Vasily Kandinsky in New York

Composition 8

Vasily Kandinsky, Composition 8 (1923), oil on canvas, 55-1/8″ x 79-1/8″;  courtesy The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

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Vasily Kandinsky (1866-1944) is an inescapable figure in the history of 20th-century art. The Russian painter’s career encompasses Modernist hotspots like Moscow, Munich and Paris and turbulent events like both World Wars and the Russian Revolution. As an artist, Kandinsky synthesized a seemingly incompatible range of styles: Art Nouveau, Post-Impressionism, Symbolism, Cubism, Surrealism and Suprematism. To get an idea of how provocative Kandinsky’s art was at the time, however, consider its detractors.

Though he achieved positions of distinction in the cultural bureaucracies of Communist Russia, Kandinsky was no fan of the October Revolution: The Bolsheviks expropriated his family’s considerable landholdings and assets, leaving him virtually penniless. Kandinsky nevertheless bent over backward to accommodate the state, to be ultimately pegged as “bourgeois” and expelled from his job on the charge of being “an emigrant.”

This fall, New Yorkers will have ample opportunity to consider for themselves Kandinsky’s achievements as painter, theorist and academic. The Guggenheim Museum is presenting Kandinsky, the most comprehensive U.S. overview of the artist’s oeuvre in close to three decades. Later in November, the Museum of Modern Art will mount Bauhaus 1919-1933: Workshops for Modernity, a major exhibition focusing on the school’s hugely influential cross-disciplinary curriculum. Kandinsky—along with fellow faculty like Josef Albers, Marcel Breur, Laszlo Moholy Nagy and Oskar Schlemmer—is likely to play a prominent role.

Comprising close to 100 paintings and more than 60 works-on-paper, many of which haven’t been exhibited in America, the Guggenheim show promises to be the definitive sampler of Kandinsky’s art for at least a generation or two. Past generations will recognize the apt venue: Originally known as The Museum of Non-Objective Painting, the Guggenheim was founded on Kandinsky’s otherworldly approach to abstraction. (Solomon R. Guggenheim would eventually acquire over 150 Kandinsky paintings.) Already seen in Paris and Munich, Kandinsky proved a crowd-pleaser. Get ready to elbow through the crowds on Frank Lloyd Wright’s ramp.

Most famously, Kandinsky was a pioneer of abstract painting. Maybe he didn’t invent the stuff (as is often claimed), but he did pursue it with almost evangelical single-mindedness and, later in life, with surprising whimsy. Kandinsky’s signature abstractions—with their scrabbled lines, roaming compositions and jewel-like tonalities—are keystones of High Modernism. If their pictorial innovations have been blunted by the passage of time, Kandinsky’s fervor is no less felt because of it.

Among his colleagues and confidantes were composer Arnold Schoenburg, architect Walter Gropius, poet Andre Breton and painters Paul Klee, Joan Miro and Kazimir Malevich. Kandinsky helped found Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), an artist’s collective that had a decisive impact on German Expressionism, and he taught at the Bauhaus, the school of art, architecture and design. Kandinsky also embraced the woozy mysticism of the much-in-vogue Madame Blavatsky and wrote On the Spiritual in Art, a seminal treatise exploring the connections between visual art and music.

Kandinsky came late to art. After studying law, economics and statistics at the University of Moscow, he was offered a professorship in Roman Law at the University of Dorpat, Russia (now Tartu, Estonia). But that was the same year he saw Claude Monet’s “Haystack” paintings and attended a performance of Wagner’s Lohengrin—transforming experiences, both. And then there was that revelatory sunset: “The sun dissolves the whole of Moscow into a single spot, which, like a wild tuba, sets all one’s soul vibrating.” Equating painting with ecstasy, Kandinsky left for Germany to study art. He was 30 years old.

The Guggenheim show isn’t a full-scale retrospective: It skips over Kandinsky’s formative years and moves directly to Paris 1907, where we see, within arcane dioramas of peasantry, princes and decorative excess, the initial steps toward abstraction. The figurative components and overripe nostalgia would soon be submerged within flurries of brushstrokes, galumphing rhythms and hieroglyphic abbreviations of form. (Anthropology was one of Kandinsky’s fascinations.) What remained were Byzantine compositions and a saturated palette gleaned from Matisse, Derain and Bavarian Hinterglasbilder, a form of folk painting done on glass collected by Kandinsky.

Kandinsky returned to Germany in 1929, only to have the Nazis eventually lump his iconographic abstractions under the “degenerate” rubric and to close down the Bauhaus because of its incompatibility with the regime’s cultural program. Kandinsky considered moving to California, of all places, but financial considerations led him to settle in a Parisian suburb, where he would live and work the rest of his days.

If the Guggenheim is Kandinsky’s spiritual homebase, the Bauhaus serves a similar function for MoMA. Founding director Alfred H. Barr wrote that the “three days which I spent at the Bauhaus in 1928 [was] one of the most important incidents in my own education.” Workshops for Modernity is the first comprehensive overview of the Bauhaus the museum has mounted since 1938. That show was an insiders’ project, having been organized and overseen by Bauhaus founders and acolytes. This time around, Barry Bergdoll, the museum’s chief architecture curator, will concentrate on the Bauhaus, not as an artistic movement per se, but as an institution in a specific political context: “the tumultuous tenure of the Weimar Republic.”

Art is never completely divorced from history, of course, but will MoMA’s emphasis on the school as a “cultural think tank for trying times” illuminate or cloud its rigorous aesthetic? Still, Workshops for Modernity is bound to contain riches, not least designer Marcel Breur’s and weaver Gunta Stolzl’s “African” chair (1921), a work presumed lost until its re-discovery five years ago. How well Kandinsky’s and the Bauhaus’ deeply romantic optimism will translate to our young, been-there-done-that century will be only one thing to mull over in the coming months.

© 2009 Mario Naves

Originally published in the September 17, 2009 edition of City Arts.

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