The path to abstraction
Article added on August 15, 2006
Tate Modern in London regularly offers outstanding temporary exhibitions. Currently, in cooperation with the Kunstmuseum Basel, Wassily Kandinsky: The path to abstraction is the exhibition to visit.
Although Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) is not only one of my favorite artists, but is recognized worldwide as one of the founders of Expressionism and 20th century Abstract art, it was as late as in 2001, that Achim Moeller Fine Art was able to offer the watercolor Entwurf zu Blauer Fleck (1912/13, opaque white and India ink on paper) at the world's leading art fair, Art Basel; a masterpiece I immediately would have bought if only my pockets were deep enough.
In 2006, Tate Modern displays 74 works by Wassily Kandinsky. 90% of them have never been shown in the UK before. 60 of the works are paintings, making it the first (!) major UK exhibition to focus on the paintings of the Russian artists who made his breakthrough to abstraction in Germany and spent the last decade of his life in Paris.
The works on display at Tate Modern come from museums, private and public collections in Europe, the United States and Russia. The State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg sent, among other works, Kandinsky's Composition VI (1913) and The Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, the exhibition's largest provider of artworks, sent Composition VII (1913). These two major oils on canvas demonstrate already Kandinsky's fully developed abstract style, and they are the painter's largest works ever with dimensions of 195cm x 300cm and 200cm x 300cm.
Tate Modern exhibition Wassily Kandinsky: The path to abstraction concentrates on the years from 1905 to 1921. 1905 was the year in which Kandinsky and his lover and former pupil Gabriele Münter stayed in Tunis. This journey is not to confound with the much more famous Tunisreise by Klee, Macke and Moilliet in 1914. Still, Kandinsky's encounter with the special light and color in Tunis had an impact on his artistic development.
1921 is the year in which, disenchanted with with the increasing political control over artistic expression in the Soviet Union, Kandinsky left his native Russia for Germany, never to return.
After the outbreak of the October Revolution, after which he lost his fortune and property, Kandinsky produced no more paintings until 1919, when early signs of his geometric, more austere style emerged: Two Ovals, White Oval and Violet Wedge show a simplification of form and a more comprehensible structure.
The People's Commissariat for Enlightenment was founded in 1918. The head of its Visual Arts Section (IZO), Vladimir Tatlin, requested Kandinsky's participation. He came in contact with young artists of the vanguard and, from October, he run a Free State Art Studio. He was appointed director of the Film and Theatre Section of the IZO and became a professor at the State Higher Artistic and Technical Workshops. In June 1919, Kandinsky was appointed director of the Museum fro Painting in Moscow, which he headed until 1921. Together with Rodchenko and others, he founded 22 provincial museums and acquired for them contemporary works, including his own.
As a member of IZO, Kandinsky was involved in the founding of the Institute of Artistic Culture in Moscow, which had the task of systemizing art theories in concordance with Communist principles. In May, he took over the section dealing with monumental art. However, his teaching project was rejected at the first pan Russian congress of the directors of the People's Commissariat for Enlightenment. The Constructivists, led by Rodchenko, rejected Kandinsky's concept as "subjective" and "intuitive" and boycotted him. Kandinsky left the institution in May 1920. In June, he was given the title honorary professor by the University of Moscow.
In October 1921, Kandinsky, together with Peter Kogan and A. M. Rodionov, founded the Russsian Academy of Artistic Sciences. He took over the direction of the physical-psychological department. In addition, he became the chairman of the Commission for the Study of Historical and Theoretical Problem in Art. In an interview in July, Kandinsky criticized the main representatives of the Russian avant-garde: "instead of painting, creating works, they experiment. They pursue experimental art in laboratories. I think these are tow different things." Kandinsky was not a member of the Communist Party. His views were increasingly threatened by the Soviet regime.
In 1921, Kandinsky's son Vsevolod died. He was overlooked for the presidency of the Academy. Together with the rejection of his program for the Institute of Artistic Culture, the intellectual isolation and the catastrophic economic situation following the civil war persuaded him to leave Russia at the end of 1921.
After time spent in Berlin, he joined the influential Bauhaus early in 1922, where the organic forms of his earlier work were replaced by geometric forms. Although Kandinsky began to integrate geometric forms into his work as early as 1917 in Russia in Blue Arch (Ridge) and especially in 1919 (as mentioned above), he developed his more austere later style at the Bauhaus. The exhibition at Tate Modern ends with the Black Spot (1921, oil on canvas, Kunsthaus Zürich) and Circles on Black (1921, oil on canvas, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York). These two and the other paintings of 1921 show still a partly playful Kandinsky who has not yet given up completely to the severity of pure geometric forms, despite introducing elements such as circles, ovals and rectangles. In short, the exhibition concentrates on his best years.
The recommendable catalogue Wassily Kandinsky: The path to abstraction begins with an article by Reinhard Zimmermann (translated from the German): "Early Imprints and Influences". One would have wished a similar article regarding Kandinsky's transformation from his earlier Expressionist years, notably from being a member of the Blue Rider group (Der Blaue Reiter), to his later years in Russia where he had to return to because of the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 with Germany and Russia becoming enemies. Especially a detailed examination of the influence of Russian Constructivists such as Kasimir Malevich and El Lissitzky compared with the influence of the artists teaching at the Bauhaus in Germany in Kandinsky's move towards geometric forms would have been exciting.
Reinhard Zimmerman introduces the readers to the colors of the spiritual and representational early works of Kandinsky from 1896 to 1908, to the influence of Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, the Fauvists and the colorist Matisse, and to his gradual move towards Expressionism and Abstraction. In Murnau, in the Bavarian province, where Gabriele Münter had bought a house, Kandinsky moved away from Impressionism. The some 120 Murnau landscapes painted between 1908 and 1910 show stronger colors, influenced by the Fauves and Matisse. 1909 and 1910 were years of major developments with the introduction of Compositions and Improvisations, a new form of painting. Incidentally, Kandinsky's encounter with Wagner's Lohengrin at the Court Theatre in St Petersburg was a key moment in his decision to dedicate himself to art. It is no coincidence that the Kandinsky terms "Composition" and "Improvisation" refer to music since he stated that painting should be as "abstract" as music.
Color was a important for Kandinsky throughout his career, be it the colors of Russian religious Icons or of German Hinterglasmalerei (Bavarian folk art paintings on glass). In his works, color was "an independent compositional element, serving not merely to represent objects but 'living a life of their own, with all the necessary qualities for further, autonomous existence'." (Reinhard Zimmermann citing Kandinsky). Kandinsky moved away from traditional contents of painting such as classical myths and historical events. Instead, he concentrated on the the soul, the inner spirit, the vibrations in a viewers soul. For Kandinsky, every color and every line had a particular sound and a particular emotional value. Therefore, a painting is an ensemble of sounds, hence a Composition or an Improvisation. He expressed his theories in detail in the book Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1912). To explain the book in detail and to explore his relation with The Blue Rider group (Der Blaue Reiter) would need two additional articles.
The most important thing about Kandinsky are not his theories, but his masterpieces, of which many can be admired at Tate Modern, including Murnau - Castle Courtyard I (1908, oil on cardboard, The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow), Improvisation 9 (1910, oil on canvas, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart), Improvisation 28 (Second Version, 1912, oil on canvas, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York) and many more.
Kandinsky: The path to abstraction
Exhibition at Tate Modern from June 22 to October 1, 2006.
Exhibition at the Kunstmuseum Basel from October 21, 2006 to February 4, 2007.
Exhibition catalogue Kandinsky: The path to abstraction. Tate Publishing, May 2006, 226 p. Get the paperback edition from Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.de. Get the hardcover edition from Amazon.co.uk.
In the catalogue, Reinhard Zimmermann examines "Early Imprints and Influences", Shulamith Behr the relation of "Kandinsky, Münter and the Creative Parntership", Noemi Smolik "Kandinsky - Resurrection and Cultural Reneval". A chronology by Bettina Kaufmann and a bibliography complete a fine book.
The German edition: Kandinsky. Wege zur Abstraktion. Malerei 1908-1921. Hatje Cantz, Oktober 2006, 224 S. Bestellen bei Amazon.de. The catalogue cover shows one of Kandinsky's Murnau with Church II (1910, oil on canvas, Collection Van Abbe Museum, Eindhoven).
Updated on August 16, 2006: The English exhibition title and catalogue covers (check above) are without dates. In London, the works exhibited range from 1905 to 1921. In Basel, no works from 1905 will be exhibited. Therefore, the title "1908-1921".
Essential literature for Wassily Kandinsky
Wassily Kandinksy: Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Get it from Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com. Über das Geistige in der Kunst. Bestellen bei Amazon.de.
Wassily Kandinsky: Point and Line to Plane. Order the book from Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com. Deutsche Ausgabe (Punkt und Linie zu Fläche) bestellen bei Amazon.de.
Vivian Endicott Barnett: Kandinsky Watercolours. Catalogue raisonné. Volume One. 1900-1921. Get it from Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, Amazon.de.
Vivian Endicott Barnett: Kandinsky Watercolours. Catalogue Raisonne. Volume Two. 1922-1944. Get it from Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.de.
Kandinsky. Werkverzeichnis der Zeichnungen. Erster Band.. C.H. Beck, Oktober 2006. Bestellen bei Amazon.de.
Get auction results from Artprice.