Mela Muter

Actual name: Maria Melania Mutermilch nee Klingsland. Born in 1876, Warsaw, died in 1967, Paris.

Muter came from an affluent Jewish family assimilated in Poland. Throughout its history the family had remained loyal to the Polish independence tradition, however, Muter she spent most of her life abroad, primarily in France. She maintained loose contacts with Polish artists in Paris, who were a part of the international École de Paris circle, though she did exhibit with them (e.g. at the Galerie du Musée Crillon).

She attended a yearlong course at Milosz Kotarbinski's Drawing and Painting School for Women in Warsaw. In 1901 she departed for Paris. Years later this would turn out to be a permanent resettlement, and Muter accepted French citizenship in 1927. Once there she attended classes at the Académie Colarossi and the Académie de la Grande Chaumiére, though she did neither regularly as she was a young mother at the time. Generally, in an academic sense, she was self-taught. In 1902 she began to present her works at the annual Parisian Salons; she also sent works to be exhibited at a number of domestic group exhibitions (held in Krakow, Lviv, and Warsaw). A series of solo exhibitions began with a presentation at Barcelona's Galeria José Dalmau in 1912, and she became a member of the Parisian Societé Nationale des Beaux-Arts the same year. She painted a great deal and presented her work often in Paris, less regularly in Munich and Pittsburgh. She had important solo exhibitions at the Chéron Gallery (1918) and Druet Gallery (1926 and 1928) in Paris, and in Poland at the Towarzystwo Zachety Sztuk Pieknych / Society for the Encouragement of the Fine Arts (1923).

Her personality was shaped by broad and direct contacts with members of the Parisian artistic and intellectual elite. The painter's acquaintances included Paris-based Polish artists and authors like Leopold Gottlieb, Wladyslaw Reymont, Leopold Staff, Stefan Zeromski, and Henri Barbusse, Artur Honneger, Auguste Peret (who designed the artist's home), Diego Rivera, Romain Rolland, and finally Rainer Maria Rilke, who became friends with Muter towards the end of his life. The artist painted portraits of many of these individuals, including Staff, Zeromski, and Jan Kasprowicz. Two men with whom she shared strong emotional ties played important parts in her life. They were Michal Mutermilch, an aesthetician and Parisian correspondent for the Polish press to whom she was married between 1899 and 1922 (though they actually parted in 1914), and Raymond Lefebvre, a Socialist activist who died tragically in the USSR in 1920. The painter's brother, Zygmunt Klingsland, was a well-known art critic.

Muter was influenced most strongly as an artist by her numerous travels, particularly her many plein-airs in Brittany and Spain. Affected by the experiences she gathered in this way, she quickly abandoned the luminous, symbolist aesthetic evident in her early works, which consisted of landscapes and above all portraits of her friends, an example of which is the PORTRET POETY LEOPOLDA STAFFA / PORTRAIT OF THE POET LEOPOLD STAFF (1903). The transformations that occurred in her art over a period of just a few years can be seen clearly by comparing two works: the nocturnal, Whistleresque AUTOPORTRET W SWIETLE KSIEZYCA / SELF-PORTRAIT BY MOONLIGHT (c. 1899-1900), and her depiction of Aurelia Reymont (c. 1907). The difference between these canvasses is enormous. The first, dating from when she was still in Warsaw, is dominated by dark colors, painted smoothly, almost glazed, which nevertheless does not deprive it of lyricism. The second, painted in Paris, is almost impressionistically bright, with boldly highlighted, large, soft areas of warm color, and underlines the psychological characteristics of its female subject in its close examination of her face. In France Muter developed an interest for a variety of phenomena. She was intrigued by the work of artists of the Pont-Aven school, which found reflection in some of her works from the subsequent period - strongly, confidently constructed paintings that remained intimate at the same time (BRETONKA Z DZIECKIEM / BRETON WOMAN WITH A CHILD, 1911).
Some of these compositions are readily associated with the paintings of Gauguin due to the approximate depiction of her softly modeled human figures and the abstract nature of her flat areas of color. Others very directly bring to mind the art of Wladyslaw Slewinski (PEJZAZ MORSKI / SEASCAPE, c. 1913-14). In her mature period, Muter also created works influenced by a powerful fascination with the art of Paul Cézanne (landscapes and still lifes), Vincent van Gogh (landscapes), Edouard Vuillard (intimate portraits of old men and women, impoverished individuals, children). It appears that the lessons of the latter exerted the greatest impact. Muter and Vuillard shared an interest in everyday human situations, intimate auras, muted color schemes, and a tendency to build patches of color from smaller pieces (MACIERZYNSTWO / MOTHERHOOD, 1909). It was only in her still lifes that she exposed her sensitivity to the beauty of the world, expressed in a varied palette and in passionate color fantasias (MARTWA NATURA Z JABLKAMI / STILL LIFE WITH APPLES, 1918). Her still lifes confirm her class as a painter and are noteworthy for their economy of components, clear, thought-out structure, and purity of sumptuous hues (e.g. MARTWA NATURA Z KRABAMI / STILL LIFE WITH CRABS). These works constitute perhaps the best and fullest embodiment of the artist's credo: "one should be reticent in art, refrain from presenting all the details, and concentrate solely on important things". In later years she created a series of more expressive compositions, which are impressive for their strong, clear, almost monumental structure (see PEJZAZ Z TRAYAS - CZERWONE SKALY / TRAYAS LANDSCAPE - RED ROCKS, 1921, a work that overtly glorifies the power of nature). Muter also painted Fauvist views of southern France and the Seine (oils and especially watercolors), modeled after those of Dufy and Marquet. Her ports, barges moored at riverbanks, and tugboats are seen from above (BARKI NA KANALE ST-MARTIN W PARYZU / BARGES ON THE ST. MARTIN CANAL IN PARIS, c. 1922; PEJZAZ Z COLLIOURE / COLLIOURE LANDSCAPE, c.1925) and depicted using integrated areas of pure color and strong brushstrokes.

Muter lived out the years of World War II in Avignon and continued to create upon returning to Paris. She reverted to her favored motifs and styles, but painted less intensively, impeded by problems with her eyesight. Her output is rich and was assessed as she created it by such authoritative critics as Mieczyslaw Sterling and André Salmon. It was first summarized in an exhibition of one hundred twenty works held in Paris in 1953.

She was somewhat forgotten in Poland for decades and remained in the shadow of other Polish painters linked to the École de Paris. Thus, her oeuvre remains largely unexplored. Any comprehensive analysis is made more difficult by the fact that Muter did not always date her paintings and at times repainted them. The situation has changed somewhat in recent years. Large, significant selections of her work have been shown in Poland during exhibitions of the collections of Ewa and Wojciech Fibak, Tom Podel, and during an exhibition titled PARYZ I ARTYSCI POLSCY 1900-1918. W KREGU E.-A. BOURDELLE'A / PARIS AND POLISH ARTISTS 1900-1918 - E.-A. BOURDELLE AND COMPANY. The most important presentation, however, was a solo exhibition at Warsaw's National Museum (KOLEKCJA BOLESLAWA I LINY NAWROCKICH / THE COLLECTION OF BOLESLAW AND LINA NAWROCKI, 1994-95). The catalogue which accompanied that exhibition is a valuable source of information about the painter and her oeuvre.

Malgorzata Kitowska-Lysiak
Art History Institute of the Catholic University of Lublin
Faculty of Art Theory and the History of Artistic Doctrines
December 2001

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