A Journey to the Land of Better Knowledge – Paul Klee, German Expressionism, and Undiscovered Museums in Bavaria (Tiger Gao, ’21)

When one thinks about art museums in Munich, Germany, it is natural to first arrive at the Pinakotheks, where some of the world’s most famous paintings reside, or the Lenbachhaus, a place with so much symbolic significance for the German Expressionist movement. I, luckily, got to see the other side of Bavaria’s art scene as I traveled to small towns near Munich in the past few weeks.

In Kochel, a small town around an hour south from Munich, the Franz Marc Museum is hosting a temporary exhibition on Paul Klee’s landscape paintings – A Small Journey to the Land of Better Knowledge. As one of the most innovative avant-garde artists of the 20th century, Klee conveys the romantic and defends the irrational with his deep belief that art and aesthetics must come from within. His style varied drastically throughout his career, sometimes abstracting the Bavarian landscape into a few strokes of lines, sometimes conveying a sense of mystery through black suns and red skies… What never changed, however, is the high tension, the brilliant color scheme, and the profound symbolic meaning behind every one of his paintings. And, according to Klee in his Creative Confession, both the processes of creating and viewing artworks are a kind of wandering movement, or more poetically, a “little journey into the land of better knowledge.”

Franz Marc Museum

Paul Klee, The Idea of the Towers, 1918, photographed at the special exhibition Construction of Mystery at Pinakothek der Modernen, Munich

Paul Klee, Journey in Space, 1929, photographed at the special exhibition Construction of Mystery at Pinakothek der Modernen, Munich

The Buchheim Museum holds an impressive Expressionist collection of works by artists like Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Otto Müller, Erich Heckel, and Emil Nolde. All these artists are considered founding members of the “Bridge” (Die Brücke), one of the two major Expressionist groups at the time. Founded in Dresden and dedicated to self-discovery and the connection between the past and future, artists in the Bridge used visible brushstrokes, an unnaturalistic use of color, and often disquieting, grotesque figures to express their emotions. The artists cared more about conveying the psychological experiences and dramatic effects than merely presenting the scene.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Huge Forest, 1931

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Interior with Artists, 1920

Max Kaus, People on the Street, 1920

The Buchheim Museum is designed to resemble the shape of a ship, with a bridge extending out over the Starnberg Lake (Starnberger See). Standing on the bridge, one can have a panoramic view of the lake. The Museum is perhaps one of the most beautiful pieces of architecture I’ve seen in my life. Deep in the natural, organic Bavarian landscape and next to the profound blue of the Starnberg Lake, the Museum fits in perfectly with its elegant structure. The only thing I might complain about this utopian region is that the Museum is situated deep in the woods in the middle of nowhere, and there’s no convenient way getting to it besides a ship or taxi. The Expressionists might not have expected their “emotional effects” and “psychological experiences” to be so difficult to reach for 21st-century viewers…

View of the Starnberg Lake on the bridge of Buchheim Museum

After a 30-minute train ride down south from the Buchheim Museum, I arrived in Murnau, a place especially known for its connection to “The Blue Rider,” the other major Expressionist group. Gabriele Münter, a member of the group known for her ability to simplify subjects with an accurate style, acquired a house here in 1909 and started one of the most productive periods of her career. Münter and Kandinsky gathered often in the house, as depicted in the painting Kandinsky und Erma Bossi at Table. Inside the house, exotic paintings are hung on walls and nearly all furnitures contain Expressionistic decorative elements. The reduction of forms and clear color contrasts developed by Münter and Kandinsky during this period marked further growth of the Blue Rider’s distinct style. 

Münter House, Murnau, Bavaria

Furniture in the Münter House, Murnau, Bavaria

Interior of the Münter House, Murnau, Bavaria

Murnau is one of the best examples of Bavaria’s unexpected connection to The Blue Rider. While the movement was founded in Munich, the artists traveled throughout the countryside and left their footprints. Marc and Kandinsky gave the name The Blue Rider first to their Almanac published in 1912. They also organized an exhibition in Munich under this name that brought together a variety of avant-garde artists at the time, and even some folk art and Asian art. The founders of the movement believed that all these art forms embodied spirituality, much contrary to the prevailing materialism at the time that they despised. Marc and Kandinsky yearned to overcome anything temporal by giving color and shapes symbolic and poetic values.

Gabriele Münter, Kandinsky und Erma Bossi at Table, 1909/10, Schloßmuseum Murnau

Gabriele Münter, Painting of a Woman, 1909, Schloßmuseum Murnau

Left: Gabriele Münter, Snow Melt, 1934, Schloßmuseum Murnau
Right: Gabriele Münter, Misty Sun over the Lake, 1931, Schloßmuseum Murnau

While Munich is a well-known tourist destination and cultural capital that seems to capture everyone’s attention, its art museums don’t include everything Bavaria has to offer. Out there in the lush forests and beautiful lakes, there exist tiny towns like Kochel, Starnberg, and Murnau that are equally worthy of any art lover’s visit. In fact, to really understand the German Expressionists, we may have to go out of the big cities, tread their paths across the “Bayerische Landschaft,” and appreciate the spirit the rural lands have to offer. There’s something special about the Bavarian countryside that so uniquely captures the charm of this land – “the land of better knowledge,” perhaps.