DETAIL: Marianne von Werefkin (Russian; 1860–1938). Stormy Night (Sturmwind), 1915–1917. Oil on canvas; 18.7″ × 24.4″. Albertina Museum, Vienna, Austria. Public Domain.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Marianne von Werefkin (1860–1938) was born a baroness in tsarist Russia. Her mother was a painter; her father, a military general. Her talent emerged early; at age 14 she began her formal studies. Trained privately by the most preeminent painter of the day, Ilya Repin, she excelled under his tutelage. As a portraitist, Werefkin’s work brought her fame, becoming known as the “Russian Rembrandt.”
While in her formative years, she was an active member of the avant-garde, hosting salons to discuss art theory and the groundbreaking changes in art taking place in Europe. In 1892 she met a young soldier with aspirations of becoming a painter: Alexej Jawlensky (1864–1941 ), and thus began a 29-year odyssey that is one of the most unusual in Western art history.
After her father’s death, Werefkin received a pension that allowed her to travel and live comfortably. She and Jawlensky left Russia in 1896 and settled in Munich. They quickly found a community of like-minded artists in the city’s avant-garde.
“I want to work. It is an obsession. I am
gnawed at the heart by an excruciating desire to
manipulate color … I see figures, with an incredible
intensity, pass before my eyes.”
Marianne von Werefkin (1860–1938)
As she had in Russia, Werefkin hosted salons. Once settled, she decided to stop painting in order to wholly promote and support Jawlensky’s career. Her self-imposed hiatus lasted 10 years, during which time she wrote extensively in her journals, including early theories on color theory and abstraction.
The decade-long break ended with a revived energy and style. “In 1906, after a 10-year pause, the 46-year-old Werefkin once again took a brush in her hands, but now she was a completely different sort of artist. Everything changed in her art: from the technique—she now used only distemper—to the style reflecting the daring and the innovative tendencies of symbolism, fauvism and cloisonnism, which attracted her so strongly in the French masters’ art” (www.tretyakovgallerymagazine.com).
In addition to Jawlensky, Werefkin’s circle of artist-friends, such as Wassily Kandinsky, Gabriele Münter, and Paul Klee, place her squarely in the epicenter of early 20th-century modernism. She was once referred to as “The Midwife of Abstraction.”
Werefkin and Jawlensky separated in 1921. She eventually settled in the small Swiss village of Ascona. She continued to work, exhibit and gather artists to discuss art theory and exchange ideas. At her death, she left a large collection of her work to the town, now housed in The Ascona Museum of Modern Art.
ABOUT THE ARTWORK
The Russian painter Marianne von Werefkin once said, “Color bites at my heart.” Her words would be a fitting caption to her painting, Stormy Night (Sturmwind). Painted between 1915 and 1917, after Werefkin had relocated to Switzerland from Germany, the scene depicts a night cafe under a moonlit sky.
In the background, a lonely tower sits atop a hill, nearly swallowed up by the inky, heavily painted sky that recalls Vincent van Gogh. Three figures move forlornly toward the entrance, drawn to the blazing red cafe door. The figure on the right hunches against the elements, mirroring the trees that lean from an unseen wind.
The interior of the establishment, a flat-roofed structure akin to a lean-to, is ablaze with electric light. The glow of the pendants pulsate, calling to mind van Gogh’s The Night Cafe (1888). Like van Gogh’s iconic interior, sulfuric yellow fills and pours out of the space simultaneously, gushing through the windows and spilling onto the road like a incandescent puddle.
The upper third of the painting is dominated by the night sky and five haunting, silhouetted trees that form an arch over the cafe, appearing more alive that the cafe dwellers. Bare, black trees were a common element in her art. “In Werefkin’s work, concrete motifs are transformed into painful and extreme expressionistic scenes because she uses a simplified rhythmic composition, primitive drawing, and bright striking colors” (www.lituanus.org/2003/03_4_03.htm). “Striking colors” that inject the pulse of life into the melancholy of a stormy night.
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From The January 2016 Issue Of Arts & Activities
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