Keeping up with Kandinsky

I keep bumping into Wassily Kandinsky. In the last month I have been fortunate enough to see three works of his, in totally different places, that I had never seen before. Foraging in action.

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I have a fondness for Russian artists at the beginning of the 20th century having written my dissertation on the works of Kazimir Malevich and Aleksandr Rodchenko. Economically, socially and politically it was a period of rapid change. An industrial boom changed Moscow and St. Petersburg which between 1910-14 became ‘cosmopolitan’ centers. At the same time the Tsarist regime that had ruled Russia for centuries was heading towards its downfall. The rise of revolutionary fever at the beginning of the century culminated in the October Revolution of 1917, when Lenin’s Bolshevik party seized power after the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II. In the decades leading up to this, life in the evolving cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg became disorientating. As Marx claimed in the communist manifesto “all that is solid melts into air”: here modernism is encapsulated in a single phrase. All of the past was melting into the steam billowing out of the factory chimneys. It’s out with the old and in with the new.

Out with the old art, and in with the new art. For young artists living in Russia the traditional paintings by revered artists hung high on the walls of the State Museum and the Hermitage were not speaking aptly about this new Russia emerging. Young artists looked away, to western Europe for a new language of art. In journals, exhibitions, and the radical collections of Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morosov young artists encountered works by Pablo Picasso, Paul Gauguin, and Henri Matisse (etc). These artists opened up radical ways to treat paint and colour on the surface of the canvas to encapsulate the sensations of modern life.

I’m drifting off on a tangent. How do three works by Kandinsky fit into all this? Being a Russian born artist during this period, Kandinsky’s artistic development exemplifies the atmosphere of change that was pulsating through Russian avant-garde art. I could see this in the three works that I ‘bumped into’ during recent travels. (The term ‘avant-garde’ refers to radical and innovative movements in art that break from previous traditions)

I recently completed an internship at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice and whilst there I gave presentations on a large painting by Kandinsky called ‘Landscape with Red Spot, no.2’ painted in 1913. It’s a beautiful landscape vigorously executed in an array of bright colours and energetic lines that shows Kandinsky on the brink of abstraction. The second Kandinsky image I saw was in the Vatican Museums in the Vatican City. A small little wood engraving of a fairytale-like scene: knights on horses marching through a crowd with a cityscape on the horizon. A complete surprise to me as I was unaware that Kandinsky worked with prints. The third painting I saw was in Tate Modern facing a Turner water-colour and next to a seascape by the german expressionist Emil Nolde. Kandinsky’s brightly coloured painting ‘Lake Starnberg’ of 1908 adds to the the drama of the room, as each painting takes part in a dramatic dialogue with its neighbour. (Go and find it if you can)

So why am I so interested in these three paintings. Why is this a forage worth writing about?

Kandinsky is most often thought of simply for his abstract compositions, but for me it’s the early work and his road to abstraction that really enrich the importance of this artist so highly regarded today. Wassily Kandinsky was born in Moscow in 1866. He was a very intelligent man. Before taking up the brush, he studied law and economics at the University of Moscow and was offered a teaching role in his chosen subjects. However deciding he wanted to pursue a markedly more different career, Kandinsky did what many other Russian artists did at the time, he travelled to western Europe settling in Munich, Germany. Once there he studied art from 1897-99 and travelled across Europe and north Africa. In Germany he was exposed to the modernist movements that had developed in Paris such as Fauvism, Post-Impressionism and young bright artists like Picasso. By 1911 he co-founded the Blaue Reiter group with other Russian emigrants and fellow german artists. Its aim was to express spiritual truths in art. Kandinsky was brought up an orthodox christian and believed strongly in the beliefs attached to Theosophy (to be explained later). He soaked up various artistic influences and married them with his spiritual beliefs in order to create a new artistic voice.

What made Kandinsky decide to shift his focus from a life as an intellect and highly regarded professor to become a painter? Three important moments took place. When on a research trip to Vologda, a town north of Moscow, he was amazed by frescoes he saw in churches there; bright colours set on a dark background. He said of his experience that he felt as if he was walking into a painting. Secondly in 1896 he saw an Impressionist exhibition in Moscow where he was moved after seeing Claude Monet’s Haystack series. Monet took the simple subject matter and ignited them with a saturated colour palette to create un-naturalistic landscapes. Looking back Kandinsky said, “What suddenly became clear to me was the unsuspected power of the palette, which I had not understood before and which surpassed my wildest dreams.” Monet’s series opened up the idea of a painting as a painting; as an exploration of paint and shape. Line and colour are no longer employed merely to describe something accurately but can be used to express something deeper than the landscape in front of the artist.

Click the link to see images of Monet’s Haystack Series: http://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint/auth/monet/haystacks/

The third important revelatory moment Kandinsky experienced took place in the same year as the exhibition: at the Bolshoi Theatre he heard Wagner’s ‘Lohengrin’ opera being performed. In that moment he said “I saw all my colours in spirit, before my eyes”. The idea of colour and music coming together is key to understanding Kandinsky’s art.

It is argued that Kandinsky suffered from a condition called synaesthesia whereby the individual can appreciate sounds or colours with multiple sense. Such as hearing colour and seeing music. Although this was never proven it is apparent that Kandinsky had a power of marrying colour and sound together. He spoke of how as a child he would hear hissing sounds when mixing colours together. (This sounds similar to Yayoi Kusama’s polka dot vision that began when she was a young teenager)

When he first began painting Kandinsky initially created impressionist style landscapes clearly influenced by the works he saw in the impressionist exhibition. His subject matter swaying between landscapes and mythical scenes of warriors on horses rooted in Russian and German folklore. This is evident in the woodblock print of 1904-5.

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Wassily Kandinsky, Sonntag-Altrussisch, 1904-5

Over time the colours gradually became brighter and the paint applied more thickly in the same manner as Fauvism pioneered my Henri Matisse. His painting of Lake Starnberg is a great example. Painted in 1908 we can see areas of bold bright colours such as the yellow wheat field and the green grass beneath. In the wooded hillside the patches of colour are applied separately giving them a sense of individuality. Each mark of orange, yellow, purple etc exist alone making you focus more on their intense brightness rather than what they are supposed to represent.

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Wassily Kandinsky, Lake Starnberg, 1908

As his style developed so too did his theories on art. In 1911 he published a short novel called ‘Concerning the Spiritual in Art’ describing his belief on the purpose of line and colour. He gave them new function. Line no longer functioned as a descriptive outline used to explain or describe, it became a measure of energy. Colours also become free from the description of nature. Instead he believed colours have a psychic effect that awaken certain sensations in the soul of the artist and viewer. Each colour has a corresponding sound and texture. For example red “stimulates and excites the heart” through its intensity as it bursts forward out of the canvas. In contrast blue is a very calming colour, profound in its depth, and has a sedative quality that recedes into the canvas. He believed that each person experienced different levels of these sensations. Colours can therefore reveal something about the individual they may not have been aware of depending on what sensations are awakened. Here we come to the philosophy of Theosophy. The central belief of theosophy is that the divine, earth and humans are all connected beneath the surface of the everyday. The aim is to try and reveal this. We can see this translated in Kandinsky’s paintings. He wants to reveal something about the individual, in the landscape he paints through the energetic lines and colours he uses. His paintings therefore deal with a different reality.

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Wassily Kandinsky, Landscape with Red Spot, no. 2, 1913

I close now with the painting I know the best. ‘Landscape with Red Spot, no. 2’ in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection painted in 1913, the year Kandinsky went fully abstract. In this landscape the lines are more loose and energetic and the colours more freely applied. At the time, as with the previous landscape, Kandinsky was living in Murnau in the Bavarian mountains. He has created a very simple scene – no reference to industrialisation or modern Russia – a landscape with mountains and a church in the center. Look closely and you can see the main body of the church in the center and the steeple reaching up out of the frame. The way he has used line and colour show how Kandinsky was evolving towards abstraction, a form of art where there is no longer any reference to the representational world. In abstract art “all objects vanish like smoke” and disappear leaving only colour, line and shape. Here we can make out the mountains but it’s not immediately clear. You have to decipher the surface of the canvas.

What is obvious are the different moods leaking from the colours. The deep blues, the calming yellow, the black outlining the shapes of gravestones to the left of the church and the red spot. The red spot in the centre of the picture, hovering over the steeple. The red spot reaches out at us as the intense energy of the colour sings. As we know Kandinsky was an orthodox christian and so we can interpret this red spot perhaps as symbolic of Christ’s passion. The mark of death and rebirth. Of creation. It’s no coincidence that it is painted on the image of the church. This is clearly no ordinary landscape. The natural world has been transformed by Kandinsky’s hand into a dialogue with the soul. Colour and line become more powerful as the natural world begins to dematerialize. As a viewer we experience more than a depiction of the natural world, we experience the sensations, sounds and emotions of the colour. By the end of the year the landscape did disappear completely and Kandinsky leapt forward into a new world as the first truly abstract modern artist.

This foraging session invariably ends with no concise conclusion, instead I offer Kandinsky’s own words, “Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key to another, to cause vibrations in the soul.”

Bibliography/Further Reading:

Gray, Camilla, The Russian Experiment in Art 1863-1922, London, 1976.

Golding, John, Paths to the Absolute: Mondrian, Malevich, Kandinsky, Pollock, Newman, Rothko and Still, Washington, 2000.

Whitney Kean, Beverley, All the Empty Palaces: The Merchant Patrons of Modern Art in Pre-Revolutionary Russia, London, 1983.

Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, trans. M.T.H. Sadler, New York, 1977

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