By Carter B. Horsley
Wassily Kandinsky was a founding
member of the Blaue Rider school of German Expressionism but he
also was the greatest painter of geometric abstraction and the
patron saint of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York,
the last venue in a major exhibition on the artist that ended
January 10, 2010 and previously was shown at Stadtische Galerie
im Lenbachhaus und Kustbau, Munich, and the Centre Pompidou, Paris.
This dazzling exhibition includes
about 100 major oil paintings by Kandinsky, the "patron saint"
of the Guggenheim's collection, and it is accompanied by a smaller
exhibition of about 70 of his watercolors that, unfortunately,
are not included in the painting catalogue and which are almost
as spectacular as the paintings.
Kandinsky's oeuvre is fabulously
colorful and his compositions are explosively intellectual. In
comparison with the passionate art of Picasso and Matisse, Kandinsky
comes off as initially as the expressionistic Fauve artist and
later as the scientific genius. These are the titans of 20th Century
modernism and no one comes close to Kandinsky's complex abstractions,
either the early "soft" types or the later "hard"
In the exhibition catalogue,
Annegret Hoberg observes that "Vasily Kandinsky can undoubtedly
be described as the most important founder of abstract painting,
even if other artists such as Frantisek Kupka and Kazimir Malevich
were setting about it in different ways at nearly the same time."
She notes that Kandinsky described his early artistic experiences
when he visited "the gaily painted interiors of the peasant
houses he visited on his journey to the remoted northeast: 'They
taught me to move wthin the picture, to live in the picture....When
I finally entered the room, I felt surrounded on all sides by
painting, into which I had thus penetrated."
Ms. Hoberg wrote that Kandinsky
was impressed by a Monet Haystack and "an intense experience
of color at sunset in his native city:"
"This image does not last
long: a few minutes, and the sunlight grows red with effort, redder
and redder, cold at first, and then increasing in warmth.The sun
disssolves the whole of Moscow into a single spot, which, like
a wild tuba, sets all one's soul vibrating. No, this red fusion
is not the most beautiful hour! It is only the final chord of
the symphony,which brings every color vividly to life, which allows
and forces the whole of Moscow to resound the the fff of
a giant orchestra. Pink, lilac, yellow, white, blue, pistachio
green, flame red houses, churches, each an independent song -
the garish green of the grass, the deeper tremolo of the trees,
the singing snow with its thousand voices, or the allegretta
of the bare branches, the red, stiff, silent ring of the Krlemlin
walls, and above, towering over everything, like a shout of triumph,
like a self-oblivious hallelujah, the long, white, graceful, serious
line of the Bell Tower of Ivan the Great. And upon its tall, tense
neck, stretched up toward heaven in eternally yearning, the golden
head of the cupola, which among the golden and colored stars of
the other cupolas, is Moscow's sun. To paint this hour, I thought,
must be for an artist the most impossible, the greatest joy."
"Riding Couple, a 1907
oil on canvas, is part of a large group of tempera pictures that
almost all depict nostaglic scenarios with old Russian, old German,
or Biedermeier figures and Kandinsky referred to these early works
as "colored drawings," and they were usually executed
on dark colored paper . They have a jewel-like and slightly primitive
and pontillistic quality.
The catalogue provides the
commentary by Karole Vail about "Blue Mountain":
"In summer 1908, after
several years of extensive travel throughout Europe and Tunisia,
Kandinsky and his companion, the artist Gabriele Munter, settled
in Murnau, a small pictureque market town south of Munich and
much favored by writers and artists. Inspired by the Bararian
landscape, Kandinsky featured it prominently in his work. He also
discovered Bavarian-style Kinterglasbilder (reverse glass
painting), which was renowned for its colorful depictions of folksy
scenes. Blue Maountain..., painted in winter 1908-09, typcfies
the notable shift in the artist's style evident in the bolder
and brighter canvases that he prdouced afer this stay in Paris
in 1906-07, ahen he had becaome acquainted with the brilliant
canvases of the Fauves - including those of George Braque, André
Derain and Henri Matisse - whose work he considered miraculous.
Kandinsky had been fond of horses since childhood, and Blue
Mountain is one of many works that depict horses and riders,
motifs that symbolize his unconventional aesthetic values and
mission to bring about a new, more spiritual sera through art.
The outlines of the horses, mountain, and landscape - in a nod
to his distinctive early graphic works, particuarly the expressive
woodcuts - are more schematic and underline the plane. In his
quest toward abstraction, Kandinsky shlowly detached his imagery
from nature. Here he stripped the procession of riders and figures
of any truly identiifable shapes, and the colors were intended
to trigger emotional repsones. The gradual dematerialziation of
forms and vivid colors play against each other as independent
sensorial patterns that speak to this spearch for artistic freedom
and his aim to present a new spritual reality."
Annegret Hoberg remarks in
the catalogue that Kandinsky was "deeply involved with Theosophical
and mystical ideas in the years before World War I and in authors
who "focused on extrasensory perceptions and parapsychology.
"It seems as if an unknown ritual occurs in Improvisation
19, a kind of initiation and enlightenment of figures who
can be understood as novices. One sees translucent figures outlined
only in black. On the left is a procession of smaller form presses
forward to the front, followed by shades of color. The largest
part of the painting, however, is filled with a wonderful, supernatural
blue, which also shines through the group of figures shown in
profile on the right, who seem to move toward a goal outside the
painting. The spiritual impact of these long, totally incorporeal
figures draws both on the uniformity (that is, they are all the
same height, as in Byzantine picures of saints) and on the fact
that deep blue, almost violet shade in their heads may symbolize
extinction or transition....This work underscores Kandisnksy's
almost messianic expectation of salvation through painting."
"Improvisation 18 (with
Tombstone)" is a 1911 oil and tempera by Kandinsky that has
an usually pale palette for the artist. "Throughout his career,"
Karole Vail wrote in the catalogue, "Kandinsky created series
of paintings that he considered 'examples of he new symphonic
type of construction.' In an effort to synthesize the arts, he
titled these works Impressions, Improvsiations, and Compositions,
all words that allude to music. The paintings are also works of
spontaenous invention or intimations of his inner nature rather
than material observation of the external world. During this period
of intense activity, he accelerated his move toward abstraction."
The catalogue provides the
following commentary by Karole Vail about "Sketch for
"The last in a series
of studies for a monumental oil painting now destroyed, Sketch
for Composition II...has an icongography that has often baffled
scholars because of the presumed lack of thematic content claimed
by Kandinsky in his writings. Nonethess, it has been suggested
that opposing forces are at work: a peaceful and idyllic scene,
revealed by the glowing colors on the right, contrasts with a
catastrophic disaster, perceived through the darker and somber
color palette to the left. Appearing as simplfied and spontaneous
contours, the figures, rocks, riders, and horses are outlined
in black, the brilliant colors powerfully create an exuberant
medley of shapes that is meant to elicit emotions and connect
to the viewer's inner spirituality."
"Impressions III (Concert)"
was painted by Kandinsky soon after attending a concert by Arnold
Schonberg in Munich in 1911 and the catalogue notes that it is
"one of modern art's most outstanding examples of synasthesia,
correspondences between music and painting that other early twentieth-century
artists sought. A dynamic wave of yellow paint flows across the
painting from left to right like a great swell of sound that seemingly
reverberates to and fro. Above it in the upper half of the painting
is an energtic black in a diagonal position. In the prepratory
pencil sketches one can clearly decipher the scene with the open,
black grand piano as well as the curved backs of the seated listeners
and those standing along the wall."
The catalogue provides the
following commentary on "Light Picture" by Karole Vail:
"Although Light Picture...is
one of the paintings of 1913 that Kandinsky described as having
'nothing whatever to do with an object,' it is tempting to find
remnants of landscape references in this work. In fact, he was
not intent on discarding objects completely, particularly at this
stage. Composed of hovering black lines and bright colors, Light
Picture is a delicate and lyrical canvas. Looking more like
a drawing or even a colored etching, it exudes an ethereal quality
and a levity of spirit quite different from the artist's ohter
works of this period when he was battling his way toward obstration.
This painting may represent a moment of joyful respite before
his imminent departure from Germany to Russia and eventual changes
in his personal chricstances,. "
In June, 1916, Kandinsky wrote
to his former companion, artist Gabriele Munter, that he had finally
got his "creative powers" back and now wanted to do
a "big Moscow landscape - gather the parts from everywhere
and unite them in a single picture, weak and strong elements,
everything mixed together, just as the world itself is composed
of varied parts. It must be like an orchestra. I feel the general
idea, but the broad composition is not yet clear. At 8 in the
evening I went out to the Kremlin in order to see the churches
from the viewpoint which I need for the picture. And new riches
opened up before my eyes. Back in Sobovskaya I have so far done
a painted sketch, which isn't bad." He wrote her again in
September to say that the painting was "slowly taking shape
in my imagination. And what was in the realm of wishing is now
assuming real forms. What I have been lacking with this idea was
depth and richness of sound, very earnest, complex, and easy at
the same time." The catalogue notes that in the final work
"his vision is caught up in an eruptive pictorial happening."
"White Center" is
a strange title for a 1921 painting with such pronounced accents
at its lower left corner. The catalogue notes that "the expressive
vehemence of the pre-war pictures has given way to a more detached,
seemingly rational mode of composition, using pure, simple forms.
Kandinsky, however, always distanced himself from the mechanical
art of the Constructivists. He, too, began, expecially from 1920
to 1921, to use geometric forms such as dircles, triangles, and
precisely elongated arcs and lines, but often with soft borders
and irregular combinations."
The first major Kandinksy painting
to enter Solomon R. Guggenheim's collection was "Composition
8," a 1923 work that Guggenheim bought at the Dessau Bauhaus
in 1934. "A masterpiece of the artist's Bauhaus years,"
according to Karole Vail, "this late composition was painted
nearly a decade after the previous painting in the series. Dominated
by miscellaneous geometric and abstract elements as well as fine
black lines, it is a commanding and highly organized canvas that
Kandinsky considered a highlight of his post-World War I period.
Still quite discernible are the triangular shapes of what may
be mountain peaks, lending a harmouious and cool composition device
to the picture. The work is dotted with colorful floating circles,
which Kandinsky described as the 'synthesis of the greatest oppositions.'"
"On Points," a 1928
Kandinsky oil, illustrated at the top of this article, was regarded
very highly by the artist.
Annegret Hoberg provides the
following commentary on it in the catalogue:
"Its spare, almost meekly
applied color and similarly drawn black outlines designating the
geometric forms make it rather unusual in his oeuvre. These objects
fan out and up into a large triangle over the paiting's square
format from a narrow, slightly raised plinth at the lower edge.
These shapes consist mostly of larger, greatly elongated triangles
standing on their tips and of small equilateral ones that at the
top serve as arrow-shaped ends either opposing the direction of
the lower tips or suggesting upward movement. Another dominant
element is the large circle hovering at the top of the fan of
forms, expanding its narrow base. This circle is accompanied by
six small floating circles that seem drawn with a compass and
distributed around the given space. The paint is applied in cloudy
patches mainly on these geometric figures, while at the edges
the yellowish background is left largely freed. Hans K. Roetherl,
who with Jean K. Benjamin, complied the catalogues raisonées
of Kandinsky's oil paintings, sees this work in connection with
the artist's striving to enable the viewer to exprience time in
a painting. 'The dimension of time, however, took on quite a different,
nonsubjective quality or Kandinsky during the Bauhaus period.
Because the circle possessed for him 'the clearest indication
of the fourth dimension, he preferred it as an element to such
other geometric forms as the triangle or square. Thus by using
the circle, movement - as the very essense of time - became a
visual component of his paintings....As in counterpoint music,
there is no one theme, formally speaking, to which the other forms
are subordinated, but all the elements have an independent life
of their own, and it is by their 'constellation' that both movement
and emotion become evident as a result."
is an important painting of the Bauhaus era whose dimensions and
formal complexity approximate Kandinsky's ten great Compositions.
Thanks to such works,
Kandinsky's art exerted an influence on later modernism, including,
for example, Barnett Newman's series Who's Afraid of Yellow,
Red and Blue (1966-69). The theme of the primary colors, adressed
in the title, was a major part of Kandinsky's Preliminary Course
at the Bauhaus, which covered the analysis of yellow, red and
blue, as well as their assignment ot the primary geometric shapes
of triangle, square, and circle....The three sections form two
centers, in a composition he often used, according to Kandinsky
in a commentary on the 1913 work Painting with a White Border
(Moscow)....and both...conjure anthropological asssociations.
While in the yellow field one might see a human profile due to
the structure of the lines and circles, the intertwining of red
and blue form with the black diagonal is reminiscent of the theme
of the battle between Saint George and the dragon...."
a 1936 work is a typical Kandinsky asymmetrical composition that
combines an explosive center, a rectangular, almost seal-like
box at the upper left and three circular targets at the upper
right. "Though his last decade of creativity has often been
criticized and less appreciated than his gtroundbreaking earlier
work," observed Karole Vale, an assistant curator at the
Guggenheim, in her notes on this painting in the catalogue, "Kandinsky's
years in France were prolific in spite of difficult wartime conditions.
When he arrived in France, Kandinsky found French modernists engaged
in a dialectical controversy pitting the artists of Abstraction-Creation....,
a loose association of artists who promoted abstract art through
group exhibitions and a journal, against the Surrealists, headed
by André Breton, and Kandinsky participated in the dialogue.
During these twilight years, Kandinsky's work underwent stylistic
changes, and he introduced an astonishing variety of organic and
playful motifs inspired by biological and zoological imagery culled
from scientific writings. At the Bauhaus, he had assiduously collected
reproductions from technical and encyclopedic volumes and used
them for his lectures. Kandinsky was inspired as well by the diversity
of forms used by Jean Arp, Max Ernst, Paul Klee, and Joan Miro,
but created an original biomorphic style, an automatic language
of sorts, blending the infinite pictorial possibilities of Surrealism
and formal abstraction with those of the natural sciences. Vestiges
of favorate geometric elements remain in Kandinsky's oeuvre, such
as the circle and the grid. His late works suggest ideas of transformation
and rebirth, as exemplified by Dominant Curve (Courbe dominante),
a vigorous painting that nonetheless has an astonishingly light
touch. The enigmatic feeling prevading this mature work is reinforced
by a set of mysterious steps at the right, which lead nowhere
in particular but are possibly emblematic of an ascent to a higher
spiritual plane. Kandinsky considered this harmonious canvas to
be one of his most important works of that time."
In a September 22, 2009 article
entitled "Falling Apart and Holding Together Kandinsky's
Development" at artnet.com, Donald Kuspit provided the following
commentary about the artist:
"Wieland Schmied has called
Kandinsky’s pre-World War I paintings 'apocalyptic landscapes,'
arguing that they are informed with apocalyptic destructiveness,
but also the elated expectation of post-apocalyptic redemption.
The intense colors on which Kandinsky placed so much esthetic
and expressive hope have redemptive power, even as their brightness
is sometimes streaked with painful shadow. The forceful black
lines, sometimes stylized squiggles and typically at odds with
each other, awkwardly frame the eccentric patches of color, but
also create an effect of what Kandinsky called 'dissonance,' suggesting
apocalyptic destructiveness.The incoherence of Kandinsky’s
apocalyptic landscapes - the messiness left after a so-called
emotional storm, a destructive tornado that suddenly appears,
an angel of death who comes out of the blue, that is, a horseman
of the apocalypse (which is what Kandinsky’s and Marc’s
'Blue Rider' is [he has been associated with St. George who killed
the dragon, but he quickly changes from a graceful realistic rider
in an early representation to a demonic abstract rider in a later
representation] - is the expression of the disintegrative terror
and traumatic horror of the apocalypse. They convey the psychic
truth that one has lost control of one’s consciousness and
has no control of the world and thus become helpless....Kandinsky
was able to impose geometrical order on his gestural disorder,
which brings it under superficial control without changing it.
The late geometrical works are abortive attempts to create a clear
and distinct abstract picture rather than a sort of creative apperception
- or at least introspective awareness - of his own breakdown.
Mr. Kuspit is the distinguished
professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and
A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.
In her review of the exhibition
at the Guggenheim in the September 17, 2009 edition of The
New York Times Roberta Smith remarked that the circling ramp
of Wright’s rotunda was surely designed with that Russian’s
swirling, unanchored abstractions in mind. Kandinsky’s precarious,
ever-moving compositions suggest that he never met a diagonal
he didn’t like; Wright obliged with a museum on a perpetual
The exhibition, she argued,
"simplifies a vision that held music, painting and language
as part of a continuum and relegates his activities as theoretician,
essayist, poet and (arts) community organizer to the show’s
informative, discreetly placed wall texts. In both of his best-known
books - “Concerning the Spiritual in Art” (1912) and
“Point and Line to Plane” (1926) - he displays a remarkable
ability to reconcile the redemptive power of art’s “inner
pulsations,” meant to be experienced “with all one’s
senses” and exacting diagrams of the formal effect of different
colors, shapes and lines, each of which he felt had a distinct
In her September 21, 2009 article
on the exhibition in The Wall Street Journal Karen Wilkin
correctly notes that "American artists found him a useful
guide on the path to abstraction," noting that "We can
find similar 'disguised references,' in Arshile Gorky's
mature work, for example, as well as affinities, with the work
and teaching of the German-born, New York-based Hans Hofmann."
Kandinsky's great works have
tremendous dynamics and lyrical but extremely complex compositions
that are remarkably harmoniously even when overloaded with countless
squiggles and details. His best works are always bold and very
strong and quite intellectual.