Flying Over a New World
So much more than just a great artist. Vasily Vassilyevich Kandinsky (Moscow, 16 December 1866 – Neuilly-sur-Seine, Paris, 13 December 1944) was a creator of worlds who conceived and shaped a visual universe at once new and free. Abstract art is perhaps the most significant revolution of 20th-century art, yet despite its subversive energy, its origin does not lie in inflammatory speeches or avant-garde manifestos. Instead, it is the result of a slow, gradual development stemming from the realms and reasons of the spirit.
Well, then: flying over the new world created by Kandinsky to give voice to the entire span of his slow, extraordinary artistic and creative journey is the ambitious goal of this exhibition (Palazzo Roverella, Rovigo, 26 February 2022 – 26 June 2022), curated by Paolo Bolpagni and Evgenia Petrova. A selection of eighty masterpieces dating from around 1900 to 1940 and covering the different moments of Kandinsky’s career. Also showcased are paintings by his “fellow travellers”, like Gabriele Münter, Paul Klee, Arnold Schoenberg, Alexej von Jawlensky and Marianne von Werefkin, as well as first editions, documents, photographs, rare period footage, memorabilia and folk art objects. Visitors can therefore follow in the footsteps of a genius, along a creative path whose constants were a connection with music and with the roots of his Russian soul, the quest for inner authenticity and spiritualistic irrationalism. Thus, before taking flight, we must remember that although valid, rational means are not enough to approach Kandinsky. To observe his art, we need more than our eyes and mind; we must draw on all the mental and sensory faculties at our disposal to penetrate it.
The Roots of Russian Folk Art
Kandinsky’s radical visual language emerged from a variety of roots: from a familiarity with Impressionism to the profound effect that music had on him, to the sets he mixed with in the early 20th-century Jugendstil and secessionist Munich, to his ties to the folk culture of innermost Russia, whose objects had fascinated this son of a wealthy, educated family ever since he was a child. To this end, his mission to the Siberian governorate of Vologda in 1889, when he was still a law student, proved all-important, as it gave him the chance to study the life, costumes, beliefs and rituals of a local people, the Zyryans. His sketchbooks dating from those years feature drawings of everyday objects and details of the decorations of the gaily-coloured wooden houses he visited, annotations of songs and proverbs, prayers and spells. Kandinsky also started collecting icons, toys, wool winders, woodcuts and folk prints (lubki), which would greatly influence the evolution of his art as seen, for example, in his 1904 oil painting Sonntag.
Kandinsky’s Arrival in Germany
As a creator of worlds, Kandinsky proved slow and late-blooming. While Picasso was on the verge of creating Cubism at the age of 26, Kandinsky only began painting when he was 30 (viewed as a man of mature age at the time), and his revolution would not take place until he was 45. Thus, at the age of thirty, already married and with a job and an academic career in the making, it was incredible bold of him to make the existential decision to leave his job – to say nothing of his country – behind in order to devote himself to painting. Kandinsky’s intelligence and intuition led him not to Paris but, rather, to the lively Munich, where he would basically start from scratch, studying side by side with much younger companions. His works in this period were woodcuts, lithographs and oils featuring landscape themes still influenced by late Russian Naturalism. He published collections such as Verses Without Words and the album Xylographies, which came out in 1909 for the Parisian publisher Tendances Nouvelles. Kandinsky likened printmaking and woodcutting techniques to music, for the process of “drawing out” the subjects from the matrix of the “inner sound”. Subjects inspired by folk legends: enchanted birds, galloping knights, Orthodox church domes (see Red Church, 1901, on display here), maidens in peasant costumes. A fairy-tale land of spiritual harmony, where the figures are almost dematerialised under a veil of decorative patterns.
The Murnau Period
After a period spent wandering through Central and Western Europe and Russia, Kandinsky settled in the Bavarian town of Murnau in 1908. Meanwhile, the crucial meeting with Gabriele Münter, who for a time would be his lover as well as his work partner. As we can see from the paintings on display here, Kandinsky’s paintings now featured large areas with a juxtaposition of vivid colours, and a novel concept of art gradually began to grow within him. He studied theosophy, expanded his relationships, envisaged a form of “abstract” theatre and helped found the Neue Künstlervereinigung München (New Artists’ Association of Munich).
One of the works on display, Destiny (Red Wall), is a 1909 masterpiece in which Kandinsky returned to the elements dear to his heart in this period and, above all, aimed to experiment the resonance of chromatic hues in the spirit of viewers. Here, the focus is on red, the “colour of self-confident power”. Kandinsky’s revolution was about to begin.
The Invention of Abstract Art
Of course, it did not happen suddenly: as previously mentioned, the process that led Kandinsky to abstraction was the result of a gradual development rooted in his innermost soul. Extraordinary works such as Boat Trip, Improvisation 11 and Black Spot, painted between 1910 and 1912, perfectly illustrate his quest: here we can see his simplification of shapes and forms, his stylisation, his liberation of the creative force of colour, called on not to “represent” reality but to conjure up psychological, sound, tactile sensations. An art that proclaims its distance from any imitative aim. Kandinsky’s reflections on perceptive faculties, his desire for an “absolute” painting, his aspiration to build the syntax of colour on a different foundation, releasing it from its naturalistic function: here are the explosive ingredients that sparked one of the most sensational revolutions of the 20th century. Slowly achieved by a thoughtful, distinguished gentleman around forty-five years old.
The Blue Rider
Kandinsky may have been slow, but he was also exceptionally well-educated, informed and contemplative. Indeed, he was a great theorist as well as a great artist. In December 1911, for example, Munich publisher Reinhard Piper printed his Über das Geistige in der Kunst (Concerning the Spiritual in Art), an essential treatise in the genesis of abstraction. A week later, the first exhibition by the group Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) opened at the Galerie Thannhäuser in Munich. In addition to Kandinsky, the group included artists such as Paul Klee, Alexej von Jawlensky, Marianne von Werefkin, Gabriele Münter, Franz Marc and August Macke. It was not a group with a shared language and objectives but, rather, in search of a similar inner necessity. The 1912 almanac Der Blaue Reiter, the cover of which we owe to Kandinsky himself, dealt with the issue of primitive art, rooted in medieval art, in Russian folk art, in childlike drawings. The aim was to illustrate the great variety of possible forms of expression and the rejection of an academicism incapable of touching spiritual chords.
Kandinsky and Schoenberg
Touched by expert musicians, the strings of violins, violas and cellos vibrated gloriously one early January evening in 1911, as an enraptured Kandinsky listened to a performance of composer Arnold Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 2 in F-sharp minor, Op. 10, followed by some of his Lieders and Three Piano Pieces, Op. 11. Kandinsky was much struck by these three pieces, in which Schoenberg (Vienna, 1874 – Los Angeles, 1951) probably experimented most with the resources offered by the new atonality (a term he disliked, preferring the phrase “emancipation of the dissonance”), adopting a brusque, internalised musical language. For this reason, on 18 January 1911, still thrilling to the echo of that concert, Kandinsky wrote a now-famous letter to the composer who had abandoned the traditional hierarchical constraints between individual notes and tonal chords, confessing that: «In your works, you have realised what I, albeit in uncertain form, have so greatly longed for in painting».
Commitment to Abstract Art and Kandinsky’s Return to Russia
This slow creation of a new world was achieved between 1915 and 1917. As revealed by the masterpieces on display in this room, by then the Russian master had committed completely to abstract art, or “non-objective painting”. A world where colour broke free from lines: no longer representing reality, it became an independent means with the aim of conjuring up feelings and expressing the artist’s soul and perceptions – sound, tactile and psychological as well as visual. Meanwhile, as Kandinsky was carrying out his pacific artistic revolution, the outside world was preparing a far more violent one. As the political situation deteriorated, leading to World War I, Kandinsky, following a few months in Switzerland, decided to return to his home country at the end of 1914, settling in Moscow.
Kandinsky in Russia
Russia, of course, was no stranger to revolutions. Following the October Revolution of 1917, Kandinsky was appointed to teaching and organisational posts, collaborating – between 1918 and 1921 – in the sectors of museum reform and art education. Infusing it with his ideas, he also devised a curriculum based on the analysis of geometry and colour and on the correlation between the latter and music. Being home undoubtedly inspired him, as he created some of his greatest masterpieces in these years, such as Composition (1916) and the two “ovals” painted in 1919: White Oval and Two Ovals. The latter work already shows a glimpse of a tendency towards the geometric simplification of the image, as if triggering a previously cancelled debate between figure and background.
A Figurative Return: the 1918 Glass Paintings
After creating this new world, even Kandinsky needed a metaphorical day of rest. Which in his case coincided with a return to his childhood, to the fairy tales, literature and music that had captivated and profoundly influenced him when he was young. Even as a famous painter, he was still fascinated by fairy-tale, epic and imaginary themes. Thus, the small bagatelles, painted in oil paints on glass in 1918, which not only pleased the artist with their simplicity and beauty, but also represented a break in his process of ongoing abstract reflection and studies. These compositions draw on themes of the fairy-tale Russian world that that Kandinsky had already studied at the beginning of the century, but with a greater geometrization. The creator of worlds, the revolutionary artist, was once again the child enthralled by the stories he learned from his maternal aunt in Odessa, about horsewomen galloping through the skies or young country lovers. As the outside world disappeared for the length of a bagatelle.
From Russia to Germany
Truth be told, the outside world was changing and, as far as Kandinsky was concerned, not for the better. In the new Soviet Russia dominated by Lenin, his positions were seen as “spiritualistic deformations” and harshly criticised, from a cultural and political standpoint, by those advocating constructivist and materialistic positions, like Aleksandr Rodčenko, Ljubov’ Popova and Nikolai Punin. Feeling isolated, in 1921 Kandinsky wisely decided to move back to Germany. In his painting, meanwhile, the geometrization only hinted at until then became prevailing. We can see this in the earliest works produced upon his return to Europe, like the twelve Kleine Welten (Small Worlds) prints, published in Berlin in 1922, followed by the stunning Weißes Kreuz (White Cross), also on display here – Peggy Guggenheim would later want it in her collection. Another change was in the air, but a fertile cultural soil and the right intellectual climate were needed in order for the “new” Kandinsky to bloom. He found both 300 km southwest of Berlin, in a school of art and design in Weimar. It was known as the Bauhaus.
Kandinsky from the Bauhaus to His Final Years in France
Having moved to Weimar in 1922, “Professor” Kandinsky taught a mural painting workshop and a course on the elements of form at the Bauhaus, where he recognised the same ideal of connection between the arts and their synthesis which he had advocated since his “Blue Rider” period. Kandinsky brought this new self into focus in a 1926 treatise whose title, Point and Line to Plane, revealed much of the new direction he had embarked on in his painting. Indeed, during the Weimar period, in addition to a cool colour palette, Kandinsky made a greater use of elements such as circles, angles, curved and straight lines. Yet despite the geometric nature of Kandinsky’s art, irrationalism continued to be its cornerstone, leaving his expressive choices to be defined by a sort of intuition. This explains the further evolution that would develop in the works produced in the final Bauhaus period at Dessau: a more playful Kandinsky, enlivened by a sense of levity at times prone to comedy, perhaps owing to the influence of his friend Paul Klee. A fanciful flight heralding the subsequent Parisian period, characterised by an at-times playful spirit and a hazy lightness. Sensing the air of danger in Germany, the Russian master moved to France in 1933.
Graphic Art: The “Klänge” (“Sounds”) Album
In 1913, Kandinsky published an album of woodcuts called Klänge (Sounds), a sort of summary of the years in which he created his new world, shifting from figurative to abstract art. Rather than recalling his stylistic evolution, this poetic and graphic presentation of his artistic journey focuses on his spiritual journey, rooted in his “impressions”, “improvisations” and “compositions”. This summary represents an encounter between images and words, woodcuts and poems, as well as a succession of folk tales and mythical stories, dreamlike revelations and everyday experiences. The album in its entirety can be read as the story of a journey tending towards its completion, the “icon” of the Große Auferstehung (Great Resurrection) symbolising the victory of love over death.
The flight over the world created by Kandinsky ends by gifting viewers with an invaluable series of images: a video filmed in 1926 by director Hans Cürlis, a pioneer in the art documentary, showing Kandinsky painting in the Galerie Neumann-Nierendorf in Berlin during the period in which he taught at the Bauhaus. Kandinsky’s treatise Point and Line to Plane came out the same year. The straight and curved lines we see drawn fluidly in the short film are typical of 1920s Kandinsky. Observing how the artist holds his brush and traces the lines is especially interesting, almost as if we were entering his creative process.
Next, a four-minute video shot in December 1963 where the painter’s widow Nina Kandinsky tells an interviewer the reasons for the lawsuit she had filed against Lothar-Günther Buchheim’s book Der Blaue Reiter. This circumstance leads to the emergence of key details: the emphasising of the absence of any political element in her late husband’s artwork, his role in the “Blue Rider”, the period spent in Russia in the second half of the 1910s, brusque yet intense personal memories.
Thus, our flight has ended: it is time to return to planet Earth.