Marianna Wladimirowna Werefkina, a member of ancient Russian nobility, was born on 29 August 1860 in the town of Tula. According to Western standards she was well educated and the young girl's artistic talents were recognised and encouraged early. When she was only fourteen years old she had her first private academic drawing lessons Thanks to contacts with the Repin family, she was introduced to Illarion Michailowitsch Prjanischnikow, a member of the "Peredwischniki" (travelling painter), where she began her studies. When her family moved to St. Petersburg in 1886 Marianne von Werefkin took private lessons under the most eminent artist of Russian realism, Ilya Repin.
In 1888 Werefkin had a hunting accident and shot herself in the right hand, her painting hand. She would not have been Werefkin, however, if she had allowed a missing middle finger to keep her from pursuing her goals. The artist practised persistently and she finally managed to use drawing and painting instruments with her right hand again. Soon, she reached a level of perfection in realist painting which gave her the reputation as "Russian Rembrandt".
Her artistic career was negatively influenced by a 27-year-long relationship with the four years younger, impoverished officer Alexej von Jawlensky who deeply fascinated her. She met Jawlensky, who had started painting shortly before, in 1892 and herself described their relationship with the following words: “Love is a dangerous matter, especially in Jawlensky’s hands”.
She renounced for him
She declined to marry him not least because of the generous pension from the Czar, which she would have lost as a married woman. Though, Werefkin decided to promote and encourage him as an artist in every way possible. He should achieve in her stead and realize artistically everything from which, after all, a “weak woman” was barred anyway. “Three years passed in indefatigable care of his mind and heart. Everything, everything that he received from me I pretended to take – everything that I poured into him I pretended to receive… so that he wouldn’t feel jealous as an artist, I hid my art from him.”
Her lover thanked her by sexually abusing the nine-year-old Helene Nesnakomoff, the helper of Werefkin’s maid. Jawlensky already had an affair with the maid, who in 1902 gave birth to his son (twenty years later Jawlenksy married his son’s mother to distance himself for good from the meanwhile impoverished. Werefkin).
Werefkin had begun to keep a diary and in “Lettres à un Innconue” she invented an imaginary addressee which helped her to find a balance in her crisis-ridden personal life. In 1896 she moved to Munich, where she was soon hosting a famous salon where the art world gathered to discuss the latest development. Werefkin became a charismatic theorist and stimulator of new ideas.
A disappointment with Kandinsky
By 1906 she had overcome her decade-long Jawlensky crisis and returned to painting herself. Until the beginning of World War I she created groundbreaking works, which, way ahead of their time, anticipated future trends. She also influenced Wassily Kandinsky, who, thanks to her ideas, became an eminent theorist of art history, as for example with his 1911/12 writing “Concerning the Spiritual in Art: Especially in Painting”. Yet, not a single word was said about Werefkin.
In 1909 Werefkin and other artists (though without Kandinsky) founded the the Neue Künstlervereinigung München (Munich New Artists’ Association). After an ugly intrigue, initiated by Kandinsky, Marc and Macke, the “Blaue Reiter” (the Blue Rider group”) split off from the rest of the group. Werefkin became the “blaue Reiterreiterin”, as her friend, the poet Else Lasker-Schüler used to call her.
With the outbreak of World War I, Werefkin and Jawlensky had to leave Germany within 24 hours; they flew to Switzerland where Werefkin joined the Dada movement. She lost her Czarist pension through the Russian revolution. 1921 – she had by now been living in Ascona for three years – she split with Jawlensky for good. She earned her keep as an agent for pharmaceutical products and by carrying out graphic works.
Materially poor but creatively rich
Completely Impoverished, but creatively unbroken, and supported by good friends and admirers of her work, she spent the last quarter of her long life on the shores of Lake Maggiore. “Ascona taught me not to despise anything human, to live the great joy of artistic production and poverty equally well and to carry with me to protect my soul”, Werefkin wrote in September 1931.
After her death on February 6, 1938, Werefkin was buried according to the Russian Orthodox tradition on the cemetery of Ascona. Her funeral was assisted by almost the entire population of the village that had become home.
She donated many of her paintings to the city, and Ascona’s Fondazione Marianne Werefkin possesses the largest collection of Werefkin’s works. Indeed, thanks to donations the foundation by now comprises hundreds of paintings. Moreover, it holds more 170 sketchbooks and hundreds of drawings. A part of them can be visited in Ascona’s Art Museum’s the permanent exhibition.