Marianne Werefkin: Expressionism’s Forgotten Pioneer

BY ANNE NIELSEN

Self-Portrait, Marianne Werefkin, 1910
Self-Portrait, Marianne Werefkin, 1910

Marianne Werefkin (1860-1938) was a Russian artist from a wealthy background who was hailed as a ‘Russian Rembrandt’ in her native country. Despite her revolutionary approach to art, Werefkin has often been marginalised in the history of German Expressionism. She has been  mainly viewed in terms of her relationship with fellow artist Alexej Jawlensky. It was actually Werefkin who taught Jawlensky how to develop his skills as an artist. He was a young, inexperienced artist when they met in St Petersburg in 1892. Werefkin has now been overshadowed by Jawlensky’s success. Expressionism refers to art in which the image of reality is distorted in order to make it express the artist’s inner feelings or ideas.

In Munich, Werefkin ran a salon in her home where writers, dancers and artists such as Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc met to discuss developments in the art world. It was in this Salon where the “New Association of Artists in Munich” was initiated. When Werefkin arrived in Munich in 1896 she put down her paint brushes for ten years in order to support Jawlensky. Perhaps this ten-year gap is one of the reasons why Werefkin is often overlooked in the history of German Expressionism.

Autumn School by Marianne Werefkin, 1907
Autumn School by Marianne Werefkin, 1907

During this decade, her journal called “Lettres à un Inconnu” (Letters to an Unknown), written between 1901 and 1905 in French, became an important outlet for her creativity. In this diary, Werefkin developed ideas and theories about a new art that Kandinsky would later explore in his now famous ‘Concerning the Spiritual in Art’. The extract below illustrates how the diary became Werefkin’s canvas and paint brush:

I do not have any paintings to offer you but I can impress you with the miraculous œuvre that I am creating inside of me. Worlds emerge from there, always new and always different. What a gallery of images! What a museum of richness! And I am the creator of it, master of destroying it all and recreating it all at the same time.’

In the Café by Marianne Werefkin, 1909
In the Café by Marianne Werefkin, 1909

In 1906, unable to resist the burning desire to create, Werefkin started painting again and realised all the ideas and visions she had explored on paper. She painted the way she wrote; emotional, thoughtful, analytical and conflicted at the same time. Her paintings were a complete opposite to the Rembrandt like works she had created ten years before in Russia. Her paintings show a profound interest and passion for the expressive power of colour to enhance the mystical and melancholic atmospheres in her paintings.

To Werefkin it was vital to first create an inner vision, which was then realised as an external painting influenced by the surrounding physical world. Ahead of her colleagues, Werefkin used black and white as colours, and white instead of black outlines. She also used forced perspective inspired by Edvard Munch and flattened areas of colour developed by Paul Gauguin.

Tragic Mood by Marianne Werekfin, 1910
Tragic Mood by Marianne Werekfin, 1910

Werefkin’s journal and some of her paintings reveal how many women artists at the turn-of-the-century struggled to identify themselves with the limiting notions of femininity which defined women as mothers. Werefkin was aware of the tension and anxiety many women artists such as Käthe Kollwitz felt in trying to balance artistic devotion with ‘the duties’ of a woman. Werefkin herself doubted the possibility of merging the two apparently opposing notions together. She asked herself: ‘Am I a real artist? Yes. Am I a woman? Alas, yes. Can the two function together? No.’

Werefkin wanted to be free to travel, work on her art and not feel the chains of household affairs, a desire which she expressed in her journal. Werefkin was in tune with feminist thinking of her period in passionately opposing to the objectification and unequal treatment of women. She regarded marriage as an institution that only benefited men and celibacy seemed the only way to retain her independence and freedom. After helping in a maternity clinic, she saw giving birth as a violent act on the body which could lead to the mother’s death and the robbing of the woman’s individuality. Paintings such as ‘Twins’ capture Werefkin’s perception of motherhood.

Twins by Marianne Werefkin, 1909
Twins by Marianne Werefkin, 1909

When the First World War broke out, Werefkin and Jawlensky fled to Switzerland and later settled in Ascona. Jawlensky left Werefkin in 1920 in order to marry her kitchen maid with whom he had a child. After moving to Switzerland, Werefkin’s work became more spiritually defined and emphasised its mystical nature without losing its vibrancy and expressive power. Her paintings captured the mountain and lake scenery that surrounded her in Ascona accompanied by the people of the village. Although destitute, Werefkin remained in Ascona where she continued to paint until her death in 1938.

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