By: Richard Covington
In September 1931, Alexandre Kojève addressed a letter to his uncle, painter Vasily Kandinsky, one of the pioneers of abstract art, comparing his capacity to continually discover new forms to Picasso’s. “But unlike him, you never allow yourself the role of ham actor,” quipped Kojève, a Russian emigré philosopher living in the Parisian suburb of Boulogne. Yet he went on to complain that some of his uncle’s works seem too cerebral, more like illustrations of theory than spontaneous paintings.
It was a criticism the artist, who indeed penned extensive aesthetic and spiritual analyses about his work, had heard before. Writing back from Dessau in Germany, where he was a professor at the avant-garde art school of the Bauhaus, Kandinsky asked his nephew to go beyond the surface.
“There are Chinese pastries that are hot on the outside—when taken straight from the oven—while inside there is ice cream,” he explained. “My austere works are like these Chinese pastries but the inverse: cold on the outside, flaming hot on the inside.”
Kandinsky, a landmark retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York Sept. 18–Jan.10, invites viewers to judge for themselves. The exhibition opened in October 2008 in Munich’s Lenbachhaus and then moved to Paris’ Centre Georges Pompidou in April.
With 95 paintings, this show marks the first time since 1976 that works from the Munich, Paris and New York museums, which contain the bulk of Kandinsky’s output, have been brought together into a single, comprehensive display, supplemented by private and public holdings from Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod, New York, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Basel and the Georgian National Museum in Tbilisi. The exhibition covers the key stages in the Moscow-born painter’s career between 1907 and 1942, tracing the formation of the Blue Rider movement in Munich; the Bauhaus years in Weimar, Dessau and Berlin; and his final decade in France.
Curators selected paintings that had special meaning for Kandinsky himself, mostly large—more than one square meter—pictures that the artist regarded as prime examples of his aesthetic development. “We tried to pick works that he hung onto for a long time or that he mentions in his writing to exemplify his ideas about painting,” explains Tracey Bashkoff, a Kandinsky authority and the associate curator of collections and exhibitions at the Guggenheim.
The exhibition showcases paintings that have rarely traveled, such as the Lenbachhaus’ early masterpiece, A Colorful Life (Das bunte Leben, 1907) and the Guggenheim’s Light Picture (Helles Bild, 1913), which has not been exhibited at the museum since the 1970s. Three canvases that were considered too delicate to travel, due to the painter’s use of sand, were treated by Guggenheim conservators for the tour and have returned safely for the New York show.
In addition to paintings in oil and tempera, the Guggenheim is presenting archives and correspondence between Kandinsky, Solomon R. Guggenheim and the collector’s art advisor, Baroness Hilla von Rebay, a German abstract painter who became the first director of the museum.
In a sense, Kandinsky is the founding artist of the Guggenheim, which was known as the Museum of Non-Objective Painting until a name change in 1952 and now holds more than 150 of his works. Frank Lloyd Wright, the museum’s architect, “was certainly asked to make a home for these paintings when Rebay chose him to design a temple to the spirit,” says Bashkoff. “You can see that his sketches for the building show Kandinskys on the walls.” The Kandinsky retrospective is also a fitting celebration for the 50th anniversary of Wright’s edifice, a spiraling anthem to modernity that opened in October 1959.
Few artists were caught up in the wars, revolutions and upheavals of the 20th century as thoroughly as Kandinsky was. Born in Moscow in 1866, he moved with his family in 1871 to Odessa, where he studied piano, cello, drawing and German. Enrolling in Moscow University in 1885 to study law and economics, he accepted a position there in 1893 as an assistant lecturer. But a pair of revelatory cultural experiences changed his life.
The first occurred at an 1889 performance of the opera Lohengrin in St. Petersburg. Kandinsky marveled over the vibrant colors he envisaged listening to Wagner’s exotic lyricism. Subsequently, the artist would exploit his talent for synesthesia by striving to evoke sound through images, creating the painterly equivalent of symphonies and other musical compositions. Then, in 1896, he viewed Monet’s Haystacks at an exhibition of French art on tour in Moscow. At first he was shocked and argued that “the painter had no right to paint indistinctly.” Still, the Impressionist masterpiece fired his imagination. “Painting took on a fairy-tale power and splendor,” he recalled.
After declining a teaching post, Kandinsky abruptly abandoned his academic law career. In 1896, at the relatively late age of 30, he traveled to Munich, then a hotbed of artistic experimentation, to study art. Frustrated by a series of stultifying courses at the conservative Fine Arts Academy, however, the neophyte painter decided to found his own school, called Phalanx. He soon established the New Artists’ Association, which emerged as a leading innovator on the city’s cultural scene. He even created theater pieces, conceiving decor, choreography, text and music. The nomadic artist spent the years from 1904 to 1908 on a painting tour of Europe and Tunisia with his companion, a former student of his named Gabriele Münter.
As a university student Kandinsky had suffered a bout of typhus that caused him to experience a vision of traditional figures out of an imaginary Russian past, complete with singing voices. Now he revived this vision as A Colorful Life, a 64-inch-high tempera on canvas populated with vivid characters in a forested landscape: a knight on horseback, a flute-playing boy, a wooing couple, a white-bearded pilgrim and smiling peasants. This Arcadian foreground gives way to men wielding cudgels and swords in a battle raging in the background beneath a gleaming fortress on a hill.
“The intriguing principal endeavor was to present a pandemonium of masses, spots and lines,” he explained. Although Gertrude Stein and others acknowledged the painter’s technical skill at the spring 1907 Salon des Independants in Paris, where the work was first presented, the Russian expatriate’s entry was overshadowed by controversial Fauvist pieces by Henri Matisse and André Derain.
By 1911, influenced by Theosophy and other mystical ideas, Kandinsky was championing the “inner necessity” of an art freed from representing objective reality and had begun creating his first abstract works. He believed that form and color alone could express emotions and stimulate the imagination of the viewer. “Content is what the spectator feels under the effect of the colors and shapes,” he contended.
Around this time Kandinsky formed the Blue Rider group with Münter, Franz Marc, August Macke and Alexej von Jawlensky. In 1912, with Marc’s financial backing, he published On the Spiritual in Art: And Painting in Particular, the first of three books elaborating a theoretical framework for his art. Drawing parallels to music, he classified some of his paintings in distinct categories: Impressions, based on real-life subjects, like the 1911 Impression III (Concert), inspired by a performance of compositions by his friend Arnold Schoenberg; Improvisations, suggested by the artist’s subconscious; and Compositions, formally developed pieces that may take years to evolve, based on carefully drawn studies. One art critic blasted the book as “turgid, clumsy and full of half-science,” then went on to praise it for a boldness that “undermines received ideas and vindicates the right to the new.”
Several Munich-period works in the current tour have apocalyptic themes, according to Bashkoff, and feature Kandinsky’s signature horse and rider as a symbol for the artist charging across the canvas into unknown terrain. The 1911 paintingImprovisation 19 shows figures heavily outlined in black against a blue background. “One interpretation is that these figures are novices in some sort of ritual formation, perhaps tapping into the fourth dimension or exploring other Theosophical ideas that Kandinsky was engaged in,” Bashkoff explains.
Separating from Münter, Kandinsky returned to Moscow in 1914. In 1917 he married Nina Andreyevskaya, an officer’s daughter three decades his junior who possessed a fiery temperament that soon turned her into his most ardent supporter. As the bourgeois son of a Moscow tea merchant, Kandinsky lost his share of the family fortune in the Russian Revolution that same year, but soon found himself drafted into posts as a cultural administrator and pedagogue in the emerging Communist regime. Despite incorporating some of the stylized geometrical shapes of Kazimir Malevich, Alexander Rodchenko and other Suprematist-Constructivist artists into his work, the mystically inclined Kandinsky grew increasingly alienated by their rationalist ideology. He devoted more energy to teaching and restructuring museums than he did to painting, and when he did find time to paint, he oscillated between realism and abstraction. Although not particularly political, Kandinsky clashed with the doctrinaire Rodchenko over the defense of artistic freedom. Communist hostility to his theories on the lyrical, emotional possibilities of abstract painting and his proposed educational reforms ultimately forced him to leave the Soviet Union.
He took the opportunity of a government mission to Berlin to defect to Germany, accepting Walter Gropius’ invitation to teach mural painting at the Bauhaus in 1922. Kandinsky was warmly welcomed at Weimar, and the Bauhaus liberated him, encouraging his pursuit of a spiritual aesthetic through bold experiments with color, line and geometry. “The contact of the acute angle of a triangle with a circle has no less effect than the finger of God touching Adam’s finger in Michelangelo,” he later declared.
But some abstract conceptions of the period appear to hark back to his earlier representational work. Initially sketched with a ruler and a compass, Composition VIII, a 1923 oil on canvas some 79 inches across and 55 inches high, comprises a series of sharply thrusting triangles that suggest mountains, under a purple and black sun aureoled in pink. Other haloed circles are scattered across a white background like so many eclipses of fanciful astral bodies. At the time Kandinsky was enamored of the circle, the geometric form that “points most clearly to the fourth dimension,” he wrote enigmatically.
At the Bauhaus the artist renewed his friendship with Munich colleague Paul Klee. “While everyone at the Bauhaus, both students and other teachers, loved Klee, they respected Kandinsky,” notes Bashkoff. In the summer of 1930 he met with Rebay and Guggenheim, who was to become his most important collector in the U.S.
In 1933 Hitler closed down the Bauhaus, and Kandinsky left Germany for exile in Paris. The Nazis denounced his work, displayed 14 banned paintings in the 1937Degenerate Art exhibition before destroying them, and purged 57 items from the country’s museums. In Paris Kandinsky remained an outsider, largely snubbed by the Surrealists and other artists, except for Joan Miró and Hans Arp. Since abstract art was out of favor, he exhibited infrequently. During the war years and German occupation, he and Nina lived in the Parisian suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine, where he died in December 1944 at the age of 78.
Despite the lack of critical favor, Kandinsky maintained a prodigious artistic output well into his 70s, producing 144 oil paintings, 250 watercolors and gouaches and several hundred drawings during the last 11 years of his life. Fascinated by his studies of microscopic organisms, the artist evolved an increasingly fantastical style, forsaking geometrical forms for flowing curves and biomorphic shapes against pastel backgrounds. Although art critics were befuddled by these whimsical, protoplasmic blobs, Kandinsky persisted, intent on revealing what he called the “internal pulse, the hidden soul in all things.”
“Emigrating to Paris has radically transformed my palette,” the artist wrote to Galka Scheyer, a German curator and collector who helped introduce Americans to the so-called “Blue Four”—Kandinsky, Klee, Jawlensky and Lyonel Feininger—after moving to California in the 1920s. Blue World, a 1934 oil on canvas, is a case in point. Mixing pigment and sand, Kandinsky created soft, muted tones for the otherworldly creatures that tumble and float across pink, lavender and ochre rectangles set against an aqueous celadon-green background.
A film of the artist at work shows Kandinsky in his sparsely furnished Neuilly studio, choosing brushes and pigments from well-ordered shelves to execute a painting with such sureness and rapidity that it’s clear he is exteriorizing a design that already exists in finished form in his mind’s eye. These are small worlds, he later explained, “freed from nature, presenting a new and independent world alongside nature.”
The current show gives a terrific boost to Kandinsky’s work from the Paris period, which has traditionally been overshadowed by the earlier Munich and Bauhaus eras. “The spirituality in these later pieces comes from these invented, playful realms where Kandinsky is attempting to make the invisible visible,” says Bashkoff. “The work is uplifting and approaches the transformative power that he felt art could have.”
Starting in the 1950s Kandinsky’s reputation began to rise again as his work went into significant museum collections. In 1957 Münter gave the Lenbachhaus more than 600 pre-1914 works, including 90 paintings, 230 prints and some 300 watercolors, temperas and drawings. In 1976 Nina Kandinsky presented 15 paintings and 15 watercolors to the Museum of Modern Art in Paris. This gift formed the core of the Pompidou’s collection when it opened a year later. On her death in 1980, she willed to the Pompidou the contents of the Neuilly studio and the remainder of her holdings, including 90 paintings, 116 watercolors, gouaches and temperas and more than 500 drawings.
Since that time, Kandinsky, who never abandoned the affable equanimity of the jurist he might have been, has become universally accepted as one of the pivotal figures of 20th-century art.
Kandinsky on the Market
The market for Kandinsky’s work is very well established and remains strong. “Kandinsky has quite a broad appeal because he straddles figurative art to abstraction,” says Helena Newman, vice chairman for Impressionist and modern art at Sotheby’s Worldwide in London. “He’s a little like Picasso, in that he has these very distinctive phases, with different collectors acquiring different periods of his work.”
Studie zu Improvisation 3 (1909) earned $16.9 million at Christie’s New York in November 2008. Munich dealer Silke Thomas sold the 1924 watercolor Brauner Strahl (Brown Ray) for ¤1 million ($1.46 million) at TEFAF in Maastricht last March. Over the past year watercolors, pen-and-ink drawings and other works on paper have brought prices at auction from $172,000 to $712,000. On Nov. 4 Sotheby’s New York is offering the 1932 Krass und Mild (Dramatic and Mild) in its Impressionist and modern art evening sale (see page 34). The auction house describes the painting, which carries an estimate of $6–8 million, as “one of the greatest Bauhaus-period works to have appeared at auction in years.”
“Because of the rarity of his really top works at auction, I think the market has yet to see what the prices could achieve,” says Newman. “The fact that the record price still stands at $20.9 million (for the 1914 oil-on-canvas Fugue) is not a limit on the artist, it’s a limit on what’s been available.”
New York dealer Ingrid Hutton, of Leonard Hutton Galleries, agrees, pointing out that Kandinsky’s most sought-after pieces date from 1910–14, followed by Bauhaus-era works. Although major canvases at auction are few and far between, there is a relatively active market for watercolors, drawings and prints. The current retrospective should generate new interest, particularly among emerging collectors, says Hutton. “When you haven’t seen a complete exhibition for a long time, you find people saying, ‘My God, I forgot how good an artist he is.’”