Marianne von Werefkin - Biography and Legacy
Russian-German-Swiss Expressionist Painter
Biography of Marianne von Werefkin
Marianna Wladimirowna Werewkina was born in Tula, a small city 120 miles south of Moscow, into a wealthy family of the Russian nobility. Her father, Vladimir Nikolaevich Verevkin, was commander of the Ekaterinburg Regiment of the Russian Army, while her mother, Elizabeth Daraga, was a baroness and painter. Werefkin's childhood was spent travelling across Russia as her father was assigned to different locations, though family summers were always spent at the Blagodat Estate in modern-day Lithuania, assigned to her father for his services during the Crimean War by Alexander II. It was there, in her own private studio, that Marianna began to paint.
Education and Early training
Noticing the young child's enthusiasm and talent for art, her parents arranged for her to have private drawing lessons from the age of 14. A few years later, in 1880, Ilya Repin, at that time considered the most important Russian Realist painter, was assigned as her tutor. She studied with Repin for ten years, applying herself with a devotion that was only broken for a few months in 1888, when she accidentally shot herself in the hand whilst hunting.
In 1892, through Repin, Werefkin met the painter Alexej von Jawlensky, who joined her at the family estate. The two shared many artistic interests, and developed a friendship based on deep creative respect that would last for many years to come, each artist influencing the other's view of their practice. Werefkin was already building a successful career for herself: sometimes referred to as the 'Russian Rembrandt' for her portraits in a broadly Realist tradition, with her work shown at various collective exhibitions of Russian art.
In 1896, Werefkin's father died. In her mid-thirties, Werefkin was allowed to keep his government pension as long as she remained single; the same year, she moved with Jawlensky to Munich, where they became members of a lively artistic community. The two artists lived in adjoining apartments, Jawlensky attending a private art school while Werefkin studied art history. Although she declined a marriage proposal from Jawlensky around this time, the two remained friends. Indeed, such was Werefkin's admiration for Jawlensky's work that she put her own painting career on hold in Munich, instead committing herself to supporting Jawlensky's practice and, as she put it, taking "indefatigable care of his mind and heart". Werefkin's hiatus from art lasted almost ten years; in her journals and letters, she recorded how she had hidden her existing paintings from Jawlensky "so that he wouldn't feel jealous". In 1897, Werefkin formed the St. Lukas Brotherhood, an informal artists' salon which met at her apartment to discuss painting, and which counted Wassily Kandinsky amongst its members. In nascent Expressionist fashion, Werefkin believed that the art of the future would be 'emotional' in its creative basis; indeed, though she had stopped painting herself, she became an important theorist of the Munich scene.
It is said that around this time, Jawlensky sexually abused a nine-year-old helper of Werefkin's named Helene Nesnakomoff, resulting in the birth of a child in 1902, which Werefkin and Jawlensky presented as their own. It was also in this year, during a period of emotional trauma, that Werefkin began keeping a journal in French entitled "Lettres à un Inconnu" ('Letters to a Stranger'). In a series of entries addressed to an anonymous reader, Werefkin expressed her passions and frustrations as a woman artist, stating that "I can understand everything and cannot create..." She also recorded her theories on art, declaring her aim to "enforce new aesthetic and ethical ideas on mankind". Overall, the journal is a document of Werefkin's idealistic personality, and of the emphasis she placed on imagination, her "love [for] what doesn't exist."
After holidaying together in Normandy in 1903, Werefkin and Jawlensky spent a year and a half in Paris and the south of France, returning to Germany in 1905. While in France, Werefkin was profoundly affected by the paintings of Henri Matisse and the Nabis, especially by their vibrant and emotionally expressive use of color. In 1906, back in Munich, Werefkin began painting again, creating what can be described as her first Expressionist works. The trip to France had also greatly influenced Jawlensky, who was especially enamored of Van Gogh, and of the Fauvists. Together, Werefkin and Jawlensky traced the steps of Van Gogh through Provence to the city of Arles, where he had based himself in the late 1880s, just before his death.
In 1908, Werefkin and Jawlensky, along with the painters Gabriele Münter and Wassily Kandinsky, moved south of Munich to the small Bavarian town of Murnau am Staffelsee, where Münter owned a house. It was in Murnau that the four friends, often painting collectively, or painting each other, began developing the visual language of what would later become known as abstract art. In 1909, Münter created a portrait of Werefkin, showing her as a young woman filled with energy and vitality despite her 49 years. Münter's portrait gives some sense of how Werefkin was appreciated by her contemporaries for her extraordinary charisma.
In the year of Münter's portrait, the four Murnau-based painters, along with other artists including Franz Marc and August Macke, founded the Neue Künstlervereinigung München ('New Association of Artists in Munich') or NKVM, as a forum for discussion and basis for collective exhibitions. In 1911, Werefkin and Jawlensky spent the summer on the Baltic Coast, whose dramatic landscapes affected both artists; the same year Kandinsky's hugely influential book Concerning the Spiritual in Art was published, defining the new artistic paradigm towards which the group had been collectively working. According to Werefkin's biographer Bernd Fäthke, many of the ideas in the book were borrowed from Werefkin without any acknowledgement. After an 'ugly intrigue' Kandinsky, Marc, and Macke left the NKVM to found the - now better-known - Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) Group, seen as fundamental to the development of Expressionism. Werefkin would ultimately join them in 1913, becoming known as the "Blue Riders' woman rider".
At the outbreak of the First World War, Werefkin and Jawlensky emigrated to neutral Switzerland, moving first to an area near Geneva, then to Zurich, spending about a year in each location. By the close of the war, Jawlensky and Werefkin had moved on again, to the small lake-side town of Ascona, but the pair separated shortly after, bringing to an end a creative relationship that had lasted almost 30 years. Jawlensky went on to marry Helene, the mother of his child, and moved to Wiesbaden in Germany. Werefkin settled in Ascona, which would become her home for the remainder of her life. Though she had lost her father's pension after the Russian Revolution, she enjoyed a comfortable if modest existence, continuing to hone her Expressionist style, while earning a living through commercial postcards and posters, her income occasionally supplemented by her friends.
In 1924, Werefkin founded an artists' group named The Big Bear or Ursa Major (after the constellation). During the last decade-and-a-half of her life, she donated many of her paintings to the city of Ascona, where most of them remain. Werefkin died on February 6, 1938 and was buried in the Russian cemetery in Ascona. She was loved by the community there, who founded the Fondazione Marianne Werefkin and the Ascona Museum of Modern Art in her memory.
The Legacy of Marianne von Werefkin
Marianne Von Werefkin is considered one of the most significant artists of the Expressionist movement, and is also acknowledged to have played a crucial role in breaking down boundaries to women's involvement with modern art. She is thus ahead of her time in two respects, not only in her feminist ideals, but also in her thoroughly modern conception of the nature and purpose of painting.
Werefkin described art as "a concentrated feeling of love elevated to a world view and translated into an artistic language of symbols". Some of the roots of this idealistic vision can be found in Romanticism, especially in its exaltation of emotion and love, and in the work of the French Symbolists, Synthetists, and Nabis - such as Paul Gauguin and Emile Bernard - with whom Werefkin is often associated. However, her theories on art far surpassed the movements that influenced her, particularly as she acted as an advocate and critic of other artists' work as much as a painter in her own right. Her ideas concerning the role of spirituality in art profoundly influenced not only her friend and lover Alexej von Jawlensky, but also Gabrielle Münter, Franz Marc, and many other Expressionist artists of the time, including Wassily Kandinsky. Kandinsky's writing on this theme in Concerning the Spiritual in Art would ultimately be assigned more primary significance: the subsequent development of abstraction in Constructivism, for example, is often traced back to the lessons of Kandinsky's great work. But his discussions with Werefkin, as a member of the NKVM and the St. Lukas Brotherhood, were vital to their conception.
Art historian Natalya Tolstaya claims that despite her importance, "the general public in Russia knows little about Marianne von Werefkin", adding that "not a single large Russian museum today owns Werefkin's artwork". However, there is a growing interest in Werefkin's body of work, and in her vital role in the development of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century modern art. Moreover, despite her overall lack of recognition, Werefkin's vibrant colors and bold brushstrokes helped to define the very idea of the abstract in art. In many explicit and implicit ways, then, she continues to exert a profound influence on modern art and culture.