Gabriele Münter, Portrait of Anna Roslund, 1917. New Walk Museum and Art Gallery, Leicester.
I love exhibitions which truly have something new to offer, and Making Modernism at the Royal Academy is, for me at least, one of those – so I’m looking forward to talking about it this Monday, 21 November at 6pm. My only problem will be the usual one – too much to say! I found that on Wednesday morning when I took 40 minutes of an hour’s tour in the first room – with two more rooms to go. But don’t worry, I really will edit down and show you the best! The exhibition focusses on four superb women artists who were not only innovative, but also highly successful. And yet they are relatively unknown today. Käthe Kollwitz is probably the most familiar of the artists, and I was also aware of (but not familiar with) Paula Modersohn-Becker’s work. I knew Gabriele Münter’s name, but I don’t think I’d ever seen any of her paintings. Marianne Werefkin, on the other hand, is completely new to me – and a great discovery. There are also three ‘guest’ artists – but more of them on Monday. The following week I will move on to The Childhood of Christ, which I will discuss over the four Mondays in Advent – but can more details about those talks can be found via the links in the diary. Art History Abroad have now announced their tour schedule for the first half of 2023, including a trip I am taking to Amsterdam to see the Vermeer exhibitions in Amsterdam and Delft. But for today I want to look at the ‘Poster Woman’ of Making Modernism, Anna Roslund, as painted by Gabriele Münter. I would say ‘Poster Girl’, but recently had my wrist slapped for my careless use of language…
I’m afraid I can tell you relatively little about Anna Roslund herself, but we get a strong sense of her character just by looking at this portrait. Apart from anything else, how many women have you ever seen smoking a pipe? I know there are some famous examples in history, but I can’t for the life of me remember who they are. ‘Women smoking’ is something one didn’t used to see (a long, long time ago), and ‘women smoking a pipe’ make up an even smaller sub-group. This bold gesture is combined with an open pose, left arm resting on the arm of the chair, with her head resting on her left hand. The right arm is tucked in, holding the pipe to the mouth. Add to that the strong, bold colours of the outfit, royal blue and black, heightened by the bright red of the pom-pom (?) in front of her chest, and you have a strong sense of individuality, the image of self-confidence.
Anna Roslund has the clearest, light-blue, piercing eyes, and a stylish haircut, apparently bobbed with a fringe (although we can’t see what it’s like behind), which makes me think more of the 1920s than 1917. She is clearly a serious, thoughtful woman, her head tilted to one side and her eyes gazing into the middle distance some way above our left shoulders. Like Rodin’s Thinker, with his chin on his fist, or Dalí’s Narcissus, who we saw last week, his chin on his knee, the head leaning on the hand adds to the sense of contemplation, albeit in a different way. Each finger is clearly demarcated (although the little finger is oddly truncated – I don’t know whether that was an anatomical fact, or an artistic abbreviation), and there is a clear space through to the light background. Presumably, given the curtain, this is a view through a window, with broad, light brushstrokes of white and pink over a darker ground, giving an idea of a light, but cloudy sky. The curtain itself, in a deep turquoise, is angled parallel to the tilt of the head, and completes the ‘virtual’ pyramid which gives this composition – and Anna Roslund – stability, and strength of presence. Another note of stability is the horizontal of the arm, marked strongly by the contrast between the upper edge of the blue sleeve and the light background (and see how the thumb and fingers echo shapes of the arm and head).
Roslund is clearly comfortable in this chair, and I love the way in which the curve of her right shoulder, clad in blue and enhanced by a subtle black outline, echoes the curve of the left arm of the chair – it is as if she is a completion of the chair on that side. The chair itself, with the yellow arm given texture and form by the darker brushstrokes, is painted in a similar technique and colour to Van Gogh’s more famous example, a symbolic self portrait (having said that, having posted the pictures, the chair looks more violet than it did in the file on my laptop!). Indeed, as we shall see on Monday, Münter was an admirer of the Dutchman’s work, even naming her house in the country ‘The Yellow House’, as a nod to his home in Arles.
The arms of the chair curve round and in before flaring out again, as if hugging the sitter. The right arm (seen on our left) is more brightly illuminated, and, as a result, appears to be a different colour (but with colour, everything is relative – see above). The left arm (on our right) reminds me of the roads you see in some Dutch landscape paintings, which start in the bottom corner of the painting, and lead you into the middle ground, as if the artist is expecting you to go on a journey with him (I don’t think there was a woman who painted landscapes in the Dutch Golden Age). I think the same is true here: Münter is using these arms, particular the one on our right, to lead our eye into the painting – and also, as the corners of the pyramidal composition.
I’m not an expert of women’s dress (nor of men’s, for that matter), but the blue top appears to continue as an open overskirt, framing the sleeker black skirt. Either that, or she is sitting on a blue cushion of the same hue as her blouse. Whatever it is, this blue, and the uncovered section of the seat of the chair, both form triangles pointing up towards Roslund’s face. Her left leg is crossed over her right – again, a confidence in her body language which we might not think of as ‘lady-like’ for the first half of the 20th Century. The black outlines to the blue blouse might relate to the clothing itself, or they may be the result of Münter’s interest in Bavarian folk art, particular reverse glass painting (painted on one side of the glass, to be seen from the other), which often had rich, jewel-like colours separated by black outlines, a cloisonné effect not unlike stained glass windows.
So who was this remarkable, stylish, self-confident, thoughtful woman? Well, a musician and author at the forefront of the Danish Avant Garde, but that is as far as I can get, I’m afraid. Münter met her while living in Copenhagen during the First World War. However, I can tell you that Anna Roslund had a sister called Nell, who was an artist, and who married a man called Herwath Walden in 1912. And it is this that makes the portrait a key image for Making Modernism, one theme of which is the nature of artistic communities and the resulting dissemination of ideas. From 1910 Walden published a weekly journal dedicated to modern art (monthly from 1914-1924). It was called Der Sturm – ‘The Storm’ – the title expressing Walden’s conviction that that was how modern art was going to take Germany. His focus was on Cubism and Futurism (he effectively introduced these movements to the German public) and also on the burgeoning German Expressionist movement. In 1912, the year in which he and Nell Roslund married, they opened an art gallery in Berlin under the same name. Both Gabriele Münter and Marianne Werefkin were exhibited regularly, as was Dutch artist Jacoba van Heemskerck, one of the ‘guests’ in the RA’s treasure trove of an exhibition. Münter’s introduction to today’s sitter came via her gallerist, effectively. It might even have been this connection that took her to Copenhagen.
One question remains: if these artists were so successful when they were alive, why is their work so little known today? One reason, for the British at least – apart from the fact that the men they were associated with took all the limelight – is that there is very little of their work in public collections (Kollwitz excepted – but hers are works on paper which are rarely on display). This portrait is one of the few which has been borrowed from a British institution. It forms part of Leicester’s notable collection of German Expressionism, one of the rich seams of great art which, when you find them, are a surprising, but rewarding, feature of our regional museums. As to how they came to acquire this remarkable body of work – well, that’s another story. For now, though, I can highly recommend Making Modernism at the Royal Academy as a way of discovering – or, if you know them already, familiarizing yourselves with – some great and unjustly neglected artists.