materialism of their age. The flattened perspective and reductive forms of woodcut helped put the artists, especially Kandinsky, on the path toward abstraction in their painting.

The name Blaue Reiter (“blue rider”) refers to a key motif in Kandinsky’s work: the horse and rider, which was for him a symbol for moving beyond realistic representation. The horse was also a prominent subject in Marc’s work, which centered on animals as symbols of rebirth.

<i>Picture with an Archer</i>

Vasily Kandinsky

Picture with an Archer


A mounted rider, Kandinsky’s crucial symbol for bringing forth spiritual and artistic renewal, leaps across the bottom of the canvas, taking aim at an invisible foe. Kandinsky fought against academic convention and materialism in his painting, prints, publishing, and organizing of artist’s groups. Picture with an Archer dissolves a scene of longing for fairy-tale Russia into jewel-like patches of color that thwart the easy identification of the subject; within the next three years, Kandinsky would remove the last vestiges of recognizable imagery from his work to focus on purely abstract works.
<i>Lyrical</i> (plate, folio 9) from <i>Klänge (Sounds)</i>

Vasily Kandinsky

Lyrical (plate, folio 9) from Klänge (Sounds)


Kandinsky repeatedly used the image of the horse and rider to symbolize the fight for a new art. He created both an oil painting and a woodcut of this image, Lyrical, in which he combines this key leitmotif with a titular allusion to the evocative powers of music. This print appeared in his “musical album” Sounds, a book of poetry and woodcuts; it was also reproduced in The Blue Rider, the almanac published by Kandinsky and Marc in 1912.
<i>Great Resurrection</i>  (plate, folio 52) from <i>Klänge (Sounds)</i>

Vasily Kandinsky

Great Resurrection (plate, folio 52) from Klänge (Sounds)


The imagery in Sounds reflects Kandinsky’s belief that a new golden age would arise after spiritual values finally swept away the materialism and corruption of his own era. In Great Resurrection, he combined Bavarian and Russian folk imagery with an abstracted visual language to create a frenzied scene of the Last Judgment. In the upper left, an angel trumpets the coming apocalypse, while masses of the baptized congregate in the lower center, under a mounted rider headed toward the New Rome. In the lower right, a kneeling decapitated figure, holding its head aloft, returns to life as foretold in the Book of Revelation.
<i>Motif from Improvisation 25</i> (plate, folio 16) from <i>Klänge (Sounds)</i>

Vasily Kandinsky

Motif from Improvisation 25 (plate, folio 16) from Klänge (Sounds)


In Sounds, Kandinsky sought a synthesis of the arts, in which meaning was created through the interaction of, and space between, text and image, sound and meaning, mark and blank space. The woodcuts are not illustrations of the poems, nor do the poems describe a scene. Kandinsky explained to the book’s publisher, Reinhold Piper, “I wanted to create nothing but sounds. But they create themselves. That is the label for the content, the inner meaning.”
<i>Watercolor No. 13</i>

Vasily Kandinsky

Watercolor No. 13


Kandinsky’s approach to abstract art did not mean stripping away meaning or content, but camouflaging complex imagery within a cloak of brilliant color and form, a process that he felt enhanced the resonance and power of his symbols of conflict and spiritual rebirth. This watercolor was one of the many studies he made in preparation of his monumental abstract painting, Composition VII, an epic synthesis of his apocalyptic worldview.
<i>Fantastic Creature</i> (plate preceding page 1) from <i>Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider)</i>

Franz Marc

Fantastic Creature (plate preceding page 1) from Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider)


For Marc, nature presented an alternative to the corruption and materialism of Western civilization and pointed the way toward spiritual renewal. In this woodcut, one of two original prints published in the deluxe editions of Der Blaue Reiter, the fantastic creature is a fawn existing in a world of peace and harmony that is infused with brilliant color. Marc first began making woodcuts under the influence of Kandinsky, whom he met in early 1911, and their joint work on Der Blaue Reiter that year.
<i>The World Cow</i>

Franz Marc

The World Cow


Set in a landscape constructed of prismatic color, a large red cow rests over a mountainous chasm and nurses a tiny white calf. For Marc, red was a color of brutal materialism, a force of nature. He did not want merely to depict animals in a landscape, but to show the world as if seen through their eyes, to put “ourselves into the soul of the animal.” In this scene of creation and spiritual regeneration, Marc used Cubist strategies of interconnecting planes to depict a harmonious world.
<i>Blue Horse with Rainbow</i>

Franz Marc

Blue Horse with Rainbow


A horse at the end of a brilliant rainbow seems suspended between the material and spiritual worlds. For the artists of Der Blaue Reiter, blue represented an apotheosis. As Marc wrote in a letter, “All other colors exist only to wake the longing for blue.” In this scene of dynamic movement, Marc unified color and plane to create cosmic unity. This work comes from Marc’s “Japan sketchbook,” named for the origin of its high-quality paper. Maria Marc separated the individual sheets to exhibit and sell after her husband’s death.
<i>The Fairytale</i>

Heinrich Campendonk

The Fairytale


Campendonk showed three works at the first exhibition of Der Blaue Reiter in 1911. Like Marc, who exerted a profound influence on his vision, Campendonk looked to the rejuvenating power of animals and nature and crafted idealized fantasies of harmony. Unlike Marc, he sometimes admitted a human presence into his fairy-tale worlds. After his discharge from the military, he embraced the woodcut medium (the only printmaking technique he used), creating one-third of his prints between 1916 and 1917. Campendonk hand-colored this impression of Fairytale.

Gabriele Münter



Münter first met Kandinsky in 1902, as his student in Munich. She would remain his companion for more than a decade, and be a crucial collaborator in the founding of Der Blaue Reiter in 1911. Münter dipped this drawing of an interior in nocturnal colors. She rejected conventional perspective and simplified the composition, influenced by French modernism and the local Bavarian folk art she discovered in the village of Murnau, where she bought a house with Kandinsky.

Alexei Jawlensky


c. 1910?

Jawlensky and his companion Marianne von Werefkin spent the summers of 1908 and 1909 in Murnau with Kandinsky and Münter—to whom Jawlensky transmitted his firsthand knowledge of French modernism. Head is typical of Jawlensky’s interest in expressing spirituality through form and color. He did not immediately join Marc and Kandinsky in resigning from the avant-garde artists’ group Neue Künstlervereinigung München (NKVM) in order to establish the even more progressive Der Blaue Reiter, but he was later included in Der Blaue Reiter’s touring exhibitions at various German and Dutch venues in 1912.
<i>Lady in a Park</i>

August Macke

Lady in a Park


Macke played a key role in Der Blaue Reiter’s activities, participating in both of the group’s exhibitions in 1911 and 1912. He also contributed to the group’s almanac (published 1912), and helped find the financial backing for it through his father-in-law. Lady in a Park dates to July 1914, after his return from a trip to Tunisia with Paul Klee, and shows his mature style, which structured peaceful scenes of leisure through prismatic color. Within three months of this painting’s completion, the halcyon world it depicted was irretrievably lost and its creator was dead, killed in action on September 26.
<i>Laughing Gothic</i>

Paul Klee

Laughing Gothic


Klee’s friendship with Marc and Kandinsky brought him into the circle of Der Blaue Reiter. One example of his art was included in the group’s almanac (published 1912), and he exhibited 17 drawings at the group’s second exhibition (also in 1912), which was dedicated to works on paper. The watercolor Laughing Gothic showcases the brilliant color he began to use following his 1914 trip to Tunisia with Macke, and reflects his fascination with the lambent approach to Cubism of French artist Robert Delaunay, who also figured prominently in Der Blaue Reiter’s first exhibition and almanac.
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