By Kramer, Hilton
New Criterion , Vol. 22, No. 4
Like many of the avant-garde groups that broke away from existing institutions in the early years of the twentieth century, the circle of modernist painters that came to be known as the Blue Rider in Munich in 1911 owed its existence to a quarrel with authority. In the case of the Blue Rider painters, however, the quarrel was not with a benighted academy but with another artists' group--the New Artists Association of Munich--that had been founded only two years earlier, in 1909, to foster the fortunes of the avant-garde. No less a modernist firebrand than the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky had been elected president of the New Artists group, yet this did not prevent the chairman of its exhibition committee from summarily rejecting a large abstract painting by Kandinsky--his Composition V (1911)--that had been submitted to the Association's third exhibition in 1911. Kandinsky's newly emergent art of abstraction proved to be too radical even for the "advanced" standards of the New Artists Association.
It was this rejection that prompted Kandinsky to resign his presidency and organize the Blue Rider as an alternative avant-garde, and in this endeavor he was joined by two German painters--Gabriele Munter and Franz Marc--who had also been members of the New Artist Association. They were soon joined by two other Russians--Alexei von Jawlensky and Marianne yon Werefkin. None but Kandinsky was an abstractionist, yet they nonetheless looked upon Kandinsky as their leader, and it is one of the curiosities of Blue Rider history, which has long been associated with the birth of abstraction, that Kandinsky remained the only dedicated abstractionist in the group. So swiftly did this imbroglio in the ranks of the Munich avant-garde unfold that the first Blue Rider exhibition opened on the same day and in the same space--the Moderne Galerie Tannhauser--where the last exhibition of the New Artists Association closed.
It has to be remembered that in the early decades of the twentieth century virtually all of the world's established museums were firmly closed to modernist endeavors. Artists of this controversial persuasion were thus obliged to organize their own exhibitions. In the German-speaking art world, these artists were often called Secessionists; in France, and subsequently in the United States, they called themselves Independents. Some of these exhibitions were mounted on a huge scale. This was the period in which Roger Fry and his Bloomsbury friends organized the first Post-Impressionist exhibition in London, in 1910, and a similar group of American artists and critics--among them, Robert Henri, Walter Pach, Walt Kuhn, and Arthur B. Davies--organized the Armory Show in New York in 1913. The latter, in turn, was much influenced by the 1912 Sonderbund exhibition in Cologne, which the Americans took as their model.
While the two exhibitions organized by the Blue Rider--Munich 1911, Berlin 1912--were far more modest in scale, they were similarly conceived to embrace an international avant-garde. In the first, the School of Paris was represented by Robert Delaunay and the revered but already deceased Henri Rousseau, and the Russian avant-garde by the Burliuk brothers as well as Kandinsky, who published his manifesto in defense of abstract painting, On the Spiritual in Art, at the same time. The American avant-garde was represented, somewhat lamely, by a single painter, Albert Bloch, who is mainly remembered today, to the extent that he is remembered at all, for his brief association with the Blue Rider group. The 1912 show in Berlin added Picasso, Braque, Vlaminck, and Klee to the Blue Rider's roster, but by then the Blue Rider was already unraveling as a distinct group, and the outbreak of the first World War, in which both Franz Marc and August Macke perished in combat, brought its short-lived history to a close. Kandinsky, who had given the group its name with his drawing of a blue rider on horseback for the cover of the Blue Rider Almanac, remained its one and only major artist. …