The Brief Yet Extraordinary Art Movement of Der Blaue Reiter Group

Only lasting about three years, Der Blaue Reiter was a cornerstone movement in Expressionism. Read more on the members of this eccentric artist group who helped pioneer modern era art.

Oct 24, 2020By Adrienne Howell, BA Integrated Studio Arts & BS Apparel Design
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Blaues Pferd I (Blue Horse I) by Franz Marc, 1911, via Lenbachhaus Museum, Munich; Franz Marc Photograph, 1910; Draft Cover of Der Blaue Reiter Almanac by Wassily Kandinsky, 1911, via Lenbachhaus Museum, Munich; Wassily Kandinsky Photograph, via Leicester Museum


The beginning of the 20th century brought with it revolutions and advancements in the way art was viewed and created. Der Blaue Reiter or The Blue Rider Group was founded in Munich, Germany in response against “traditional” methods of art. Their art explored the relationships between art, music, color, and spiritualism. Even though the group was short-lived their art and ideas contributed to the development of German Expressionism. 


The Beginning Of Der Blaue Reiter

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Der Blaue Berg (Blue Mountain) by Wassily Kandinsky, 1908/09, via The Guggenheim Museum, New York


The group was founded by a blend of Russian emigrants and native German artists in 1911. Some of the group’s most recognizable names include Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc who were the principal members that shaped the group’s overall vision. Other artists include Alexej Von Jawlensky, Gabriele Münter, Marianne Von Werefkin, August Macke, and Paul Klee. They formed the group in rejection of another German artistic movement, Neue Künstlervereinigung München (Munich New Association of Artists). They strived to create a new wave of modern art that separated themselves from the conventional and conformist art of their predecessors. They became interested in creating art that expressed emotions rather than depicting literal scenes. While each individual artist approached subject matter and technique differently they all shared the same ideas of creating art as a connection to the spiritual through the use of color.


The Meaning Behind The Name Der Blaue Reiter

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Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) by Wassily Kandinsky, 1903


The naming of the group can be simplified in that Marc liked horses and Kandinsky liked riders, so together they created the name Der Blaue Reiter. However, there is more substance to the reason why horses, riders, and the color meant so much to this group and contributed to their name and lasting identity.


The painting The Blue Rider is seen as the painting that became the basis for the name of Der Blaue Reiter group. Kandinsky painted the image in 1903, and it is one of the first paintings where he transitioned into a more abstract style. The rider in the name came to symbolize the transition from the physical world to the spiritual. This idea is from the medieval Christian warriors and knights, such as Saint George, which inspired the group. The story of Saint George slaying a dragon plays a major role in the early works of Kandinsky. To them, this represented the death of the old and the birth of a beginning. The rider is the carrier of a divine awakening and a rebirth of art. The members of Der Blaue Reiter saw the materialism of their age as a block against the spiritual understanding of the mind and soul.

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Die grossen blauen Pferde (The Large Blue Horses) by Franz Marc, 1911, via Walker Art Center, Minneapolis


The color blue became the literal manifestation of the transcendent and divine that these artists used in their art. Blue was seen as the most spiritual and calming color that is consistently seen in a variety of the group’s artworks. Blue was frequently used in conjunction with Franz Marc’s horses as together they represent the traveling of the material world to a more heavenly one. Blue is also connected to masculinity while yellow was more feminine. Red represented the physical and natural world compared to the otherworldliness of the color blue. The combination of blue and the rider represents the battle between good versus evil. To them, the evils of the early 20th century were modern technologies, sciences, and urban industrialism.


The Almanac Of Der Blaue Reiter

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Der Blaue Reiter Almanac Cover by Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, and Jean Arp, 1914, via Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto


The “Blaue Reiter” Almanac is a collection of essays, illustrations, and musical scores that has become the basis for the group’s objectives. On the cover of the book is the group’s emblem of Saint George. The first edition included 1200 copies with 50 deluxe editions that include woodcuts by Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc. The limited edition woodcuts titled (Bogenschütze) Archer, by Kandinsky; and Fabeltier (Fantastic Creature), by Marc only appear in the first edition. The group only published this first book as the First World War interrupted plans for a second. The book also contains musical scores by Arnold Schönberg and Alexander Scriabin with Schönberg contributing an essay as well as sheet music for three compositions. Kandinsky’s Yellow Sound (Der gelbe Klang) is also included. The book contained not only images of work by the group, but other artists including Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, and Henri Matisse.


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Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) by Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky, 1912, via Museum of Fine Arts Boston


There are also images of Medieval, Renaissance, folk-art, and non-European works of art. This included African statues, Asian ink drawings, folk art, and reverse glass paintings from Bavaria. The untrained artists and folk artists whose art would have been called “primitive” during that time inspired their art. The simple abstraction of forms and subject matter lead members of the group to create imagery that deflected more and more from the natural world. What makes this book important is the collaborative effort that was put into its making. By placing images of art from a wide range of cultures, artists, musicians, and critics, it showed that all art could live simultaneously in one space. It shows that there is room for all types of art and how much each one influences the other.


The Influence Of Color

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Mädchen mit Blumenhut (Young Girl with a Flowered Hat) by Alexej Von Jawlensky, 1910, via Albertina Museum, Vienna (left); with Vier Mädchen (Four Girls) by August Macke, 1912/13, via Museum Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf (right)


Color played a major role in the works of Der Blaue Reiter. As seen in the painting above, there is a clear distinction between the applications of color between different members in the same group. Fauvism has links to the Der Blaue Reiter group particularly with Gabriele Münter and Alexej Von Jawlensky. Similar to a coloring book, they would place color within thick, dark lines so it creates contrast and dimension. Jawlensky’s portraits demonstrate this connection between color and emotion. He focused primarily on the heads of figures rather than full-body portraits. He used raw vivid colors in order to showcase how color can become the essence of one’s being.


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Lady in a Park by August Macke, 1914, MoMA, New York (left); with The Blue Mantilla by Alexej Von Jawlensky, 1913, via The Israel Museum, Jerusalem (right)


Another inspiration came from the works of Robert Delaunay and Orphism, which would inspire August Macke and Franz Marc. They were struck by Delaunay’s usage of color where it is fractured into fragments of color. Rhythm plays a huge role in this, as Delaunay believed that colors moved before one’s vision just as much as the natural world. This influenced Macke to paint forms that are cut into sections with very distinct angular shapes. His subjects include women in department stores, walking in parks, or groups of women in activity to which he applies this technique. Compared to Alexej Von Jawlensky, Macke uses very distinct shapes that are almost cubist while Jawlensky uses more expressive brushstrokes freely.


Color pushed the boundaries of expressionism as artists used it to display the innermost spiritual feelings they felt while they painted. The usage of colors became freer and less subjected to the dullness of reality. It pushed the outer limits of what was considered appropriate for traditional painting. Color also played major importance for Kandinsky who used it in conjunction with expressing emotions with sound.


The Color Of Music

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Impression III (Concert) by Wassily Kandinsky, 1911, via Lenbachhaus Museum, Munich


Music and its connection to color play a key role in Wassily Kandinsky’s abstract paintings. Synaesthesia, the ability to hear, taste, or smell color, is a concept that introduced Kandinsky to using color as a representation of physical senses. Each color also represented different sections of an orchestra and together these color combinations create a color symphony. This was also impactful on the artist Paul Klee and his development into abstract art. Music was also a large inspiration for him as both he and Kandinsky studied music in their youth.


Kandinsky based colors with specific emotions and even instruments. His paintings are symphonies of color with each color eliciting a different emotional response. Yellow is an earthly color, and the brighter the yellow the more chaotic and shrill feelings it promotes. Blue is calming and heavenly which helps to temper down the yellows. Reds are powerful and dynamic which symbolize deep drums or the crescendo of trumpets. Green is the calmest color, reflecting the soft tones of a violin. Violets are melancholy and are similar to the saddening music of horns or bagpipes. Finally, black represents the finale of a musical piece while, in contrast, white is when all the other sounds go mute. 


Although his paintings may seem spontaneous and appear as if Kandinsky completed it right on the spot, this is actually false. Just like a composer arranging notes on a musical score, Kandinsky painted as if the notes were paint and the canvas was sheet music. Every color placement was intentional and it would sometimes take years for him to complete these types of musical paintings. 


The Women Of Der Blaue Reiter

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Selbstbildnis (Self-Portrait) by Marianne Von Werefkin, 1910, via Lenbachhaus Museum, Munich (left); with Self-Portrait by Gabriele Münter, 1908, Thyssen-Bornemisza Museo Nacional, Madrid (right)  


Within Der Blaue Reiter there were female artists including Marianne Von Werefkin, Gabriele Münter, Natalia Goncharova, and Clotilde von Derp. Both Werefkin and Münter played critical roles regarding the style and advancements they made for female expressionist artists. Both of these artists were partners with other members of the group: Werefkin with Jawlensky and Münter with Kandinsky during this time. Werefkin would even set back her own career and champion Jawlensky as an artist, even creating an exhibition for him. They were females within a group of men and they suffered the confines of being women. However, they were still able to produce work that paved way for future expressionist women artists. 


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Jawlensky and Werefkin by Gabriele Münter, 1908/09, via Lenbachhaus Museum, Munich


Gabriele Münter’s work is characterized by her use of bold colors and outlining her subjects with black, thick lines. Her paintings have a compacted perspective that registers as flat to the viewer. She focuses on the color composition of her subjects filling them with vibrant colors similar to the French Fauvists. Whether it is portraits or landscapes, Münter’s works have simplistic shapes that are reflective of her inspiration from traditional folk art from Bavaria and even children’s paintings. She never went completely abstract like Wassily Kandinsky, but rather created figurative art that still resembled reality. This move towards a simple and child-like appearance is representative of the group’s desire to go back to creating art that was primitive. She also created still-lives with imagery of traditional Bavarian artifacts or religious iconography.


Wäscherinnen (Washerwomen) by Marianne Von Werefkin, 1909, via Lenbachhaus Museum, Munich 


Marianne Von Werefkin’s art would focus on images of women and the impoverished in her works. Her work shows the difference in how women were represented during the beginning of the 19th century. Compared to her contemporaries, she depicted women working and as hunching back against a backdrop of streams of color. Her use of color and expressive brushstrokes were influences of Edvard Munch and Vincent Van Gogh who also used color to express the soul. She used a darker color palette with deeper tones of reds and blacks particularly for the clothing of women. Werefkin showcases the women who were laborers and in the workforce during the rise of industrialism. Her paintings combined the harsh realities of women during her era with the supernatural splendor in her landscapes.


Der Blaue Reiter’s Only American Member

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Still Life III by Albert Bloch, 1914, via Des Moines Art Center


Albert Bloch is an American painter who moved to Germany in 1909. He joined the Der Blaue Reiter group in 1911 after Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc visited Bloch’s studio. He was the only American artist who joined the group. During his stay in Germany, he developed his own style just as the rest of the members did. He frequently used images of dancing harlequins, clowns playing instruments as well as performing Pierrots. This was Bloch’s interpretation of how one could see music in a visual art form. Compared to other members of the group, Bloch is not as widely known or recognized for his work in modern art. He eventually moved to Kansas where he taught at the University of Kansas until his retirement.


The painting above is an example of Bloch’s work and his connection to Der Blaue Reiter. His Still Life III has no visible foreground or background and instead Bloch represents objects floating seemingly in midair. They represent the blending of boundaries between the spiritual versus physical worlds. The bananas and other fruit seem to be encased in their own auras giving life to seemingly inanimate objects. His lines are very fluid and wavy which also leans to a more spiritual representation of a still life. He always retained the style and philosophy of Der Blaue Reiter even after its ultimate end.   


The End Of Der Blaue Reiter

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Kornfeld bei Carantec (Cornfield at Carantec) by Alexej Von Jawlensky, 1905, via Albertina Museum, Vienna


The beginning of the First World War was effectively the end of the group. The war engulfed Europe and the members of Der Blaue Reiter. Russian members of the group including Wassily Kandinsky, Alexej Von Jawlensky and Marianne Von Werefkin were sent back to Russia because of their nationality. Both Franz Marc and August Macke were drafted into the German army where, unfortunately, they both were killed.


Afterward Jawlensky moved to Switzerland and in 1924 he created the group Die Blaue Vier (The Blue Four) that included Paul Klee, Lyonel Feininger and Kandinsky. Bloch returned to the United States at the end of World War I where he started a career in teaching. Most of the works that he created in Europe were destroyed during the bombings of World War II. He only brought back a few of his Europea paintings. They are now only shown in his own personal records, which include photographs of the lost paintings.


During World War II, modern art became a target of the Nazi regime during the 1930-40s where it was considered degenerate and found to be an offense to the regime. Münter continued to create modern art during this time even though she faced backlash and restrictions. While the Nazis would try and confiscate artworks she hid her paintings as well as those of Kandinsky and her other fellow Der Blaue Rider members’ paintings in her own home in Murnau. During the Nazi regime Jawlensky, Klee, and other members of the group’s art was taken and placed in the Degenerate Art exhibition in 1937.


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By Adrienne HowellBA Integrated Studio Arts & BS Apparel DesignAdrienne currently works as a photographer and visual artist in the Midwest. She earned degrees from Iowa State University with a BA in Integrated studio arts, focusing on drawing & painting, and a BS in Apparel Design with an emphasis on fashion and textiles.