Kandinsky: A Bright Future, Once

TRUE COLORS: Works such as Blue Mountain (1908-09) show
the influence of folk art. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

by Lucy Fisher

Wassily Kandinsky could have ended up a law professor. Born in Moscow in 1866, Kandinsky studied law and at the age of 30 was offered a professorship at what is now Tartu University in Estonia. Luckily for us, he had been inspired by an exhibition of French Impressionists the year before. He turned down the university job and moved to Germany to study painting full time. "Kandinsky," a major retrospective at Paris' Pompidou Center until Aug. 10 and then at the Guggenheim in New York City from Sept. 18, tracks his journey over the ensuing decades, both geographically and stylistically. Drawn to centers of the avant-garde and occasionally swept off course by the grim events of the early 1900s, we see Kandinsky progress from traditional naturalistic scenes to the stunning abstract canvases that made him one of the great pioneers of 20th century art.

Much of Kandinsky's early work drew on the folk art he encountered in Germany and in Russia. The works depict an ideal premodern Russia full of riders, onion domes and walled towns. But even in these first paintings, bright colors were used for effect, not naturalism — trees could be red, hills and horses blue. Pure color would become the central focus of his best works, a focus he pondered in his 1911 manifesto of abstraction, Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Art, he wrote in the book, comes from within, from "inner necessity," and colors and shapes speak to people just as musical sounds do: "Color is a power which directly influences the soul." Contemporary Russian mystic Helena Blavatsky had preached that a new, spiritual age was about to dawn, and Kandinsky was convinced. He saw the artist at the apex of a triangle moving into the future, the base representing the mass of humanity who are slower to see the light. The paintings he produced at the time are full of joy and liberation, made with rapid, free gestures. In Improvisation 20 (Two Horses) (1911), animals are sketched with a few black lines, like a half-obliterated prehistoric cave drawing. Elsewhere mountains and buildings are indicated by sooty lines driving through patches of pure rainbow shades. (See pictures from a Cézanne exhibition.)

Kandinsky didn't paint much during the war years, but in 1921 he was asked to join the staff of the forward-looking Bauhaus art school in Germany, and the chance to teach turned his creative light up full again. His theories about pure form and color became student exercises; this was when he started painting his signature hard-edged abstracts: bright, lighthearted, with their own internal logic. Black lines, now severely clear-cut, are a skeleton for vividly colored shapes on a pale background. New motifs appear: jagged saw teeth, rainbows, triangles, circles. Though none of these canvases have subjects, pictograms float through them — sometimes recognizable boats, creating structure with their masts and spars.

After the Bauhaus school closed in 1933, Kandinsky and his wife, Nina, went to France, settling in Neuilly-sur-Seine. Instead of being surrounded by like-minded colleagues, he was now somewhat isolated. He had been experimenting in new directions before he left the Bauhaus, but his isolation, and freedom from the need to be didactic, may explain the playfulness that breaks out in his work. He carefully mixed colors — sage, sky blue, maroon — and experimented with texture, using controlled paint splatter for a sandy effect. Nothing is still: in Colorful Ensemble (1938) the splatters are a background of dots on which swim strange biomorphs; in Sky Blue (1940) stripy plankton flutter multiple legs while Reciprocal Accord (1942) fizzes and explodes.

By this time, Kandinsky was on his own, artistically. The train of followers that he predicted in his book failed to materialise. And that new age he had been so sure of never did dawn. But after his death in 1944, his spirit lived on in the postwar design explosion that sprayed color onto a grey and battered world. And today, his work perfectly illustrates progress toward an ideal — a rarity in a world consumed with art for art's sake.

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