Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum September 18, 2009 – January 13, 2010
Every twenty years or so since 1945, a retrospective of Vasily Kandinsky has appeared at the Guggenheim Museum. This latest installment, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the museum, is truly a major event, an assembly of 99 of the artist’s most significant canvases (from 1907 to 1942) and 66 works on paper, selected from the three largest collections of Kandinsky on the planet—the Guggenheim itself, the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus und Kunstbau in Munich—an unprecedented joint project for these three institutions.
Born at the end of the 19th century in Moscow to an affluent family (of Germanic Baltic ancestry), Kandinsky had been practicing law and economics when, at age 30, he became enamored of the folkloric art of the Vologda province and the French modern art exhibited in Russia (including the works of Claude Monet). He began painting and soon took up art studies in Munich, but became increasingly dissatisfied. He began to paint on his own, beginning with small oil studies direct from nature and nostalgic Russian motifs from memory. In 1898 he began exhibiting with the Association of South-Russian Artists in Odessa.
Kandinsky established the Phalanx Artists Association (one of the many associations he started or joined to advance new ideas in art) and fell in love with his student, Gabriele Münter, who became his intimate companion. They traveled throughout Europe for several years, settling first in Paris, then in the suburb of Saint-Cloud, before returning to Berlin. Searching the German countryside for inspiration, Kandinsky and Münter came to Murnau by Lake Staffel in the Bavarian Alps. Here, accompanied by fellow painters Alexi Jawlensky and Marianne von Werefkin, he began to develop a new, vividly colored and expressive painting style that eventually led to “Der Blaue Reiter” (“The Blue Rider”), a breakthrough to abstract painting.
“Of all the arts, abstract painting is the most difficult,” said Kandinsky. “It demands that you know how to draw well, that you have a heightened sensitivity for composition and for colors, and that you be a true poet. This last is essential.”
Throughout his formative years, Kandinsky both influenced and was influenced by fellow co-conspirators Archipenko, Delaunay, Picabia, Tatlin, Lissitzky, Malevich, Lorionov, the Rayonists, and the Constructivists. He discovered Rudolf Steiner’s Theosophy, a key influence on his aesthetics and philosophy of “art as a proper playground for the spiritual.” But from the start, Kandinsky was unique in the way he expressed his inner spirituality, dreams, and repressed memories.
It would be a mistake to think of Kandinsky’s art as having developed in a linear progression. Rather, it resembles a “zigzag line with various angles and gaps,” as Vivian Endicott Barnett (author of “Kandinsky Watercolors: Catalogue Raisonne,” Cornell University Press, 1992) suggests in her catalog essay, “The Artist Reinvents Himself: Changes, Crises, Turning Points.”
Ascending the spiral ramp of the Guggenheim, Kandinsky’s ideas evolve before our eyes. “Colorful Life” (tempera on canvas, 1907) is an expressionistic figurative landscape populated by colorful Russian natives. This work and “Riding Couple” (1907) are the earliest on display here, predecessors of a conversion from formal-figurative into abstraction. The first round room at the Guggenheim is adorned with five colorful abstract works, all painted in Murnau, probably outdoors, that fuse the outer world with the artist’s inner spiritual life.
That winter (1908) he worked with Russian composer Thomas von Hartmann and created his first theatrical work, in which color, sound, language, and movement combined into an art-synthesis. Colors were now intended to affect the viewer directly, much like music (during the 1920s, the German Dadaist Hugo Ball would perform these theatrical and musical works at Dada soirées).
Even in this period, Kandinsky did not completely forgo representation, utilizing symbolic fragments of stylized horses with riders and trees, as in “Lyrical” (1911) and “Romantic Landscape” (1911). He began corresponding with Viennese composer Arnold Schoenberg about “rupturing the conventional structure” of a composition. “Sketch 2 for Composition VII” is one of my favorites of that period on display here, where the diagonal enters as a main modulation with primary colors harmonically swirling in mind-expanding new dimensions.
The abstract works in the 1920s and 30s, including the red-dot symphonies and black-grid compositions, are classic examples of music-visual hybrids evoking constellations, planets, and moons, as in “Several Circles” (1926). This is the well-known Bauhaus period, where Kandinsky taught for 11 years (1922-1933). He refined his craft to a masterly mix of pure lines, triangles, squares, circles, and grids, as perfected in “Composition 8” (1923). In “Levels” (1929), an abstraction structured like a display case containing squares, hornlike objects, bicolored circles and triangles in all their permutations, an accumulation of shapes resembling collage or assemblage. His works were also included in the notorious “Degenerate Art” show assembled by the Nazis in 1937 to demonstrate the bad influence of foreign modern art, confiscating 57 artworks as a purge (ironically, Kandinsky had a German passport identifying him as an Aryan).
At the top of the Guggenheim ramp are Kandinsky’s last works from France, where he had become a citizen in 1939. After the Bauhaus experience he stopped using a ruler and compass. He introduced a multitude of organic, biological and zoological imagery culled from science books. He also used sand mixed with pigment to obtain dull tints and matte color that some critics mistook for “delicate pastels.” All in all, between 1934 and 1942, he created fifty-five large paintings, many under wartime conditions and a deprivation of art materials, without repeating himself, rounding up a prophetic curve from Post-Impressionism and Fauvism to Expressionism, Abstraction, Abstract Expressionism, and Biomorphic-Surrealism.
At the beginning of their movement, the surrealists praised Kandinsky and Francis Picabia for “mechanically” extending Futurism into abstraction. But Kandinsky was an “instinctual surrealist” or maybe an “accidental surrealist.” As a writer, he was a theorist of retinal-art and spiritual art and not particularly mind-art à la Duchamp (which he perhaps did not really understand). Kandinsky’s art combines the playful with the spiritual, synthesizing conflicting forces and multicolored forms (“Capricious Forms,” 1937) microscopically observed, each a world in itself. These magical, mysterious paintings and their enigmatic forms are paralleled but never surpassed by the imaginative works of surrealists Joan Miró, Jean Arp, Yves Tanguy, Andre Masson, Roberto Matta, and Eugenio Granell.
Kandinsky’s last period, however, is less appreciated, perhaps due to its apparent lack of rigor. It did not help that the postwar market appropriated his Bauhaus motifs as decorative designs for dishes (as he himself did earlier) as well as rugs, posters, and wallpaper. This certainly diminished his standing, but as the show proves, his refined, unmatched, phantasmagoric amoebas are a sight to behold and deserve new historical reconsideration.
As the viewer travels up the Frank Lloyd Wright incline, higher and higher, this elegant exhibit unfolds also in the side rooms, which feature Kandinsky’s works on paper, all from the Guggenheim’s holdings. Reflecting the 50-year evolution of what began as the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, these materials were deliberately created on a smaller scale by the artist to establish an intimate relationship with the viewer. Observing his techniques, including his use of inks and watercolors, gives one a real contact with his genius. Add the films, photography, and the related events in the museum’s Works & Process performance series, and Kandinsky becomes a must-see show of the new art season in New York.