Der Blaue Reiter Abandons Representation in Art

A group of artists in Germany, disenchanted with traditional art and contemporary European culture, formulated an abstract approach that celebrated the inner, spiritual dimension of humanity.

Summary of Event

Der Blaue Reiter (the blue rider) was among the first major artists’ associations dedicated to abandoning representational art in favor of an abstract style. Founded by Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc, who functioned as the group’s “editorial board,” Der Blaue Reiter was not an actual organization but a diffuse community of artists with common interests. Artists in the group staged several exhibits, published two editions of an almanac (another was prepared but never published), and individually advocated a new abstract and expressionistic art. Although Der Blaue Reiter was inspired and nourished by numerous sources, Kandinsky was its prime mover, and the group’s history is truly the story of a crucial period in Kandinsky’s development as a painter and theorist. Blaue Reiter, Der
Art movements;Der Blaue Reiter[Blaue Reiter]
Abstract art
[kw]Blaue Reiter Abandons Representation in Art, Der (Sept., 1911)
[kw]Representation in Art, Der Blaue Reiter Abandons (Sept., 1911)
[kw]Art, Der Blaue Reiter Abandons Representation in (Sept., 1911)
Blaue Reiter, Der
Art movements;Der Blaue Reiter[Blaue Reiter]
Abstract art
[g]Germany;Sept., 1911: Der Blaue Reiter Abandons Representation in Art[02840]
[c]Arts;Sept., 1911: Der Blaue Reiter Abandons Representation in Art[02840]
Kandinsky, Wassily
Marc, Franz
Macke, August
Münter, Gabriele
Kubin, Alfred

In 1909, Kandinsky founded and became president of the Neue Künstlervereinigung Neue Künstlervereinigung (NKV), a Munich artists’ union. The NKV staged two exhibits, the first in 1909, at which Kandinsky showed paintings and woodcuts. During 1909, he also began work on a series of musical “color-poems” to be performed on stage and started work on a series of paintings he called “Improvisations.” While not abstract paintings per se, Kandinsky’s Improvisations, with their progressive abandoning of objective referents, were a move toward abstractionism.

In 1910, Kandinsky began another series he called “Compositions,” which also moved toward abstraction. He showed Composition II (1910) and Improvisation X (1910) at the second NKV exhibit in 1910, and both works, along with the progressive works of other NKV artists, were ridiculed, scorned, and even spat upon. Such protests by the public and critics were not uncommon, given that the NKV represented the same avant-garde spirit of change as did the earlier Die Brücke and Berlin Secession movements, with which Kandinsky also exhibited. Franz Marc, an artist whom Kandinsky had not met, wrote a very favorable commentary on the exhibit, however, and this led to the pair’s first meeting. Their friendship quickly deepened.

Kandinsky also produced First Abstract Watercolor
First Abstract Watercolor (Kandinsky) in 1910, a work that many consider to be the first abstract painting (some have argued, however, that it was actually a study for 1913’s Composition VII and has been incorrectly dated). First Abstract Watercolor was momentous for Kandinsky; it expressed his realizations not only that objects are not necessary for painting (an insight he first had when viewing Claude Monet’s Haystack in the Sun in 1896) but also that hidden secrets within objects are their essence and true contents. It is in this essence, Kandinsky reasoned, that the “spiritual” resides, and he believed that modern art should pursue such spiritual truth.

Kandinsky maintained that through abstraction one could encounter a realm where the human soul would be transfigured as colors, these colors being the language or music by which the artist would summon forms immanent in the cosmos. These forms, as “art,” would also operate to elevate human beings to a new spiritual way of living in which ethics and aesthetics would redeem them from the materialistic alienation of modern progress. In his manifesto Über das Geistige in der Kunst, insbesondere in der Malerei (1912; Concerning the Spiritual in Art, and Painting in Particular, 1912), Concerning the Spiritual in Art, and Painting in Particular (Kandinsky) Kandinsky explained his thoughts on such issues.

In 1911, the friendship between Kandinsky and Marc continued to blossom, and Marc joined the NKV. At the time, Kandinsky was writing reviews for the Russian journal Apollon and other periodicals in which he critiqued traditional European art, especially that of conservative Munich. In place of such art, he advocated the creation of a freer, more expressive and abstract art that would display the “inner sound” of the spiritual as experienced by the artist. Marc shared these views, and Kandinsky and Marc joined with other artists and dealers to protest the publication of an ethnocentric diatribe against foreign artists written by conservative members of the German art establishment. In the meantime, preparations were being made for the third NKV exhibition, and it was clear by then to Marc and Kandinsky that the NKV would not remain intact. Kandinsky resigned as president and told Marc of his desire to create a new almanac that would promote both modern, abstract art and art from other cultures and times, all of which would manifest the inner life of the artist.

In August, Kandinsky met Marc’s friend August Macke, who became active in planning the almanac and whose uncle became a financial supporter of Der Blaue Reiter. In September, Marc and Kandinsky whimsically decided on the name Der Blaue Reiter. Kandinsky had made a painting with a similar name in 1903, both he and Marc loved the color blue, Marc loved horses, and Kandinsky loved riders. When Kandinsky’s Composition V (1911) was rejected in early December for the third NKV exhibit, ostensibly because it was too large but more likely because Kandinsky was a foreign artist, Marc, Kandinsky, Gabriele Münter, and Alfred Kubin promptly left the NKV and formally dedicated themselves to Der Blaue Reiter.

Marc immediately led the effort to stage the first Blaue Reiter exhibit simultaneously with the NKV show. In addition to the founding group’s works, Robert Delaunay, Henri Rousseau, and the composer Arnold Schoenberg also showed paintings. Although Alexey von Jawlensky and Paul Klee did not exhibit with the group at the time, their membership and participation were imminent. In his brief introduction to the first exhibit, Kandinsky wrote of a desire to promote not one pictorial style but rather a diversity of forms by which an artist could individually express his or her inner desire. Concerning the Spiritual in Art, and Painting in Particular was published simultaneously with the exhibit by Piper, a small publishing house sympathetic to the new art.


A recurring image in Kandinsky’s work is the rider on a horse. More than merely a lyric icon, this image symbolized his personal stance, and that of Der Blaue Reiter, in respect to the art and society of the time. The rider is a messenger bringing forth transformative ideas and images. In esoteric theories, as interpreted by Kandinsky, blue is a heavenly color, one that touches the soul in such a way as to induce the divine music of spiritual rebirth. Moreover, the rider is a heroic or messianic figure. In the spirit of Kandinsky’s many renderings of Saint George slaying the dragon and overcoming its terrors and evils, Der Blaue Reiter railed against the materialism and positivism that produced blindness and complacency in bourgeois culture.

The many commentaries and critiques written by Blaue Reiter artists in journals, pamphlets, letters, and elsewhere articulated the struggle of the new art to create a wholly different aesthetic and ethical environment for modern humanity. In developing this stance, Der Blaue Reiter drew on a broad base of resources. Symbolists, Theosophists, mystics, anthroposophists, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the Gospels, Friedrich Nietzsche, Richard Wagner, and the insights of modern physics, among others, influenced the writings and art of Der Blaue Reiter. The group’s goal was nothing less than the destruction of forms of thinking that were tied so closely to material reality and objects that they considered “inner necessity,” which made such things possible and was their true content, nonexistent or irrelevant.

In addition to promoting the significance of esoteric knowledge, Der Blaue Reiter took a strong stance against another growing ideology of modern society: individualism. Although members of the group were very supportive of individualistic expression in art and life, they emphasized that, although it is the artist/individual who does things, such actions and works can always be traced back to the mysterious, transcendent, life-giving spirit of inner necessity. The spirit animates and inspires the individual and steers the artist away from the illusions of objective reality toward a synthesis with the immutable laws and truths of the cosmos. In this sense, certain constraints were placed on purely personal expression, for such expression, Blaue Reiter adherents believed, could easily be contaminated by worldly concerns and was constantly in need of a rigorous path to truth. Only such a path could guide humanity. Der Blaue Reiter thus advanced not only an approach to art but also an esoteric humanism that was a guide for living.

With such a vision of a grand synthesis of new aesthetic and ethical sensibilities within existing culture, Der Blaue Reiter promoted a rebirth of society. The members pushed art into abstraction, and although there were differences among them, Kandinsky and Marc, Kazimir Malevich, Piet Mondrian, Paul Klee, and kindred artists formed a powerful avant-garde that celebrated the spiritual and abstraction in art. In doing so, they also helped promote the writings of art critic Wilhelm Worringer, Worringer, Wilhelm which proved crucial to an understanding not only of abstraction but also of the ways in which expressionism, surrealism, existentialism, and other subsequent avant-garde movements struggled with spiritual alienation and metaphysical anxiety. Abstraction in art, for Der Blaue Reiter, was a response to the fragmentation, isolation, and mechanization of modern life.

The spiritual quest of Der Blaue Reiter was not confined, however, to matters of liberating the soul. In addition to creating new understandings of how color and form, like music, resonate with the soul, and how art could be directed away from a reliance on external necessity (objects, representation) toward inner necessity, Der Blaue Reiter was also very much an ecumenical movement. This ecumenical nature was manifested on two fronts, one embracing ethnic and national diversity and the other encompassing multiple forms of art.

The almanac of Der Blaue Reiter, compiled entirely by artists, contained highly varied subject matter. In addition to criticism, commentaries, and artwork by Blaue Reiter and other European avant-garde artists, the almanac included reproductions of cave drawings, Chinese paintings, Japanese drawings, Egyptian shadow figures, medieval gravestones, Etruscan reliefs, sixteenth century German woodcuts, children’s drawings, musical scores, and works from Mexico and Malaysia. The aims in presenting such variety were to counter the ethnocentric protectionism of the German art establishment (which later manifested itself in Adolf Hitler’s nationalism) and to stimulate the observer to experience the multiple forms by which the inner calling of the artist expresses itself.

Also reflected in the almanac was Kandinsky’s notion of a grand synthesis of the arts. Perhaps inspired by the theories of musicians such as Richard Wagner and Aleksandr Scriabin, Der Blaue Reiter made an effort to draw all forms of artistic expression—music, theater, folk art, sculpture, architecture, and more—into play. The influential Bauhaus Bauhaus school that began in 1919 was inspired by Der Blaue Reiter’s synthetic approach.

Der Blaue Reiter stimulated modern art to look to other cultures for inspiration. The movement also advocated that the ideas of modern art, which had typically been associated with the visual arts, especially painting, should be extended to all areas of art. In promoting modern art, Der Blaue Reiter reflected a widespread exploration of inner experience that was already taking place in literature, philosophy, psychology, and other disciplines. In the long term, the spirit that inspired Der Blaue Reiter also inspired Walt Disney’s 1940 film Fantasia, Frank Lloyd Wright’s design for the Guggenheim Museum, and American abstract expressionist painting. It can even be argued that modern interests in occult wisdom and the spiritual, as well as romantic critiques of materialistic, technological culture, owe much to Der Blaue Reiter’s celebration of art and life. Blaue Reiter, Der
Art movements;Der Blaue Reiter[Blaue Reiter]
Abstract art

Further Reading

  • Cheetham, Mark A. The Rhetoric of Purity: Essentialist Theory and the Advent of Abstract Painting. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. A serious discussion of the theory and philosophy of abstraction in painting. Includes an insightful treatment of Kandinsky.
  • Everdell, William R. The First Moderns: Profiles in the Origins of Twentieth-Century Thought. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. Presents brief portraits of individuals who were important to the development of modernist thought. Chapter 20 is devoted to the work of Kandinsky. Includes select bibliography and index.
  • Friedel, Helmut, and Annegret Hoberg. The Blue Rider in the Lenbachhaus, Munich. Munich: Prestel-Verlag, 2001. A beautiful book with historically relevant text, factual data, photographs, and numerous plates focusing exclusively on Blaue Reiter works in the Stadtische Galerie in Munich.
  • Kandinsky, Wassily. Kandinsky in Munich: 1896-1914. New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 1982. A highly informative text with numerous reproductions and photographs chronicling Kandinsky’s years in Munich, where his abstract style blossomed.
  • Roethel, Hans K. The Blue Rider. New York: Praeger, 1977. Informative text includes anecdotal and biographical data, letters, photographs, and plates. Roethel visited Gabriele Münter frequently and was the director of the Stadtische Galerie in Munich, to which Münter donated a massive collection of Blaue Reiter works and writings.
  • Vogt, Paul. The Blue Rider. Woodbury, N.Y.: Barron’s, 1980. Brief but instructive text includes a highly useful documentary appendix of letters, exhibition catalog introductions, and prefaces to and excerpts from the Blaue Reiter almanac.
  • Weisberger, Edward, ed. The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting, 1890-1985. Rev. ed. New York: Abbeville Press, 1999. Originally a catalog for an exhibition presented at the Los Angeles Country Museum of Art in 1986. Lavishly filled with striking plates and superb essays on expressionism, abstract painting, mysticism, and esoteric and occult wisdom and their bearings on the spiritual in modern European and American art, as well as a glossary of spiritual terms. A joy to experience.

Avant-Garde Artists Form Die Brücke

Salon d’Automne Rejects Braque’s Cubist Works

Kandinsky Publishes His Theory of Abstract Art

Apollinaire Defines Cubism

German Artists Found the Bauhaus

Formation of the Blue Four Advances Abstract Painting