Die Sünde by Franz von Stuck

Die Sünde by Franz von Stuck (1893)

Today I am want to look at the life and times of one of Wassily Kandinsky’s early art tutors, the German painter of mythological and allegorical scenes, Franz von Stuck.  Stuck was not just simply a painter.  He was a man on many talents.  Stuck was also a sculptor, printmaker, illustrator and architect.
Franz von Stuck was born in 1863 in Tettenweis, a village in the farming area outside the city of Passau and which lies close to the Austrian-German border about 150 kilometres north east of Munich.  He was brought up in a moderately affluent Catholic family who plied their trade as farmers and millers.   He enjoyed drawing from an early age and it is said that when he was just six years of age he would spend time drawing caricatures of the local village people.  At the age of fifteen he went to Munich to study art.  He first attended the Königliche Kunstgewerbeschule, a high school of applied arts in the city.  One of his teachers was the German landscape painter Ferdinand Barth.  After three years at this school, Stuck transferred to Munich’s Akademie der Bildenden Künste (The Academy of Fine Arts) where he received tuition from the German history painter, Wilhelm Lindenschmit the Younger and Ludwig Löftz.  Once he had completed his art tuition at the Akademie he found some work as an illustrator for various Munich publications such as Die Jugend, a cultural weekly publication, which soon became a style-setting icon that launched the German art nouveau movement, named Jugendstil,  after the magazineand the Fliegenden Blätter (Flying Pages), which was the name of a humorous and satirical German weekly magazine which was full of illustrations and caricatures.  Stuck’s input in these magazines over a four year period enhanced his reputation as an artist and illustrator.

In 1889, he began to paint in oils and that year he submitted his work, Der Wächter des Paradieses (The Guardian of Paradise) for inclusion at the Jahresausstellung exhibition at the Glastpalast in Munich.  This venue was the glass and iron edifice modeled after London’s Crystal Palace.  The building, like the Crystal Palace, was destroyed by fire,  in 1931 and resulted in the destruction of over a hundred artworks from the early 19th century .   For his painting, Franz Stuck was awarded a gold medal and a prize of sixty thousand gold marks.  This painting depicted a mythological scene and was the type of depictions that would appear in many of his works, the best of which was thought to be his paintings which depicted a solitary figure rather than his group figure works.  Franz Stuck had become a leading figure in the Munich avant-garde side of art life but also figured prominently in the official art world of the German city.

At the end of the nineteenth century, Munich was a place at the forefront of German art.  It was a charismatic city for German artists of every style who wanted to create something new, something different.    The city itself had a young, modern, and exciting feel about it and was a place where artists could create and conceive new styles.  The majority of Munich’s fine art painters belonged to the Königlich-privilegierte Münchener Künstlergenossenschaft (MKG) (Privileged Royal Artists’ Association of Munich).  This was the largest social and professional society for artists in Bavaria which had been founded in 1869.  Its remit was to further the interests of a wide range of artists both in and around Munich.   All was well until the Künstlergenossenschaft  Salons (The Society’s exhibitions) of 1889 and 1891 when the jurists, the people whose job it was to decide which works of art would be exhibited, chose a large number works which were blatantly biased towards Naturalism, Impressionism and Symbolism.  Following this the majority of artists within the Society voted for the implementation of regulations which would insist that future juries would cease favouring any one kind of art and guarantee that diversity of outlook would be their key criteria when choosing works for inclusion.   Over a hundred artists within the Association refused to accept this dictate and seceded in April 1892.   One of the co-founders of this new group of artists was Franz von Stuck.

More than a hundred artists came together as a new group by founding the Verein bildender Künstler Münchens e. V. Secession (Association of fine artists in Munich Secession).  This new artistic grouping refused the historicism propagated by the academies and wanted to create something new.    Their motto was that art concerns the whole man and the whole social life.  Besides the artists themselves, there were some very influential backers to the formation of this new association such as George Hirth the writer, publisher and founder of the avant-garde magazine Jugend.  Initially the Secession found little favour with official circles because of its modernist leaning and in the belief that this Secession would bring disunity to the Munich art scene and would lead to the fall from grace of Munich as a great centre of German art and allow Berlin to take its place as the centre of German culture.  However once the Secessionists gained in popularity, the official line changed and Luitpold, who was then Prince Regent ofBavaria, and other government officials gave their full support to the Secessionists, provided them with financial support and bought up many of the paintings from their exhibitions.  At the Secessionist exhibition in 1893 Franz von Stuck’s painting Die Sünde (The Sin) was shown and it caused a sensation.

In 1895 Franz von Stuck was given the position of professor at the Academy of Fine Arts, in Munich, an establishment where he had once studied.  Two of his most famous students were Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky, both of whom would go on to establish the Blaue Reiter art group.   He also became chairman of the board of the Genossenschaft Pan [Pan Co-operative], designing the covers for Pan, its art magazine.  It was around this time that he designed and had built the Villa Stuck for himself.  It was testament to his extraordinary abilities in design, sculpture, interior decoration and architecture. He also designed the furniture for his house and these won him another gold medal, at the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris.

Franz had an affair with Anna Maria Brandmaier, the daughter of a local baker, which resulted in the birth of a daughter, Mary Franziska Anna. The child was given into the care of Mary Lindpaintner, a wealthy American widow of a Munich physician.  On March 15th 1897 von Stuck married Mary Lindpaintner and his daughter grew up in his own house. Seven years later, in 1904 he and his wife would formally adopt her after a legal battle against the young girl’s natural mother. He also adopted the two children from Mary’s first marriage, Olga and Otto.

In 1906 he was knighted as Franz Ritter von Stuck. His Symbolist paintings, including many sensual nudes, and combine a linear style with an erotic flare. In 1913, at the height of his artistic success and fame, Stuck decided to build a studio next to the villa. Completed in 1914, it was double the size of the existing structure and contained two stories. The first floor was for sculpture and the second, with its 16.5-meter-wide, 7-meter-high dome was used for painting.  Franz von Stuck died in Munich on August 30, 1928 aged 65.  His house, Villa Stuck,  remains a living testament to the man and the artist.  Villa Stuck is a nationally and internationally renowned meeting place for the art of the 19th bis 21. to 21 Jahrhunderts. Century. Eine bedeutende Sammlung von Werken Franz von Stucks (1863-1928) und internationale Ausstellungen zur Kunst um 1900 sowie zur modernen und zeitgenössischen Kunst machen die Villa Stuck zu einem einzigartigen Ort des Kunsterlebens. An important collection of works by Franz von Stuck and as well as international exhibitions of modern and contemporary art transform Villa Stuck into a unique place.

My featured painting today is Stuck’s highly acclaimed work entitled Die Sünde (The Sin) which he completed in 1893 and is now housed in the Neue Pinakothek Museum, Munich.  It was first exhibited at the Secessionist Exhibition of 1893 and which, at that time, caused a sensation by the controversial nature of the depiction.   It is by far his best known painting of which he made many versions in the period of from 1891 to 1912. The main effect of the painting is created by the contrasts in the colours and by the concept of the picture.

In the painting we see a woman who coyly exhibits her bare breasts and stomach which the artist has bathed in light whilst the he has hidden the rest of her body in the darkness of an alcove. A snake lies on her right shoulder and the reptile curves around the back of the woman’s neck and along her left shoulder.  The snake symbolises original sin for it was a snake that tempted Eve to eat first the fruit from the tree of knowledge, and then it was she who tempted Adam.   The woman in the painting is not a woman but women in general.   In this painting the woman, with her snake, represents evil.   The woman before us is controlling us, the viewer, us, the voyeur.  She is tempting us.  We stand still in front of her and cannot avert our eyes.   She is mesmerising us.  She is inviting us to join her.  Are we sucked in by her beauty even though we know the dangers that would follow?   The viewer is curious and may be longing for adventure and is willing to submit himself or herself to the attraction of the unknown.   If we were to step forward into the painting we would cut off the source of light and all would be dark and we would be left with just the woman and her snake, then what?

The massive gilded frame of the painting adds to the contrast with the darkness of the painting itself.  Such heavy frames as this one were very common in Jugendstil art, with the artists themselves designing their own frames for their own works of art.

When it was first exhibited in its present home, the Neue Pinakothek Museum, Munich, it caused a sensation with crowds flocking to see this piece of seductive and erotic art. The painting left a lasting impression on those who viewed it and this effect was described by one who viewed the work:

“…The fame of the painting drove us through the galleries; we stopped nowhere and opened our eyes for the first time when we were finally standing opposite it. It was displayed on a special easel in its broad, monumental gold frame, […] and now all three of us stared at the night of hair and snake which did not allow too much of the pale, female body to be seen. The shadowed face with the bluish-white of the dark eyes was less important to me at first than the iron sheen of the nestling snake, its evil, beautifully designed head and the dull chequered pattern on its back, over which a delicate blue line ran like a seam. […] There are works of art that strengthen our sense of community, and there are others that seduce us into isolation. Stuck’s painting belonged to the latter group..”

Grüngasse in Murmau by Wassily Kandinsky

Grüngasse in Murnau by Kandinsky (1909)

In my last blog I was following the life story of Wassily Kandinsky and had reached the juncture in his life, 1901, when he had opened up his own art school, Phalanxschule, in Munich.  The previous winter, along with help from some of his like-minded artist friends, he had launched the exhibiting association, known as the Phalanx, and they had held their first exhibition in August 1901.

First Phalanx Exhibition in 1901

Kandinsky designed the Art Nouveau styled poster advertising its opening.  In all the Phalanx held twelve exhibitions during its ten years in existence and it was in the seventh one in 1903 that works by Claude Monet were exhibited.  The tenth exhibition included a number of works by post-Impressionists such as Paul Signac, Felix Vallotton and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec.

Jugend magazine cover

In the final years of the nineteenth century and at the beginning of the twentieth century, the in-vogue artistic style in southern Germany was Jugendstil or as we may better know it, Art Nouveau.  The German word, Jugendstil means “youth style” and derives from the German cultural weekly publication Jugend.  The style-setting iconic magazine, founded by George Hirth, promoted the Art Nouveau style.  This up-and-coming art form was both artistically graceful and stylistically revolutionary. The Jugendstil artists and designers had their base around Munich, and while their work stylistically was likened to that of the French Art Nouveau of the fin de siècle era, the Jugendstil art depicted many Teutonic and mythological themes.  Probably due to this, many of Kandinsky’s works at that time consisted of figure studies, scenes of knights on horseback, scenes from romantic fairytales and some fanciful reminiscences that he clung to of his beloved Moscow.  The second Phalanx exhibition contained many Jugendstil works.

Kandinsky and his wife Anya Chimiakin separated by mutual consent in 1904 and he and his former Phalanxschule art student Gabriele Münter, who had become his lover, set off on a number of trips around Europe.  They travelled to the Netherlands and Tunisia in 1904.  The following year was spent in Italy and for a year between 1906 and 1907 the pair settled down Sèvres, a town in the outer suburbs of Paris.  During this stay he exhibited works at the avant-garde Salon d’Automne and the Salon des Indépendants.   At this time in Paris the art work of Gauguin, the Nabis, who were a group of Post-Impressionist avant-garde artists, Matisse and other Fauves were being exhibited.  Fauvism was the first of the major avant-garde movements in European twentieth century art, and was characterised by paintings that used powerfully vivid, non-naturalistic and exuberant colours.   This exposure to fauvism resulted in Kandinsky starting to paint fauvist-inspired landscapes in which the manner he used colour quickly departed from the naturalistic and descriptive.  His use of colour was for reasons of expression, and in a lot of cases, non-naturalistic, motivations.  Colour to Kandinsky now became ever more important and as this importance grew in his mind, the less he painted post-Impressionist type landscapes. Kandinsky’s colours became more brilliant and vibrant.  Often his paintings around this time were large areas of solid bright colours set in sharp contrasts of light and dark and warm and cold.

Although travelling around Europe, Kandinsky always found time to return to Russia and exhibited some of his works at Moscow and St Petersburg exhibitions.   In 1908 Kandinsky and Münter returned to Munich.   From there, they often took painting trips to southern Germany, during which they visited the small town of Murnau, which nestled in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps.  Both Kandinsky and Münter fell in love with the sprawling landscape of this area and found great inspiration from the scenic views with its kaleidoscope of colours with the high Bavarian Alps acting as an awe-inspiring background.  The following year, the couple bought a house in the town and their two artist friends from Munich, Jawlensky and Werefkin often stayed with Kandinsky and Münter and together the group produced a number of wonderful landscape paintings and works depicting the town of Murnau itself.   One of these works was one done by Kandinsky in 1909 and is today’s featured painting.  It was an oil on cardboard painting entitled Grüngasse in Murmau which depicted one of the local streets in the town where he was living.

It was during the time the four artists lived under the same roof that conversation often turned to art and new forms of art.  The most important result of these artistic discussions was that gradually Kandinsky’s became more interested in abstraction in art,  in which representational forms, whether people or places, would increasingly melt away and be replaced by colours and basic shapes.  In this Abstract art, the painting did not depict a person, place or a thing in the natural world, even in an extremely distorted or exaggerated way.   So the subject of the painting was based on what you saw, such as colours, shapes, and simple brushstrokes.  Kandinsky believed that different colours provoked different emotions. He believed that the colour red was lively and confident; green was peaceful with inner strength; blue was deep and supernatural; yellow could be warm, exciting, and disturbing and white seemed silent but full of possibilities. Kandinsky had now also decided to compartmentalise his work into three categories.  The first he called Impressions and these paintings would still retain an element of naturalistic representation.  They would be direct impressions of nature.  The second category he deemed would be Improvisations and these paintings would convey  spontaneous emotional reactions inspired by events of a spiritual type.  The last category he termed Compositions.  These were paintings which were not done spontaneously but put together carefully over a period of time, following a number of preliminary studies.  These were to be his most complicated works.  Although the titles he gave to the three categories seems somewhat arbitrary in fact they harked back to his love of music and in the way he connected, in his own mind, art and music.  Kandinsky said of the connection between colour and music and of the connection between an artist and a musician:

“…Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the harmonies, and the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul…”

In the spring of 1909, the four artist friends from the house in Murnau, Kandinsky, Münter, Jawlensky and Werefkin along with Adolf Erbslöh and Alexander Kanoldt, all of who had studied art in Munich, formed an exhibiting society known as The Neue Künstlervereinigung München (NKVM)    (New Artists’ Association of Munich).  Their exhibitions were to be an alternative to established exhibitions. The aims of this newly formed group were laid out in the preamble to the founding circular of the Neue Künstlervereinigung München.  It stated aims were:


“…We believe that the artist is continuously collecting both impressions from the outer world of nature and experiences from an inner world. And that he is searching for artistic forms to express the interaction between these types of impressions, forms which must be free of all irrelevant detail in order to express only what is necessary in a powerful way – in short, the pursuit of an artistic synthesis. This seems to us to be a solution that currently unites increasing numbers of artists. In founding this association, we hope to create a physical form for intellectual relationships between artists and to make it possible to speak to the public with a single voice…”

The NKVM mounted their annual group exhibitions at Galerie Thannhauser in Munich. The first NKVM show at the Thannhauser Gallery was held in December 1909 and a total of 128 works of art were put on display.  The second exhibition followed in September 2010 and this was opened up to French and Russian avant-garde artists, such as Georges Braque, Picasso, André Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck and Alexander Mogilevsky.

Suddenly with these exhibitions Munich became the centre of avant-garde art.  These exhibitions of avant-garde and abstract art were not universally popular with the Munich art critics of the time.  They were very forthright in their condemnation of one of Kandinsky’s entries, Composition II, unanimously agreeing that the painting was simply the work of a madman or somebody high on drugs.

The third exhibition of the NKVM was set for December 2011 and artists were asked to submit their painting to the exhibition jury so they could be considered as suitable or not for inclusion in their third exhibition.  By 1911 Kandinsky’s work was becoming more abstract in nature and some of the groups fellow artists were starting to criticise his style.   One of his main submissions, Composition V, was rejected by the jury as being too big and not in accordance with their Society rules on size but it was thought that it was also considered to be too abstract.  This decision pleased some of the artists in the group and annoyed others, such as his close friends, Münter, Jawlensky and Werefkin and the German painters Franz Marc and August Mack, and a schism in the NKVM occurred.  Kandinsky immediately resigned and along with his supporters formed a new exhibition group to rival the NKVM.  The group was called Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider).  The origin of the name of this new group was once thought to have come from Kandinsky’s own painting which he completed in 1903 entitled Der Blaue Reiter but in Annette Vezin’s 1992 book, Kandinsky and the Blue Rider, she wrote that Kandinsky wrote 20 year later that the name of the society came from Franz Marc’s enthusiasm for horses and his own love of riders, combined with the fact that he and Marc both loved the colour blue.  To further annoy the NKVM group, Kandinsky’s Blue Rider group decided to hold their first exhibition at the same time as the third exhibition of the NKVM and in a room next to theirs!

I will pause my story on the life of Kandinsky and in my next blog delve into his later life and the works he produced.