The Lost Murnau Scene
August 22, 2015
Often when traveling, doing research for a book, I come across a setting, a character, or both together, and fall in love, and just know I have to write about it. While visiting Germany, gathering information for my novel THE WOMAN WHO HEARD COLOR, my husband and I visited the beautiful little village of Murnau and toured the house where Wassily Kandinsky and his mistress, Gabrielle Münter, lived and painted together during the summers of the pre-war years from 1909 to 1914.
For an early version of my novel (told by Hanna in first person for this particular draft) I wrote a scene with Hanna and Willy visiting Gabrielle after Kandinsky has fled back to Russia at the onset of World War I.
In the published novel, Gabrielle is mentioned, but takes on a minor role.
So what does a writer do with unused scenes? Undeveloped characters?
Here, I wish to share this one with you, my readers:
It was late spring, a beautiful day. We sat outside in the garden. Gabrielle had set up watercolors for Willy, and he was painting a picture for her. The house, a quaint barn-like structure was set on the hillside with a lovely view of the village, the steeple of the church dominating the skyline. I could see as we sat in the garden why the couple had chosen this lovely little village to feed them with inspiration. The light was exquisite.
The Russian’s House had been a gathering place for many of the artists with whom Kandinsky and Gabriele collaborated. Jawlensky and Marianne von Werefkin had first discovered the area and invited Gabriele and Kandinsky to come visit. They too had fallen in love with the village and the country surrounding it, the lakes, the light, the colors. The Blue Rider group had gathered here and worked on their first almanac.
Gabriele had spent the past five years traveling, staying with relatives and friends, perhaps too sad to return to this place where she and Kandinsky had shared so much. But in her heart, I think Murnau was always the place she loved best. She would leave again, finally settling back in Murnau in the early thirties.
“It’s difficult without him,” she said, looking down toward the village. I knew they had both set up their easels on this very spot, and I could barely look without images of the paintings—the flowers, the village, the church steeple rising up into the colored clouds and sky—flashing before my eyes. How painful this must be for her. How very brave of her to return. Surely she had come home to paint again.
We brought out tea and cakes, and served them from a small table in the garden. “Chocolate,” she said, taking a bite. “A brief cure for the pain in the head. A little sugar and cocoa. Ah, but the pain in the heart,” she added dramatically, emitting a sad ironic laugh.
“A little cure is better than none,” I agreed. Gabriele knew that I too had some discontent in my own life. A lovely husband, but sometimes when he was there, he really wasn’t with me. I wondered if it had been thus with the first two wives. Surely not with Helene, but perhaps because she, in her own way, withdrew, it was Moses who reached out to her. Perhaps I was too independent, appearing as if I needed less than Helene.
“We worked so well together,” Gabriele said. “The painting—maybe that’s all it ever was, just the work.” There was defeat in her voice, and anger too. “The garden, we spend hours working the soil, planting, growing, harvesting.” She placed her teacup in the saucer. “Come,” she said, and then stood and motioned me to follow. I took Willy’s fingers, covered with bright colors from the paint, reached for a nearby watering can, sprinkled his hands, rubbed off the paint, rinsed, and dried them with my napkin. I kissed his chubby little fingers, part of our ritual. He patted me on the cheek, and then we all went inside. It was a plain interior with basic furnishings. Both she and Kandinsky had painted primitive motifs and folk art on the rustic furniture. Kandinsky’s familiar rider galloped in bright colors along the stairway panel and banister. An influence from Franz von Stuck, I thought tenderly. She motioned us down to the lower level of the home.
Gabriele turned on the light. Canvases were propped up against the walls. “My legacy,” she said ruefully.
I could see some were Gabriele’s, but most of them were Kandinsky’s.
She laughed cheerlessly. “He couldn’t take them with him, being the enemy, and he was rather in a hurry.” She seemed to emphasize, the word enemy as if she were using it in a very personal way, and I thought how it is always those we love who can hurt us the most.
I examined each piece carefully. The colors, the sounds were jumping not only on the canvas, but in my ears. Willy too was taking it in, grinning, humming that little tune as he did when he was pleased. That made me smile.
At times their work looked like it came from the same hand, the same brush. I knew they had often shared a palette. Though there were those subtle differences—like fingerprints, like signatures, each with their own individual imprint. But often, in later years when Kandinsky was being hailed as the inventor of modern art, I would think of Gabriele and wonder if it was she who should have been given much of this credit.
“He has a Russian wife,” she said. “Do you know they have a son?”
I’d heard. Gabriele herself had earlier written me. I knew of the Russian wife and son. “We were together for almost a dozen years,” she went on, “And now it is as if it didn’t matter. He married her, as if we never existed. Married her within months of his return to Russia after we were together. Do you know he had not the decency to break it off, when he knew all along that this is what he wanted. To end it with me. He said, that last day in Stockholm, that we would be together after all this.”
She should have known, I thought, but remained silent. I knew she did not need me to comment. What could I say? I had heard the story over and over again in her letters. I wished she could let it go, but perhaps letting a lover go is near impossible.
“Oh, my dearest Wassily,” she said with a wry laugh, “the honorable Russian, brave, distinguished, full of self-confidence, and he couldn’t come out and say, it’s over, my sweet Ella. He never intended to marry me. Ever.”
I knew he had loved her, but perhaps she needed more than he could give her. The Russian woman he married was not well educated. She was half his age. At times, I knew Gabriele could be difficult, depressed, and unhappy. There had been rifts between some of the other artists, Marc in particular, and Kandinsky had to come in and smooth things over. I knew there had been problems with Gabriele and some of the dealers, though neither Moses nor I had difficulties with her. A woman in a man’s world. Oh, yes, I knew how that could be. And perhaps we were regarded as being a little tough, a bit unfeminine. But then turn it around and we would be called overly emotional.
I thought briefly of my own marriage, of Moses, how at times I too felt it was not enough. I looked around the room at the beautiful colors, the paintings, and knew there had been a marriage of sorts between Gabriele and Kandinsky. He couldn’t have done this without her. Perhaps a more perfect union of inspiration and creativity had never existed.
“At times,” she said, “I feel like setting the entire place afire.”
“Gabriele, no,” I said softly.
“No fire,” Willy said looking from me to Fraulein Münter with confused eyes. He had been very quiet until now, almost disappearing as we conversed.
“No fire,” she reassured Willy, patting him on the head affectionately. To me she said, “Then my better judgment takes over.”
I thought about making an offer. There were several I would have loved to add to our own personal collection. The dealer in me could see there was a great profit to be made in such a collection. But I also knew it would be like offering a mother a price for her children. Gabriele and I were friends and I would put these professional inclinations aside for the day. She was a widow in mourning.
We went for a lovely walk that afternoon, through the green pastures along a tree lined lane, across the road from the house, Willy tagging along beside us. The neighbors’ dog had joined us, running ahead, then circling back, rubbing his wet noise up against Willy’s warm, happy little smile, causing him to giggle.
“I wish there had been a child,” Gabriele said. Years ago, I don’t think she would have said this. With the travels, the painting, the exhibitions and publication, there wouldn’t have been time. And she was a respectable woman. I don’t think she would have wanted a child without marriage. Not then. I always knew this bothered her—being the mistress. But I thought that day in Murnau as we walked, that she would have been happy if there had been a child, even if they had never married. But who knows what might make us happy if it never happens.
“Perhaps the paintings are to be my children,” she said. “What we have created together.”
The thoughts that were in my own head, but I left it at that, Gabriele’s own realization. I knew she needed to see this on her own. It would take many years before she would recover, if she ever did. Many years before she would return to Murnau and establish her permanent home here, give up her constant travels to look elsewhere for her happiness and begin to create again.
Kandinsky would never return to Murnau, though he would come back to Germany a year after Willy’s and my visit with Gabriele, first to Berlin, then to Weimar when he was asked to teach at the Bauhaus school by its founder Walter Gropius.
Gabriele left abruptly again just days after Willy and I visited. When she was away, I would often hear from her—the letters. She was aware Kandinsky had returned. She was also aware, as was I, that he had lost his only child, his little son when he was barely three. There would be no heirs.
The paintings she would protect through yet another war.