An Expressionist Masterpiece by the Pioneer of Abstract Art
Wassily Kandinsky, Murnau – Landschaft mit grünem Haus, oil on board, 1909 (est. £15-25 million)Helena Newman, Global Co-Head of Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Art Department & Chairman of Sotheby’s Europe, said:
“Kandinsky’s major early work Murnau – Landschaft mit grünem Haus is a blazing celebration of colour that captures the moment of transition in the artist’s career when he is on the cusp of moving from figuration to abstraction. Many of his important paintings from this highly sought-after period are housed in major museums, so this work surfacing from a private collection after almost a century represents a tremendously appealing opportunity for collectors worldwide.”
Kandinsky was at the forefront of the momentous changes that were to transform the face of art history and it was in the critical year of 1909 that the artist took his first steps along the path towards creating something radically new. Works from this transformative expressionist year are rare to the market, attracting strong interest whenever they appear (in 2012, another painting from 1909 made $23 million to establish a record for the artist that was only recently eclipsed). This summer, Sotheby’s will bring to the market one of the finest early works by Kandinsky left in private hands. Having remained in the private collection of the same family since the 1920s, Murnau – Landschaft mit grünem Haus will appear at auction for the first time with an estimate of £15-25 million.
In the summer of 1908 Kandinsky and his companion Gabriele Münter, together with artist friends including Jawlensky, summered in the Bavarian mountain village of Murnau. The surrounding dramatic mountain landscapes with their bucolic atmosphere and picturesque viewpoints were to inform his move into Abstraction. Kandinsky pioneered a style of Expressionism that was fuelled by an explosion of pure colour, applied in brushstrokes of thick paint. The artist was deeply impacted by the Fauve invention of a vibrant modern palette, by Paul Cézanne’s breaking up of form and structure as well as by Vincent van Gogh’s transformation of the landscape. In this richly-coloured and dynamic painting, Kandinsky embraces and fuses these three revolutionary approaches to painting and transforms these elements to create an intensely expressive style that was ground-breaking.
Kandinsky’s use of colour was essentially fuelled by a belief in a spiritual reality that could only be discovered through the evocative possibilities of music and colour on the senses. The blue in this painting has a strong dominating presence and was in many ways the most important colour to the artist – the most spiritual of all.
Murnau – Landschaft mit grünem Haus was first exhibited at The Royal Albert Hall in 1910, when it was chosen to represent the artist at The London Salon of the Allied Artists' Association. The AAA was founded by Frank Rutter, an art critic of The Sunday Times newspaper, with the aim of providing a platform for the promotion of modernist art in Britain. This firmly placed Kandinsky at the forefront of the contemporary art scene in Europe, with his works deeply resonating with those of the Bloomsbury Group. Following this, in 1912 it was exhibited at Herwarth Walden’s revolutionary gallery Der Sturm in his first major retrospective.
This early exhibition history places the painting at the very heart of Kandinsky’s critical importance. Just under a century later, the painting returned to London as part of a landmark show at the Tate Modern in 2006. A sensation in the art world and the public alike, the exhibition followed Kandinsky’s intriguing journey from figurative landscape painter to master of abstraction. The painting has for many years been on loan to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, with a smaller-scale study of it in the collection of the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.
Joan Miró’s Femme et oiseaux
A mesmerising example of Joan Miró’s celebrated lyricism and freedom of expression during the Second World War, Femme et oiseaux is the eighth in the extraordinary series of twenty-three Constellations that are considered the masterpieces of his prolific oeuvre. At the time of painting, Miró was deeply anguished about the political situation in both Spain and France and profoundly concerned about both countries’ future. In this work, a number of vibrant forms join together in frenzied activity to create a united cosmic vision and it was in this otherworldly subject-matter that the artist found a much needed escape. The painting does not even hint at the relentless progress of the forces of oppression, instead the artist looks to the beauty and poetry of the world that still prevailed. Appearing on the market for the first time in thirty years, the masterful Femme et oiseaux will lead Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale on 21 June in London.
Thomas Bompard, Head of Sotheby’s London Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sales, said: “It’s tempting to reference the stars aligning this season, with the rarity of offering a painting from a body of work that has such as mythical status. The universal appreciation for Miro’s Constellation series - not only as Miro’s greatest achievement but also as one of the most groundbreaking and celebrated bodies of work by any 20th century artist - comes into sharp focus when standing in front of Femme et oiseaux. We have no doubt that in the minds of collectors from around the world this is an exceptional opportunity – the last time one of the Constellations was sold at auction was at Sotheby’s in 2001.”
A JOURNEY OF CREATION & RESISTANCE
Over the course of almost two years, from January 1940 to September 1941, Miró worked on the Constellations with a seamless devotion and unrelenting concentration that distracted him from the hostile political climate of war-torn France and later Spain. Femme et oiseaux is one of the first ten compositions the artist executed during his exile in France following the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Miró was living in the village of Varengeville on the coast of Normandy, where he could work in tranquil seclusion whilst also being inspired by the dramatic cliffs and constantly changing sky and seascape.
In May 1940, only weeks after Miró executed this work, Germany invaded Paris and the artist fled to Spain. In a letter to Roland Penrose, the artist wrote about the tumultuous journey through war-torn France that interrupted the execution of the series: taking the last train, his wife held the hand of his young daughter, “while I carried under my arm the satchel with a series of already-finished Constellations and the sheets of paper which would be used for the complete series”. Barely managing to leave France, Miró settled in his wife’s town of Palma de Mallorca, where he completed the next set of Constellations. The small size of the works is an indication that Miró knew that he might have to be on the move at any moment, and so the series was all portable.
The delicate technique that Miró used was to brush, scrape, polish, moisten and rub the ground of the paper, creating the gradated and textured pockets of light and dark that convey the celestial boundlessness in which the objects float. Interspersed amidst the crescent moon, suns, comets and stars are pseudo-sexual amoeboid shapes and fragmented body parts. The picture is then enlivened with swirling lines that shape and direct the flow of energy. Jacques Dupin wrote of the Constellations, “never before has his ‘touch’ been so delicate or so subtle in the sensual animation of pigments”.
UNVEILING IN AMERICA & LEGACY
The works were an example of resistance – expressing a ‘spirit of revolt’ through the unconstrained freedom of the composition. The French poet André Breton, considered the founder of Surrealism, wrote about the series that “a great stroke of fortune decreed that, shortly after the allied landing, Miró’s Constellations comprised the first message relating to art to reach America from Europe since the beginning of the war. It would be impossible to overestimate the depth of the gap that this message filled”.
Throughout this time, Miró was aware that he was producing something special – writing, “I feel that it is one of the most important things I have done” – yet the series was hidden away until 1944 when he began making arrangements for the group to be revealed in public. First intended for The Museum of Modern Art in New York, twenty-two of the works arrived in the United States in July 1944 – with one having been kept for the artist’s wife. However, once they arrived, MoMA was not able to cover the significant cost of shipping in the context of the war, Miró’s New York dealer Pierre Matisse took responsibility for the entire group. The resulting exhibition in January – February 1945 caused a sensation in New York and was universally praised. Reviewing the show for the New York Sun, a critic wrote that “it is impossible to pick out the best picture in the display because all of the twenty-two pictures are the best”.
The legacy of Miró’s Constellations in art is profound, particularly his impact on American art. The artist set a precedent for Jackson Pollock and his use of a starry sky as a subject for avantgarde abstract expressionist paintings, with Pollock’s own Constellation painted in 1946. Although they were separated from each other by geography and war, Miró was also on a parallel course with Alexander Calder – who, at the Pierre Matisse Gallery, had introduced a new category of work Constellaciónes in 1943.
‘After the Nazi invasion of France and Franco’s victory, I was sure they wouldn’t let me go on painting, that I would only be able to go to the beach and draw in the sand or draw figures with the smoke from my cigarette. When I was painting the Constellations I had the genuine feeling that I was working in secret, but it was a liberation for me in that I ceased thinking about the tragedy all around me. While I was working, my suffering stopped… I gave the paintings very poetic titles because that was the line I had chosen to take and because the only thing left for me in the world then was poetry’--Joan Miró