Wassily Kandinsky, Several Circles (1926), oil on canvas, 140 x 140 cm.; courtesy The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
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The Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944) occupies a pioneering role in the modernist canon. He was among a handful of artists who first ventured into abstraction. Pure abstraction, that is: Picasso and Braque, while delving into the headier precincts of Synthetic Cubism, had already made pictures with relationships to observed phenomena that were, if not exactly strained, then tenuous. But it was left to figures like Kandinsky to jettison representation altogether. Given the skepticism with which abstraction was greeted at the time, such a pursuit betokened sensibilities made bold (or reckless) by their aesthetic convictions.
Kandinsky’s radical achievement is the subject of a sweeping retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Kandinsky is, among other things, a reminder that retrospectives don’t always shine a generous light on their subjects. What’s striking about the six signature abstractions installed toward the exhibition’s beginning isn’t their sophistication, but the manner in which that sophistication was misprised. In arrays of wiry lines, random puffs of color, and pinched, convulsive rhythms, the paintings struggle against their own pretensions.
The paintings exude a certain fervor, but not the kind that emanates from exquisitely honed compositions. Kandinsky was an adherent of Theosophy, a mish-mosh of mystical bromides made influential by Madame Blavatsky, the self-proclaimed practitioner of levitation, clairvoyance, and other sideshow hijinks. It was Kandinsky’s artistic goal to evoke this immateriality prized by Theosophists. The Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, another follower of the hermetical Madame, wrote that if an artist is “to approach the spiritual … [he] will make as little use as possible of reality, because reality is opposed to the spiritual.” Escaping the tangible world was the Theosophical artist’s highest calling.
As Kandinsky writes in Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911):
“A painter, who finds no satisfaction in mere representation, however artistic, in his longing to express his inner life, cannot but envy the ease with which music, the most non-material of the arts today, achieves this end. He naturally seeks to apply the methods of music to his own art. And from this results that modern desire for rhythm in painting, for mathematical, abstract construction, for repeated notes of color, for setting color in motion.
“This borrowing of method by one art from another, can only be truly successful when the application of the borrowed methods is not superficial but fundamental. One art must learn first how another uses its methods, so that the methods may afterwards be applied to the borrower’s art from the beginning, and suitably. The artist must not forget that in him lies the power of true application of every method, but that that power must be developed.
In manipulation of form music can achieve results which are beyond the reach of painting. On the other hand, painting is ahead of music in several particulars. Music, for example, has at its disposal duration of time; while painting can present to the spectator the whole content of its message at one moment.”
Oil paint, in its fleshy malleability, intensely material, and paintings are physical objects with an adamant stake in the here and now. How did abstraction enable painters to navigate the conundrums posed by Theosophy? In The Triumph of Modernism, Hilton Kramer divines the crucial role Theosophy played in the development of Kandinsky’s vision. Kramer writes of how, “in the realm of art at least, a silly idea may sometimes form the basis of a serious accomplishment”:
Theosophy supplied a systematic cosmology to which the new abstract art could readily attach itself. For the pioneers of abstraction were as eager to have their art “represent” something—even, in some special sense, to have it represent “nature”—as the most academic realist, and theosophy gave them a meaningful world beyond the reach of appearances to “represent” in a new way. Thus, abstraction can be said to have made its historic debut as an esoteric form of representational art. Art for art’s sake had nothing to do with the advent of abstraction. It was a means to an end.
Comprised of close to one hundred paintings and over sixty works on paper, Kandinsky will likely define his achievement for the next few generations—or, at least, until the Guggenheim feels it necessary to re-celebrate the artist who is its sine qua non. Originally known as The Museum of Non-Objective Painting, the Guggenheim was founded on the spiritualist aspirations exemplified by Kandinsky’s paintings. Solomon R. Guggenheim collected over one hundred and fifty of them on the advice of his friend, the painter and connoisseur Hilla Rebay. As the museum’s first director, Rebay underscored Kandinsky’s predominance by devoting permanent galleries to the work. The curators of “Kandinsky” have keyed into the special relationship between artist and institution—it’s right there to deduce from the show’s smart selective pacing, nuance, and range.
Kandinsky began painting at the age of thirty. A student of law, economics, and statistics at the University of Moscow, he was on track for a life in academia,when inspiration or, rather, inspirations struck. Attending a performance of Wagner’s Lohengrin and seeing Monet’s Haystack paintings in 1896 confirmed Kandinsky’s artistic longings, but it was a Moscow sunset that put him over the top. Marveling at “the garish green of the grass, the deeper tremolo of the trees, the singing snow with its thousand voices or the allegretto of the bare branches, the red, stiff silent ring of the Kremlin walls,” the disaffected law student concluded: “To paint this hour, I thought, must be for an artist the most impossible, the greatest joy.” Kandinsky did, in fact, paint an almost literal transcription of this euphoric scenario twenty years later in Moscow I (1916).
Kandinsky’s turn to abstraction is set out with clear, inevitable logic. The exhibition begins with Colorful Life (1907), a storybook vista whose Byzantine composition and clusters of jewel-like color recall, respectively, Art Nouveau and Hinterglas Bilder, a form of folk painting done on glass. Kandinsky brought the same palette, albeit applied in larger swatches, to the landscapes and fairy tale fragments featuring princes, horses, and castles he painted upon moving to Germany in 1908. The saturated colors, flurries of brushstrokes, and increasingly roughhewn structures typical of the work done in Munich and Murnau are textbook examples of Expressionism, the highly charged style developed and propounded by Der Blaue Reiter, an artists’ group founded by Kandinsky, Franz Marc, Alexei von Jawlensky, and other notables.
Kandinsky veered away from recognizable imagery around 1911. Forms become less defined and concrete; space is rendered kaleidoscopic, turbulent, and bottomless. Kandinsky’s symbols can be relatively clear-cut: the elegant couple out for a stroll with their dog in Impression VI (Sunday) or the towering onlookers in Improvisation 19 (both 1911). At other times, a loping collection of black lines and color patches suggests, rather than delineates, a galloping horse or a mountain range. Two years later, not even a subtitle—Moscow, say—can codify a turbulent expanse of pictorial incident. Experience had been denatured into pure sensation. The “spiritual in art” had been realized.
But at what cost? Abstraction is now a stylistic trope in a culture overrun with them; its revolutionary character resides largely in period documentation. It is difficult, at this date, to appreciate the risk inherent in Kandinsky’s art. But risky it was: Consider his enemies. Though Kandinsky achieved positions of pre-eminence in the cultural bureaucracies of Communist Russia—he had returned to his homeland in 1914—Kandinsky was eventually pegged as “bourgeois” and fired on charges of being “an emigrant.” Returning to Germany, he found his pictures lumped under the Nazis’ “degenerate” rubric. Kandinsky’s art was anathema to the twentieth century’s two most pernicious political regimes. Abstraction was a dicey pursuit.
Outside of their historical context, however, Kandinsky’s paintings lose power. Essentially drawings embellished with arbitrary rushes of color, Kandinsky’s iconic abstractions scrabble for a uniformity that’s never forthcoming. Shapes and rhythms, lines and brushstrokes scrunch toward the center of each composition and fizzle toward its edges. A veritable rainbow is spread over the surfaces with staccato insistence, but it doesn’t amplify or generate much in the way of spatial complexity or intrigue. And forget about light: With rare exceptions—the Guggenheim’s Black Lines (1913) is a sparkling case in point—Kandinsky’s variegated palette resulted in musty hodgepodges of pigment.
During his sojourn in Russia, Kandinsky came under the influence of Constructivism; as a consequence, his jangled conglomerations of line, symbol, and geometry began to tighten and focus. Expressionism gave way to something controlled in its process if not in its ultimate effect. By the time he returned to Germany in 1922 for a teaching stint at the Bauhaus, Kandinsky’s approach was, by and large, commensurate with the school’s rigorous aesthetic. Contours became finite, surfaces uninflected, forms were rendered punchy and graphic—the paintings exhibit the influence of his friend and colleague Paul Klee. Unlike the Swiss master, Kandinsky couldn’t reconcile (or pressurize) his iconography within the picture’s frame. The picture plane was merely a container of images, rather than a vital participant in their realization.
Kandinsky’s lack of concern with a format’s perimeters poses less of a problem in the works on paper. Ensconced in one of the museum’s tower galleries, Kandinsky’s watercolor and India ink pieces are the most engaging incarnations of his vision. In them, Kandinsky’s totemic diagrams are at home; the small scale renders his otherworldly portentousness modest, notational, and approachable. Plumes of sprayed color—usually a dusky haze of rust-brown—are predominant and provide a unifying environment wherein Kandinsky’s emblems can convincingly teeter, totter, and, in the ethereal Into the Dark (1928), ascend with grave purpose.
The final ramp of the Guggenheim is devoted to the work Kandinsky created in Nazi-occupied France, where he resided in the final years of his life. The paintings done in Paris are ornamental inventories of Surrealist-inspired motifs. With their candied pastels and Miró-like blips and blobs—the Spaniard was a close friend—the pictures are delightfully scattershot in demeanor and clean in resolution. The best of them, Succession (1935), trots out an array of biomorphic forms and does so without apology. It’s as if Kandinsky, freed from the challenges of invention, was having fun for the first time in his life. The free-floating whimsy of Around the Circle (1940) and Various Actions (1941) are winning enough that you can forgive their cornball hieroglyphics and irresolute compositions.
All the same, the Surrealist impulse in Kandinsky’s late work is curiously anemic—vivifying maybe but, ultimately, insignificant. Of the French paintings, Kramer astutely notes that they were “not a conversion to Surrealism, but a struggle to move into the orbit of Surrealist freedom.” Kandinsky’s biomorphs are singularly devoid of any existential correlative. The impulse to poetic fantasy is strongly and repeatedly expressed, but it seems to lack any real roots in the artist’s experience. In the end, Kandinsky’s concept of the “spiritual” was too bloodless perhaps, too metaphysical and otherworldly, to permit him to become the kind of erotic poet he saw triumphantly at work in Miró. We are given the design of an imaginary universe, but not the thing itself.
“Without a specific and profound spiritual content,” Kramer goes on to say, “Kandinsky felt, abstract painting would simply decline into decorative trivialities.”
One cannot dismiss Kandinsky’s achievement as “trivial,” but there is an abiding sense upon leaving the Guggenheim that his ambitions far outstripped their realization—or, instead, his ambitions muddled their realization. Kandinsky was too much in thrall to the tenets of Theosophy to transcend his own evangelical willfulness or, in the later paintings, to come out from underneath them to play. Mondrian may have been sold on Madame Blavatsky’s blather as well, but his oeuvre is rooted in the prerequisites of the studio, not in woozy hocus-pocus. The same cannot be said of Wassily Kandinsky.
© 2009 Mario Naves
Originally published in the December 2009 edition of The New Criterion.