Guggenheim Museum Celebrates 50th Anniversary with Kandinsky Retrospective

Richard Friswell
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Wassily KandinskyIf you think you know Kandinsky’s work, look again! The current retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City, Kandinsky(through January 13, 2010), is an eye-opener. Best known for his early, Blue Rider period works, this handful of images has come to serve as art-historical shorthand for a lifetime of artistic evolution. Lesser known and rarely referenced outside a small circle of curatorial experts and collectors is his constantly shifting vision of organizing principles over the course of his long and varied career and the richly symbolic style Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) developed as the central element in his work.
Kandinsky’s seminal role in the shaping of the modern art movement in its earliest years and the path to the creation of the Guggenheim Museum go hand-in-hand. The museum– a Frank Lloyd Wright design-was first proposed in 1943 and opened to critical reviews in 1959. It was intended to be a showcase for Kandinsky’s work. Wright flaunted his futuristic creation at a time when critics were labeling him as outdated and denying him the modernist imprimatur that he believed he deserved. Through Kandinsky’s work (and the relationship that developed between them), he saw an opportunity to place himself squarely in the ranks of the contemporary architects of the time.
(above: Kandinsky in front of his work, Dominant Circle [Courbe dominante]), 1936
The current exhibition represents an homage to the founding of the original ‘Museum of Non-Representational Art’ in 1939, largely intended to guggenheim museumhouse Solomon Guggenheim’s collection of nearly 300 Kandinsky works and the subsequent commissioning of a new and larger facility by Wright. It also celebrates the recent 3-year, multi-mguggen interillion dollar addition and comprehensive renovation of the building, by architectural firm, Gwathmey Siegel. Though Kandinsky is known for his abstractions on canvas that expressed his inner nature and Wright for his advancement of an organic architecture connected to the natural world, both advocated for a spiritual, aesthetic experience of life.  This exhibition of paintings and prints spanning a 35-year period (1907-1942) is as comprehensive  and intuitive an overview of the artist, his work and his influence on the signature design of the museum building, itself, as you are likely to see in your lifetime!
(above left: Kandinsky show on view at the Guggenheim Museum; right: newly renovated exterior)


Kandinsky’s brilliance is to be found in his inherent ability to reinvent himself as an artist as new information and experiences came his way.  The five-story-long ramp of the Guggenheim show traces his career, virtually from beginning to end.  An anteroom at the third-floor level offers an additional 60 works on paper that complete the artist’s oeuvre. The common thread that weaves its way through all the works on display is the artist’s life-time commitment to the ‘spiritual in art’ and its analogs in abstract painting.  In his earliest efforts, he sought to illuminate this spirituality through the use of intense color and staccato brushstrokes inspired by images of people and places recalled from his native Russia and the German countryside where he settled in 1908, after years of travel throughout Europe.  Symbols and motifs that would remain important to him throughout his life were already appearing in these early works. While it is difficult to parse the career of a prolific and intellectually astute painter like Kandinsky, one approach to understanding the body of his work and the seminal shifts in his working style is to segment it into four major periods: Pre-war (1890-1914; followed by a 7-year productive period while in his native Russian during the conflict (1915-1921); Bauhaus Period (1921-1934) and Paris (1935-1944).

Period I: Pre-War

 During that first decade of the 20th century, Kandinsky, already in his mid-thirties, began to explore in earnest the ‘language of color’ and the blaue reiterpower of imagery in the work of other painters from the period. He also sought out colleagues with a shared interest in the inter-relationship between the visual arts and other forms of creative expression. By 1912, after a number of false starts, he had joined forces with fellow artist, Franz Marc, August Macke and others to form an organization that would explore the close connections they saw between painting, music, color, sound, light, movement and the spoken word. Their publication, Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider Journal) provided an important platform for further clarification and experimentation with the multi-sensory experience that they hoped artistic expression could offer. The rich spiritual symbolism of the ‘Blue Rider’ was, for Kandinsky and his fellow group of artists, including neighbor, Paul Klee, the figure of Saint George, the Dragon Killer (and the patron saint of both Moscow and the German village of Murnau where they had settled), detached from all Christian allusions and symbolizing the triumph of spirituality over materialism. The synthesis of modalities explored by these artists would again, serve to move Kandinsky’s work in innovative and untested waters as an artist in the years to come  (Right: Cover of the first, Der Blaue Reiter Journal, picturing St. George and launching a modernist movement).

Working in an increasingly abstract style, with a blurring of color, line and form, Kandinsky’s painting in the pre-war years took on what he referred to as, ‘absolute’ qualities. By this, he meant the creation of a wholly abstract art created with ‘purely painterly’ means, independent of representation and in accordance with its own compositional laws, like those found in the newly-emerging field of atonal musical composition of Arnold Schoenberg. Like Schoenberg, Kandinsky experimented with color and shape polyphony, transposing cool and warm colors, imposing heavy shapes where fine lines might be expected, inverting image mass from bottom to top in gravity-defying gestures and blurring important symbolic references in his works beyond the point of recognition.

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W. Kandinsky, Impressions III (Concert),1911

The relationship with Schoenberg was spawned during this period and their regular correspondence would serve as an inspiration for both. With Kandinsky’s devotion to the profound nexus between sound and color, expressed in both his writings and in his paintings since 1908-9, collaboration with a like-minded Schoenberg seemed inevitable. During those years, he had increasingly abandoned naturalistic representation for stronger color and abstract form in his series of Compositions and Improvisations paintings. In 1911, the composer premiered his atonal composition, 2nd String Quartet, Opus 10, with Kandinsky in attendance. The soprano’s opening lyric of the third movement begins, “I have breathed the air of another planet.” Alluding to the need for a new world order shaped by spiritualism, this music was radically different than the listening audience was used to and the performance met with scathing critical reviews. Kandinsky, on the other hand, began a painting that night capturing the direct relationship between sounds and colors that surrounded him there—one that neurologists have described (and historians affirm in this case) as a rare anatomical gift called Synesthsisia, where cross-sensory experiences are hard-wired into the brain. Kandinsky’s piece, Impression III (Concert), 1911, in which a black patch recalls the piano lid, a handful for figurative elements represent the audience and the orchestra and a powerful ‘sounding’ of yellow fills the lower right field, representing the music that he both heard and saw that night!

Kandinsky’s productive period in Germany continued for just three more years, where he produced pieces like, Painting with a Black Arch (Bilde mit Schwartzen Boden), 1912, in which the prominent black figure dominates the work. In, On the Spiritual in Art, a theoretical article written the previous year, he said, black is silence, like the pauses in a piece of music that, “will then be followed by something else, like the dawn of a new world.” The outbreak of the Great War soon brought an abrupt end to this creative period and Kandinsky was forced to leave Germany in 1914 for his native Russia.

Kandinsky’s expression of hope in the dawning of a New Age, inspired by the re-discovery of a sense of spirituality was not unusual for artists, musicians, writers and poets of the period. The new century brought with it a commitment on the part of certain segments of the intellectual community to examine the course of civilization through a prism of optimism, spiritual immersion, the abandonment of old social paradigms and the power of art to change lives. They held out the belief that society could turn a corner toward greater enlightenment and civility, with the help of the transformative influence of art, scientific discoveries and industrial advances that had captivated the public’s imagination at the time—the automobile and the ‘aeroplane’ chief among them. Following the war, Kandinsky would return to Germany to find yet another creative community that would share these views and further foster his innovative approach to painting.

Part II: Moscow (1915-1921)

Wassily Kandinsky

W. Kandinsky, Overcast (Smutnoe), 1917

Kandinsky’s return to Moscow when hostilities broke out in Germany provided him a certain fresh perspective on his earlier works, expanding his genre by incorporating influences from his familiar native surroundings. This period saw Kandinsky’s imagery become unteathered, as once familiar figurative elements, like people, buildings and animals, are sent whirling through an abstracted and gravity-free world of bold color and line. Relying more on watercolor, pen and ink during the first years there, as well as the traditional Russian behind-glass painting (in German: Hinterglasbilder), that had informed his paintings some twenty-years earlier, Kandinsky’s works are now a dizzying and fragmented explosion of color, bound only by the suggestion of a narrative framework and the raveled edge of the image field, barely contained by the borders of the canvas, itself.

In 1919, at the age of fifty, Kandinsky married the beautiful (and younger) Nina Andreevskoya. Once again, though, the artist finds himself at the crossroads of history, as the Russian, October Revolution occurs during their honeymoon. From a once-privileged family, the populist ideology that now grips the country during the years that follow placed hardships on the Kandinskys. A series of teaching positions and leadership roles within the new Soviet academic community also provided him with exposure to the work of the Russian Constructivist painters and the severe geometric reductionism of Suprematist, Kasimir Malevich. Their use of geometric form to represent pure feeling, neutral grounding and a break with reality-oriented narrative painting provided Kandinsky with a whole new range of concepts to explore.

His efforts to reach out to the broader European artistic community led to correspondence with designer, Walter Gropius, in Germany. In 1921, they met and, sufficiently impressed, Gropius invited Kandinsky to return to Germany to begin the next phase of his career.

Part III: The Bauhaus (1921-1934)

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W. Kandinsky, Yellow-Red-Blue (Gelb-Rot-Blau), 1925

The Bauhaus was a center for the study of art and design re-established in Weimar, Germany after the war. Under the direction of architect, Walter Gropius, it was the consolidation of two pre-war arts and crafts institutions organized under a renewed commitment to convene a faculty of like-minded artists, designers, writers and artisans to establish a, ‘new unity of art and technology’. Kandinsky was invited to join the organization and bring his progressive ideas about the synthesis of artistic expression of all kinds back to Germany. Reunited with fellow artist, Paul Klee, Kandinsky set to work to, as he said in his 1923 article, ‘The Basic Elements of Form’, to unite art, science and industry under one roof. To his ongoing interest in the properties and behavior of color in composition, he now added an increased used of pure geometric forms in his work. The Bauhaus influence of rationalism and the mechanics of the Industrial Age, now full-blown in post-war Europe, show up in Kandinsky’s more formalized works, like, Composition 8 (Komposition #8) 1923. According to show curators, Tracey Bashkoff, Christian Derouet and Annegret Hoberg, “[this painting] is rhythmically structured by numerous triangular forms, but is dominated overall by the presence of circles of varying sizes and color, from the transparent to the opaque.” “Of the three primary forms,” Kandinsky wrote in 1930, the circle “points most clearly to the fourth dimension.” In addition to a re-examination of these time-honored formal elements, his work also showed increasing experimentation with more structured figurative line forms, like numbers, grids and planes, to both unify and direct the visual action within the image field of the painting; such as in, Yellow-Red-Blue (Gelb- Rot-Blau), 1925 .

After a move from Weimar to the industrial city of Dessau in 1924 and another to Berlin in 1932, it became clearer to Kandinsky and all those involved in the Bauhaus program that their radical approach to design–but more importantly, their philosophical commitment to a new social order–would not be tolerated by Hitler’s ultra-conservative Nazi party. By 1933, a friend described the final departure of Wassily and Nina Kandinsky from Germany because of the, “anti-art attitude of the brownshirt government,” and “they left for Paris on a mid-day train.”

Part IV: Paris (1933-1944)

Again, the exhibit’s co-curators describe the Kandinsky’s presence in Nazi-occupied Paris as aloof and, “staying on the fringe of the artistic circles he frequented.” Despite the fact that the Germans declared his work, “degenerate art”, he continued to write actively and managed to stay in touch with international avant-garde circles. Kandinsky showed his art in progressive galleries and cultivated an American audience. Known to Paris dealers and publishers since his days at the Bauhaus, in Dessau, Germany, Kandinsky’s circle of influence in this new city was already somewhat established.

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W. Kandinsky, Capricious Forms (Formes capricieuses), 1937

Once in Paris, his formal vocabulary changed. Perhaps affected by the beauty of the city and the soft light of the countryside, or perhaps because his theoretical ruminations were taking him in a direction where new experimentation in color and form were leading him to finally develop what he had called, as early as 1930,”a New Objectivity”, consistent with the advances he saw in science and technology. He was also anxious to move beyond his Bauhaus legacy and demonstrate his capacity to work in a new language of painting that kept pace with the times and his established legacy. Additionally, his interest in the surrealist work of his colleagues, Jean Arp and Joan Miró, signaled a shift in the art world toward a new lexicon, based on his expresses belief that, “[Artists are] building a new world that is so deeply bound up with NATURE (sic) such as mankind has not seen for millennia. And thus the phantasticism will become REALITY (sic).”

The work on exhibition from this latter period is markedly more decorative and self-conscious than his earlier, expressive pieces. Gone are the powerful colors and vibrant brushstrokes from Der Blaue Reiter Period or the spontaneous and churning abstractions of the Bauhaus years. Instead, we find intricate and carefully executed mosaics of form and color, in soft pastel colors that draw the eye on a continuous path through a maze of interlocking biomorphic forms and graceful lines, weaving their way through Kandinsky’s imagined microscopic world. The long walk up Wright’s spiraling ramp to the sky-lit rooftop is well worth it. In the journey, one will discover the genius of the man who was able to so successfully reinvent himself, driven by an intellectual pursuit that spanned his lifetime. He was seeking the Holy Grail of artistic expression: the way in which a painting, properly conceived and constructed could alter the course of human events and return civilization to a true, spiritual path. Through the power of his medium—color and form in paint—he succeeded in communicating his message. The course of historical events in the 20th century, however, proved that we were not ready to listen.

By Richard Friswell, Editor-in-Chief

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One Comment

  1. Siusaidh NicNeill September 11, 2018 7:00 am

    Thank you so much for this article. I am a late bloomer from the Isle of Skye and am now returning to art at 62. I am studying Kandinsky as my old auntie, via her husband Josef Hermann knew him in the Paris years, also I love, love his work so my that I Am trying to chanel his early drawing.
    Thank you again

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