The artist

The artist

The artist

Fritz Winter, born in 1905, is remembered as one of the most important German exponents of abstract painting. Trained at the Bauhaus in Dessau under Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Oskar Schlemmer, his art was deemed ‘degenerate’ under National Socialism. With the 1944 cycle ‘Driving Forces of the Earth’ (‘Triebkräfte der Erde’), Winter created one of the most impressive testimonies of the artistic will to survive. After his return from Russian war imprisonment, he founded a group of non-figurative artists in 1949, together with Willi Baumeister, Rupprecht Geiger and others in Munich, later called ZEN 49. From the 1950s onwards, Winter received numerous important art prizes and enjoyed international success. In the 1950s and 1960s, he also immersed himself in the new trends of Art Informel and colour field painting.  

Multifaceted in its painting technique and formal qualities, Fritz Winter’s oeuvre stands in a tradition committed equally to the art of Der Blaue Reiter and the Bauhaus. With his largely non-figurative formal language, he sought a superior connection to nature in order to make visible the elemental forces and structures underpinning all creation: ‘It requires much greater faith and much greater skill to make the invisible visible in free form than to attest to the visible and tangible simply as they are.’  


Fritz Winter (1950)



Fritz Winter is born on 22 September in Altenbögge near Unna in Westphalia, the first of eight children. His father is a miner who specialises in sinking shafts. The rapidly expanding family moves several times, eventually settling in Ahlen in 1912. Despite growing up in relative poverty, Winter will later describe the family atmosphere as loving and lively.


After finishing basic schooling, Fritz Winter apprentices as a mine electrician at Zeche Westfalen, the colliery in his hometown of Ahlen, completing his apprenticeship in 1922 with the journeyman’s examination. He remains at the colliery, working as an electrical fitter until 1924, when he is laid off. He gets by, by doing odd jobs but eventually follows in his father’s footsteps and returns to the colliery, now as an apprentice miner. Winter becomes active in the socialist youth movement and longs for a life beyond coal mining. He begins to draw and paint, studies the work of Vincent van Gogh and Paula Modersohn-Becker, and hikes through Holland and Belgium. In 1926, he works night shifts at the coalface and attends secondary school during the day, with the intention of studying medicine. The strain soon takes its toll and he is forced to abandon his plans. His former drawing teacher recommends that he apply to the Bauhaus, where his journeyman’s certificate – rather than the standard high-school diploma – is considered sufficient qualification to enrol.


Fritz Winter’s student card, issued for the winter semester 1927/28,
Bauhaus, Dessau, © Fritz-Winter-Haus, Ahlen


On Paul Klee’s recommendation, he is accepted at the Bauhaus, Hochschule für Gestaltung, in Dessau for the winter semester of 1927. He takes classes taught by, among others, Wassily Kandinsky, Josef Albers and Joost Schmidt. As his family can only lend him very limited financial support, he makes ends meet by painting tiles for a Dessau stove-fitting company. In 1928, thanks to recommendations by Klee and Kandinsky, he receives a scholarship from the city of Dessau and joins Oskar Schlemmer’s theatrical stage department, where his knowledge of electronics and welding earns him temporary employment. Of central importance to Winter is the teaching of Klee, whose foundation course and “free painting” class he attends. In 1928/29, he contributes twelve works to the travelling exhibition Junge Bauhausmaler (Young Bauhaus Painters), which is shown in Halle, Braunschweig, Erfurt and Krefeld. At a lecture, he meets the Russian Constructivist Naum Gabo. In 1929, he pays a visit to Ernst Ludwig Kirchner in Davos, Switzerland. Alongside Klee, Kirchner exerts a formative influence on Winter’s early work. Winter will go on to pay several more visits to the Expressionist painter, the last being in 1932.


Fritz Winter at the Bauhaus, Dessau, © Fritz-Winter-Haus, Ahlen


In the summer semester of 1930, Winter takes a leave of absence and moves to Berlin. Joining forces with fellow former Bauhaus students Franz Ehrlich and Heinz Loew, he forms the Studio Z group in Berlin and attempts to establish himself as an artist in the group’s shared studio. He assists Naum Gabo with the welding of his sculptures in preparation for a large exhibition at the Kestner-Gesellschaft in Hannover. Gabo’s kinetic, transparent constructions inspire his own body of Abstract Still Lifes. In September Winter completes his studies at the Bauhaus. His diploma, however, is not issued until 1931. In it, Klee attests that “the free painterly works [...] demonstrated a powerful inner experience and [the] ability to achieve an altogether individual expression in composition. Mr Winter clearly shows the first signs of artistic independence.” In 1930, he has his first solo exhibition at the Kunststube Buchholz in Berlin and participates in the group exhibition Vision und Formgesetz at Galerie Ferdinand Möller, also in Berlin. He begins to compile notes that indicate that he is contemplating a career teaching at art school.


Fritz Winter, c. 1930, photo: Heinz Loew


In 1931, Winter once again exhibits at the Galerie Ferdinand Möller in Berlin, one of the leading galleries for German Modernism and avant-garde art. The catalogue essay, “Kunst unter Tage” (Art Underground), is written by Ernst Kállai, the Hungarian art critic and former editor of the bauhaus magazine. He describes Winter as the main representative of “biomorphic abstraction” and goes on to champion the artist on various occasions in the early years of his career. In April, at the suggestion of Hans-Friedrich Geist, a former fellow student at the Bauhaus, Winter moves to Halle (an der Saale) to take up a teaching position at the progressive Pedagogical Academy there. Through Geist, Winter meets the composer Hellmuth Christian Wolff, with whom he is to form a close friendship in the years to come. Wolff introduces him to his future wife, Margarete Schreiber-Rüffer. Sixteen years Winter’s senior and married to Walther Schreiber (the Prussian Minister for Trade and Commerce), Margarete is sympathetic to the ideals of the Socialist Women’s Movement. In 1932, Winter embarks on a trip to Italy, visiting South Tyrol, Bologna, Florence, Padua and Milan. Several museums acquire works by the artist, among them the Moritzburg in Halle under its director Alois Schardt and the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg under Max Sauerlandt. Wolff composes the six-part piano cycle Gongspiele inspired by paintings by Fritz Winter.


After the rise to power of the National Socialists, Winter moves to Allach near Munich with Margarete and her son from her first marriage. As a result of the Nazi cultural policies and despite his best efforts, Winter will not have another exhibition in Germany until after the Second World War. At the Kunsthaus Zürich, he participates in the exhibition Contemporary German Art from Swiss Private Collections. He produces dark large-format works on paper, a selection of which will eventually be shown at documenta 3 in Kassel, in 1964.


Winter visits Paul Klee and Else Lasker-Schüler in Switzerland. He submits designs to the competition for the redesign of the entrance rotunda of the Museum Folkwang in Essen. The murals by Oskar Schlemmer, Winter’s former teacher at the Bauhaus, had been taken down under the aegis of the new director Klaus Graf von Baudissin. Winter’s abstract competition entry on the theme of light is rejected, being dismissed as “thematically aberrant”.


Winter moves to a farmhouse in Diessen on Lake Ammersee, where he can work in relative peace. He passes himself off as an artisan and carves bulky candlesticks


The correspondence with Wolff shows that after several attempts, Winter finally succeeds in gaining admission to the Nazi-founded Reich Chamber of Fine Arts. However, his hopes of being allowed to exhibit his works come to nothing due to his steadfast commitment to abstraction.


Two of Winter’s works – one at the Provinzial-Museum Hannover, the other at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg – are seized for being “degenerate”. In undocumented reports, the local leader of the Nazi Party issues him with a so-called Malverbot, forbidding him to paint even in the privacy of his own home. As a precaution, Winter starts hiding his works in specially constructed hutches in the large attic of his farmhouse.


Kirchner’s suicide upsets Winter deeply. He goes to Switzerland and accepts a consignment of drawings and prints from Kirchner’s wife, Erna, in the hope of selling them in Germany. However, under the Nazi regime, the undertaking proves impossible.


In May, thanks to Naum Gabo’s efforts, Winter takes part in the exhibition Abstract and Concrete Art at the gallery Guggenheim Jeune in London. At the end of August 1939, a few days before the invasion of Poland, he is called up for military service. He will remain on active duty in the Polish and Russian campaigns for the next five years, until 1945. During his time as a soldier, he is never without his sketchbook and pencils and produces several hundred War Drawings (also known as Field Sketches) with the simplest of means. Over that time he will suffer repeated injuries, some of them serious. In early 1944, while on sick leave in Diessen after a lengthy stay in a military hospital in the autumn of 1943, he creates a group of works entitled Triebkräfte der Erde (Driving Forces of the Earth). 


Fritz Winter as a soldier, photo: Archiv Fritz Winter Foundation


After the war, Winter spends four years as a Russian prisoner of war in Siberia and on the Volga. When he is finally released, he destroys all the drawings he had made there. As he later recounts, it had been pointed out to him that the sketches could be misunderstood as espionage material. During his captivity, thanks to the efforts of Margarete and friends such as the art historians Ludwig Grote and Will Grohmann, Winter’s works are shown in Germany in several exhibitions, among them the Allgemeine deutsche Kunstausstellung in Dresden in 1946, Extreme Malerei in Augsburg in 1947 as well as the second Salon des réalités nouvelles in Paris in 1947. In 1947, Margarete writes about Winter and quotes from his wartime letters in a publication accompanying a series of exhibitions organised by the psychiatrist and collector Ottomar Domnick.


In May 1949, the artist returns to Diessen. In July he is one of the founding members of the Gruppe der Gegenstandslosen (Group of Non-Objective Artists) formed on the initiative of the art critic John Anthony Thwaites at the Munich gallery run by Etta and Otto Stangl. Later that year, the group changes its name to ZEN 49. Its other members are Rupprecht Geiger, Willi Baumeister, Rolf Cavael, Gerhard Fietz, Willy Hempel, the sculptor Brigitte Matschinsky-Denninghoff and the art historians Ludwig Grote and Franz Roh. Like the artists of Der Blaue Reiter group before them, they endeavour to work together to help abstract art gain acceptance and recognition and to contribute to a moral fresh start in Germany. The group continues to exhibit until 1957, inviting the participation of numerous other artists.


Fritz Winter, c. 1949, © Fritz-Winter-Haus, Ahlen


The first exhibition of the ZEN 49 artists’ group is held at the Munich Central Collecting Point. Winter travels to Italy and France. In Paris he becomes acquainted with Hans Hartung and Pierre Soulages and, through them, with French Art Informel. With the art historian Werner Haftmann he travels to the Venice Biennale, where he receives an award. Over the following years, Haftmann will be one of the most influential champions and interpreters of Winter’s art. Thanks to the Galerie Marbach in Bern, which agrees to purchase a set number of works every month, Winter enjoys a modicum of financial security for the first time. An exhibition put together by the Moderne Galerie Stangl travels to Witten, Wuppertal, Essen, Hagen, Stuttgart and Basel. The artist’s principal gallerists now are Stangl as well as Günther Franke in Munich, Ferdinand Möller (now in Cologne) and Walter Schüler in Berlin. In the years to come he will also be represented by galleries in Paris and New York.


 Fritz Winter, c. 1950, photo: Fritz-Winter-Haus, Ahlen


Margarete and Fritz Winter get married. Winter joins the Deutscher Künstlerbund (Association of German Artists) in 1951. He is awarded the Domnick Prize in Stuttgart and the first prize of the Deutscher Künstlerbund in Berlin. In the following years his work is shown in a rapid succession of solo and group exhibitions, among them a presentation at the Kunsthalle Bremen in 1952.


As part of the project “Abstract Painters Teach”, initiated by Gustav Hassenpflug, he takes on a three-month position as a visiting lecturer at the Landeskunstschule Hamburg. His final lecture, on “Compositional Elements in Painting”, is published in 1959.


Together with Willi Baumeister and Ernst Wilhelm Nay, Winter resigns from the Deutscher Künstlerbund in protest. The artists accuse Karl Hofer, the Künstlerbund’s first chairman, of making disparaging remarks about the importance of abstract painting.


On 1 May, Winter takes up a professorship at the Werkakademie (later Staatliche Hochschule für bildende Künste) in Kassel, where he becomes a colleague of Arnold Bode, the founding father of the documenta. At the first documenta, which opens in the city in July, Winter shows seven paintings, among them the monumental Composition in Front of Blue and Yellow, which is prominently displayed in the gallery devoted to painting. In the years to come, Winter will take on increasing responsibility for the organisation of the documenta. Winter commutes between Diessen and Kassel, where he will teach until 1970. 


Fritz Winter, um 1955, Foto: Fritz-Winter-Haus, Ahlen


In 1956 he is awarded the Cornelius Prize of the City of Düsseldorf. An exhibition devoted to ZEN 49 tours college towns on the East Coast of the USA. In 1957, Winter designs a large-format mosaic for one of the exits of the Hansaplatz underground station as part of the Interbau – the International Building Exhibition in Berlin. In the same year, Werner Haftmann’s book Fritz Winter: Triebkräfte der Erde is published by Piper Verlag. By 1960, some 70,000 copies of the publication are in circulation.


In October, Winter’s long-time companion and wife Margarete dies. Her support had been crucial to his success. The artist is at the height of his career, with three solo shows and 15 group exhibitions worldwide that year.


After the death of his wife the previous year, Winter marries Waltraud Schreiber, her daughter from her first marriage. An old war injury forces him to undergo several operations and to spend months in hospital. He starts work on the group of small-format colour studies that herald a new direction in his practice. Illness prevents him from attending the opening of the second documenta. However, once again, his works, among them a large tapestry, are prominently presented in the show. Winter is now a shareholder in documenta GmbH, the exhibition organiser. He holds a position on the supervisory board and is a member of the newly founded documenta council. Arnold Bode curates a Fritz Winter exhibition at the Galerie Göppinger in Frankfurt, in which he also shows works from the 1930s. Winter is awarded the Grosser Kunstpreis des Landes Nordrhein-Westfalen.


A studio is built in the garden of the farmhouse in Diessen to plans by Gustav Hassenpflug. The documentary Fritz Winter is produced for the FWU (Institute for Film and Image in Science and Education). In the following years, numerous copies of this film are used to explain abstract painting at schools and teaching institutes such as the Goethe-Institut.


Fritz Winter with his painting class, Staatliche Werkakademie Kassel,
c. 1959/60, © Fritz-Winter-Haus, Ahlen


There are solo exhibitions of Winters’ works at the Freiburger Kunstverein and the Kasseler Kunstverein as well as at the Fränkische Galerie, Nuremberg. Galerie Marbach shows his early work. He is also involved in various group exhibitions, for instance in Athens, Amsterdam and Lausanne.


Fritz Winter’s studio in Diessen, c. 1962/63, © Fritz-Winter-Haus, Ahlen


Winter takes part in documenta 3 in Kassel and shows a group of large-format works on paper from 1933. At the same time, the Städtische Kunstsammlung Kassel presents a comprehensive survey of his work at Palais Bellevue. In September, his new colour field paintings are shown for the first time at Galerie Schüler in Berlin. Winter enthuses: “All the critics spoke of the breakthrough of colour.”


A first comprehensive retrospective is held in Kassel to mark the artist’s 60th birthday. The exhibition goes on to be shown in Koblenz, Hannover, Mannheim, Düsseldorf, Stuttgart and Berlin. Further anniversary exhibitions are held in Ahlen, Frankfurt am Main and at the Galerie Günther Franke in Munich, where Konrad Knöpfel first acquires a number of works, thus laying the foundation for his collection, which will go on permanent loan to the Kunstmuseum Stuttgart in 1994. With more than 500 works, the museum now owns the largest public collection of Fritz Winter’s work. Alongside Arnold Bode and Werner Haftmann, Winter is awarded the Goethe Plaque of the state of Hesse.


Fritz Winter, 1965, photo: Fritz-Winter-Haus, Ahlen


Like the art critic and curator Werner Schmalenbach, Winter resigns in protest from the documenta council. He cites the exclusionary focus on recent art movements and the strong influence of the art market as his reason for stepping down. Current works by the artist are shown in Berlin, Munich and Frankfurt am Main. At the Kunstverein Stuttgart, the painter is included in the exhibition marking the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the Bauhaus.


The first comprehensive exhibition of Fritz Winter’s graphic work is shown in Kassel. He is awarded the Great Cross of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany.


After taking early retirement in Kassel in 1970, Winter makes Diessen his full-time home. To mark his 65th birthday in 1971, exhibitions are held at the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Kassel, Galerie Günther Franke in Munich and the Paris branch of Galerie Marbach. In the following years, the artist receives further awards, in 1972 the Pour le Mérite and in 1973 the Bavarian Order of Merit.


Fritz Winter in his studio in Diessen, c. 1971, © Fritz-Winter-Haus, Ahlen


After the death of his second wife, Winter’s youngest sister, Else Rüschenschmidt, moves to Diessen to assist him. Winter receives the Great Cross of Merit with Star of the Federal Republic of Germany. He donates a large part of his extensive body of work to the Galerie-Verein München e.V. (today’s PIN.) to form the basis of the Fritz Winter Foundation at the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, which is approved in 1981. The foundation has been awarding the Fritz Winter Prize since 1986 and regularly exhibits the artist’s work.


After a stroke, Winter can no longer paint in oils. He begins to work with felt-tip pens and is enthusiastic about the new medium. His niece sets up the Fritz-Winter-Haus in the artist’s childhood home in Ahlen, where his works are on view in rotating displays and his estate is preserved to this day. Numerous gallery exhibitions are held to mark his 70th birthday.


Fritz Winter dies on 1 October in Herrsching on Lake Ammersee – soon after learning that he was to be presented with the Rubens Prize of the City of Siegen the following year. The prize is later awarded posthumously.