The year usually given in popular art histories for the first abstract painting is 1910, and Vasily Vasilyevich Kandinsky was the artist who made it. The cognoscenti are less precise, preferring to list the contemporary experiments of artists such as Robert Delaunay, František Kupka, Francis Picabia, Fernand Léger, Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich, as well as art movements such as the fauvists and orphists in Paris, the Der Blaue Reiter movement in Munich, the supremacists in Moscow and so on. Nudes in the Forest (1910) by Léger must also be a contender.
The date of Kandinsky’s picture is contentious anyway. The Pompidou Centre, the home of modernism in Paris, has an essay online investigating whether the Kandinsky painting that wins that popular honour – an untitled watercolour, signed, dated and inscribed with the words “abstract watercolour” on the back – was really made in 1910 given that it was intended as a draft for an oil on canvas, Composition VII, made three years later. Was it backdated by the artist himself to 1910?
Anyway, visitors who saw the stunning exhibition of Swedish painter Hilma af Klint’s work at the Art Gallery of NSW in 2021 might beg to differ. The Tate certainly argues for her as the forerunner of abstraction, having created her first abstract painting in 1906. Kandinsky and af Klint shared many similarities, including an interest in spiritualist theosophy in common with many artists who were moving towards abstraction at the time. The Tate says of af Klint: “In 1905 she noted that she had heard a voice that had given her the following message: ‘You are to proclaim a new philosophy of life and you yourself are to be a part of the new kingdom. Your labours will bear fruit.’”
Kandinsky’s most famous text is Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1912). In it, he outlines his belief that visual art forms a continuum with language and especially with music, fuelling an “inner necessity”, mirroring af Klint, to represent the outside world beyond traditional conceptions and the material demands of capitalism. He had synaesthesia – he heard colours and saw sounds – and colour, for him, was a powerful representation of emotion. It was his first hearing of Wagner’s Lohengrin in 1901, in the same year as his first glimpse of Monet’s Haystacks, that made him leave his successful career in law to study art in Munich. Colour, planar forms and the transmission of music into the visual realm were his tools.
The results of this watershed shift are now on show at the Art Gallery of NSW. The exhibition, simply titled Kandinsky, is a slimmed-down version of the show that premiered at the Guggenheim Museum in New York last year. It is made up almost entirely of the Guggenheim’s holdings – 47 paintings have been brought to Australia – plus a watercolour from the AGNSW’s own holdings, and archives and books from the AGNSW and the National Gallery of Australia.
The well-spaced and minimalist hang enhances the exhilaration of seeing the works in the flesh, including famous paintings such as Blue Mountain (1908–09), which marks the beginning of Kandinsky’s final move away from representation; Improvisation 28 (Second Version) (1912), one of a series with names that give away their musical inspiration; through to White Figure (1943), a “biomorphic abstraction” from the year before his death, which could almost be a return to representation, though a representation of what would be anyone’s guess.
Kandinsky’s biography – his peripatetic existence through war and revolution during the turbulent first half of the 20th century – is almost as revealing a context for his artistic development as an analysis of his paintings. His moves between Russia and Germany, the work and the friends he made in each place, and his final years in France together form a map of his development. His sense of displacement would shape his creative take on the world.
He was born in Moscow in 1866 into a bourgeois family. They moved to Odessa when he was a child, but he returned to Moscow to study law and economics and begin his career. He had a strong interest in art, and in ethnography and folklore, and learnt to play the cello and the violin. That startling encounter with Wagner and Monet when he was 30 led him to abandon his conservative profession and turn down a professorship in law in order to study art. He moved to Munich where he not only studied art and began to paint, but also became an activist in the art world.
Franz Marc, another artist mesmerised by intense colour and its psychological power, became a close friend. The two of them, along with Alexei von Jawlensky, eventually founded Der Blaue Reiter, the influential and eclectic movement named for Kandinsky’s pivotal work, The Blue Rider (1903), which depicted the artist’s totemic figure, Saint George. Der Blaue Reiter’s art book, intended to be an annual record of the expressionist movement, included works by van Gogh, Picasso and Cézanne, Chinese ink painting, German folk art and Renaissance woodcuts. “We aim to show by means of the variety of forms represented how the inner wishes of the artist are embodied,” Kandinsky wrote of it.
Kandinsky saw their movement as a new Renaissance but with an emphasis on personal, esoteric spirituality rather than the powerfully naturalistic imagery used by the Catholic Church. In his 1912 book he wrote: “Colour is the keyboard. The eye is the hammer, while the soul is a piano of many strings. The artist is the hand through which the medium of different keys causes the human soul to vibrate.” Unlike other spiritualist painters, af Klint for example, Kandinsky preserved a rational edge to his work: the pure abstraction he developed was a balance of mysticism and geometry.
Then World War I intervened. Many artists fought in that monstrous war, among them Marc, who was killed along with Egon Schiele, August Macke and the French art critic Guillaume Apollinaire. The French cubist George Braque, a close friend of Picasso’s, was severely injured, temporarily blinded and underwent a long recuperation before he could paint again.
Russia and Germany were at war, and Kandinsky was an enemy alien. His return to Russia was another pivotal moment. Trapped by the Revolution at the end of the war, he turned to teaching and museology, and became the first director of the Institute of Artistic Culture. His ideas of colour and form make an interesting comparison with aspects of Malevich’s constructivism, but Kandinsky was seen as too individualist and bourgeois for the Institute’s Marxist direction. In 1922, he returned to Germany, accepting an invitation to teach at the Bauhaus in Weimar, living next to another close friend, the Swiss-born German artist Paul Klee. Somehow his ideas fitted with the Bauhaus’s “form follows function” motto, and he flourished there.
His politics certainly fitted. The wall text for the much earlier work Blue Mountain – with its arrangement of powerful but unrelated blocked colours: blue for the mountain, yellow and red for the towering flanking trees, with two small riders on horses at the lower centre – includes the description, “clash between matter and spirituality in human society”, interpreted as his response to the rising tensions before World War I. The Guggenheim’s curator, Megan Fontanella, who visited Sydney for the exhibition’s opening, remarks that Kandinsky’s horse-and-rider motif “symbolised his crusade against traditional aesthetic values” and also “his belief in the transformative power of art. That art can be inspirational. It can be transcendent. It can lift us all up. He dreamed of a more utopian, spiritual future.” Form, for him, certainly followed the upheavals of his era.
Under political pressure from conservative politicians who doled out its funding in Weimar, the Bauhaus moved to Dessau in 1925. There, however, Hannes Meyer stirred up philosophical divisions when he took over from founder Walter Gropius in 1928. The burgeoning Nazi Party was its next problem. When it took over Dessau in 1931, the school moved to Berlin. The Gestapo closed it down in 1933. When the Bauhaus moved to the United States, Kandinsky stayed put. His work was designated “degenerate” by the Nazis and shown in the famous exhibition that illustrated it.
Kandinsky moved to Neuilly-sur-Seine, the affluent urban commune just west of Paris, which has housed all kinds of luminaries of the arts – including Jean de la Fontaine, Edith Piaf, Marcel Duchamp, Mireille Mathieu, Anais Nin, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Carole Bouquet and, for a slight change of pace, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins – and remained there even though the Nazis followed him, establishing the Vichy government under their control. He took French citizenship in 1939 and died there in 1944, before seeing the end of the war.
Kandinsky not only moved house between countries constantly, but he also travelled for pleasure. He went to Siberia on an ethnographic study trip as a young university student, after joining the Russian Imperial Society of Friends of Natural Science. When he left Munich, he took a long trip across Europe and North Africa, which included a stint in Paris, and lasted until 1908. He was keenly alert to “the lonely and alienated path of the artist … amidst the degeneracy of contemporary life”, as Paula Marvelly, editor of The Culturium, has put it.
It is ironic that Kandinsky’s lonely path made him so emblematic of the 20th century and that his work influenced the greatest leap in art history: from representation to abstraction. Not everybody was mad about this show. In the United States, some critics gave it a lukewarm review, suggesting he had peaked early. But in the trimmed-down version here in Sydney, Kandinsky’s trajectory takes us through an absorbing examination, not only of colour, shape and line, and of theme, but also of the history of modernism and of the world.
Kandinsky is showing at the Art Gallery of NSW until March 10, 2024.
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