Marianne von Werefkin
1860–1938 / Russian-German painter
Expressionist painter Marianne von Werefkin was described by her contemporaries as a forward-thinking, energetic, and passionate personality, “brimming with a revolutionary spirit against all that is dull and timid.” Her character was as brilliant as the colours she so boldly brought to her canvases. Her life was shaped by great personal and intellectual freedom, out of which arose her radically different expressive style, which went on to pave the way for German expressionism.
The Russian Rembrandt
Werefkin’s free-spirited temperament can also be traced to her origins. A native of Russia, from a noble family that appreciated art, she enjoyed the best possible education and developed a strong artistic identity early on. As a private pupil of Ilya Repin, the most significant representative of Russian realism, she enjoyed a reputation as the “Russian Rembrandt” as early as 1890. The world was thus already her oyster when she relocated to Munich along with her partner Alexej von Jawlensky.
In search of the ideal art
Jawlensky and Werefkin led a cultivated artists’ life in Munich. Werefkin was endowed with a generous allowance, ensuring a carefree life for them both. She was passionate about art theory and was a great inspiration to those around her, and so the couple’s Munich flat became a meeting place for the creative scene, with frequent visits from poets, dancers and avant-garde artists like Paul Klee, Franz Marc, Wassily Kandinsky, Gabriele Münter and Sergei Diaghilev. Werefkin’s theories about the nature of modern art and its appropriate expression influenced her artist colleagues.
A new beginning
Werefkin’s visionary works began in 1906. She and Jawlensky spent the summer of 1908 with Kandinsky and Münter in Murnau, the birthplace of abstract painting. It was an inspiring exchange in both directions, with Kandinsky adopting several of Werefkin’s theoretical and practical impulses with regard to painting and art theory.
Werefkin’s presence in the art world was extraordinary. She co-founded the Neue Künstlervereinigung München in 1909, took part in a New Secession exhibition in Berlin in 1911-12, had connections to Der Blaue Reiter, and participated in several Der Sturm exhibitions. August Macke called her the “heart and soul of the company” and Else Lasker-Schüler dubbed her the “Blaue Reiter-Reiterin” (“the lady rider of the Blue Rider”), a testament to her high status within the group. Enthralled by post-impressionist painters like Edvard Munch and Paul Gaugin, she emphasized the intrinsic visual and emotional value of colour.
Werefkin’s view that colour has an intrinsic power is something she implemented in numerous paintings, notably in her provocative 1910 “Self-Portrait I”. This bold portrait with the glowing red eyes and swirling brushstrokes captures the artist’s revolutionary temperament. A painter and art theorist who was way ahead of her time.