Marianne Werefkin: a pioneering modernist

Self-portrait on the cover of S950.b.201.5000

I was interested to hear about the Making Modernism exhibition which opened at the Royal Academy in November and continues until 12 February. It is described as “the first major UK exhibition devoted to pioneering women working in Germany in the early 1900s” and highlights four women in particular. Three of these, Kӓthe Kollwitz, Paula Modersohn-Becker and Gabriele Münter, were familiar names to me and indeed have been mentioned previously in our blog post on German Expressionism in Leicester. But I had not heard of Marianne Werefkin (1860-1938) and she seemed worthy of further exploration.

She was born into Russian nobility, and as a young woman her artistic talents were recognised and encouraged, with lessons from the renowned artist Ilya Repin. In the 1890s she moved to Munich with her partner Alexej von Jawlensky who was also an artist. At this time she was probably the more skilled painter of the pair but chose to allow her art to take a back seat for a time in order to support his development. She embraced a more expressionist style of painting in the early 1900s and was one of the founders of the Neue Künstlervereinigung München which was a forerunner of the important Der Blaue Reiter movement.

The death of Werefkin’s father had resulted in her receiving a generous Tsarist pension (that she would lose if she married) which allowed her to have a comfortable life based in Munich with many trips elsewhere in Europe. This all changed when war broke out in 1914 and she had just 24 hours to leave Germany, fleeing to Switzerland with Jawlensky. Her pension was first reduced and then, after the Russian Revolution, cut completely. At this point she also became a stateless person. She remained in Switzerland for the rest of her life, settling in Ascona in 1918. Her relationship with Jawlensky had long been a complicated one – he had a child with her maid Helene in 1902 – and in 1921 they finally separated. He married Helene the following year.

Cover of 400:4.c.201.132, part of 1907 Country Road

In the introduction to Marianne Werefkin and the Women Artists in Her Circle (400:4.c.201.132 and online), emanating from a 2014 conference and exhibition held in Bremen and edited by Tanja Malycheva and Isabel Wünsche, Werefkin is described as “a prime example of the cosmopolitan artist and facilitator of an extended artistic network and one of the most prominent examples of the modernist female artist whose achievements have previously been marginalized and neglected by curators and art historians.”

Books and exhibitions in the last 30 years or so have shown, however, that Werefkin’s art is now being re-examined and given more attention. The most recent addition* to our collections on her is a 2019 Russian book, Marianna Verevkina: ėvoli︠u︡t︠s︡ii︠a︡ stili︠a︡ ot simvolizma k ėkspressionizmu by Marii︠a︡ Oleĭnik (C217.c.8251) which contains beautifully reproduced photographs and plates of works by Werefkin.

Other sources in which to see more of her works and find out more about her life include Marianne von Werefkin: die Russin aus dem Kreis des Blauen Reiters, a detailed biography by Brigitte Rossbeck using letters and diary entries (C208.c.2118) and the large format, richly illustrated Marianne Werefkin by Bernd Fäthke (S405:3.b.200.75). Fäthke also wrote the catalogue accompanying a 1988 exhibition held in Ascona, Marianne Werefkin: Leben und Werk, 1860-1938 (S405:3.c.9.172).

In recent years a volume has been published containing the exchange of letters between Werefkin, Jawlensky, Paul Klee and Klee’s wife: “In inniger Freundschaft”: Alexej Jawlensky, Paul und Lily Klee, Marianne Werefkin: der Briefwechsel (S950.b.201.1659). The two couples were friends in Munich and swapped paintings with each other.

Looking at examples of Werefkin’s work, the bold vibrant colours she chose draw you in. The poet Else Lasker-Schüler picked up on this too in a 1922 poem dedicated to Marianne Werefkin in which she emphasised both her Russian origins and her use of colour in the lines:

Marianne spielt mit den Farben Russlands malen:
Grün, Hellgrün, Rosa, Weiss,
Und namentlich der Kobaltblau

Sind ihre treuen Spielgefährten.

[translation by Niccola Shearman in Marianne Werefkin and the Women Artists in Her Circle given as:

Marianne plays with the colors of Russia’s painting:
Green, light green, pink, white,
And not forgetting cobalt blue,
These are her faithful playfellows.]

Katharine Dicks

Further reading

  • Marianne von Werefkin: Leben für die Kunst by Brigitte Salmen (S950.b.201.5000)
  • Ich bin Ich: die Frauen des Blauen Reiter by Birgit Poppe (C201.b.9956)
  • Marianne Werefkin und der russische Symbolismus: Studien zur Ästhetik und Kunsttheorie by Jelena Hahl-Koch (701:6.d.2.23 and online)
  • Marianne Werefkin: die Farbe beisst mich ans Herz (2000.8.6709)

*STOP PRESS: another book on Werefkin arrived in the UL as part of a series standing order hours after this post was published, demonstrating again how interest in Werefkin is growing: Marianne Werefkin: von der Blauen Reiterin zur naiven Malerei by Wolfgang Drost (C219.c.2592).



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