March 4, 2020

Münter's Portraits

        Gabriele Münter (Germany, 1877-1962) is primarily known as an Expressionist painter, and of her painting she said, “I could not paint fast enough.  My pictures are all moments of life - I mean instantaneous visual experiences, generally noted very rapidly and spontaneously.”  This is not a style that seems to fit very well with block printing, which even at its roughest and most spontaneous requires a measured break between carving and printing.  Block printing does not give instant gratification the way pencil or paint can.  There are Expressionist block prints, however, but Münter’s linoleum block prints are not very expressionistic at all.  They are carefully planned, smoothly drawn and carved, and precisely printed.  I have for you today three portraits done in lino block prints by Münter.
        All three of these block prints were done in 1906 and 1907, and all three use two blocks for two colors.  The two colors are used in a generally chiaroscuro style, leaving white (paper showing through) only for highlights, and using black for heavy shadows.  Today’s third portrait is a fairly straightforward example, although its description states that it’s printed in two shades of green, rather than straight-up black and grey.  The first portrait is interesting, however, because it uses the midtone block for something beyond just the highlights of the main figure.  Although the grey block does have highlights carved out for the cheekbone and collar as you’d expect, it also shows a whole ‘nother figure in the background.  The second woman and the kitchen in which she works are
really quite detailed, and I love the way they give the piece subtle interest.
        The second portrait is of Vasily Kandinsky playing the harmonium.  Münter and Kandinsky were both interested in the relationship between music and visual art.  In this piece the white of the paper highlights the lamplight falling across the music and piano keys, and also the flowers on a little bracket shelf above.  I like the thin line defining the top edge of Kandinsky’s arm and hand while all the rest of him is solid black.  Interestingly, we also have a sketch of this scene from
one of Münter’s sketchbooks, showing how she refined the image in some areas and simplified in others, to get a block print that is not at all Expressionist in style.

[Pictures:  Mme. Vernot mit Aurelie, color linoleum cut by Gabriele Münter, 1906 (Image from artnet);
Kandinsky playing the Harmonium, color linoleum cut by Münter, 1907;
Pencil sketch of Kandinsky playing the harmonium by Münter (Images from Dr. Moeller & Cie.);
Mrs. Vernot, color linocut by Münter, 1906 (Image from National Gallery of Art).]

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