MILWAUKEE, WIS. — A titan of Modern art, Russian-born Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944) was an influential artist and art theorist who is often credited with painting the first purely abstract works. His art developed through distinctive periods of his career: a formative sojourn in Munich; co-founding the Blue Rider group; returning to revolutionary Russia during World War I; working in the heady intellectual world of the German Bauhaus and spending his final years near Paris before and during World War II.
The broad scope of his remarkable career is displayed in more than 80 works and documents in “Kandinsky: A Retrospective,” on view at the Milwaukee Art Museum through September 9. Organized jointly by the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Milwaukee Art Museum, it is co-curated by Angela Lampe, curator of Modern art at the Pompidou, and Milwaukee’s chief curator, Brady Roberts. Augmenting the Kandinskys are dazzling works by his compatriots Alexei Jawlensky, August Macke and Gabriele Munter. The catalog is well done.
Born in Moscow, Kandinsky trained as a lawyer and began teaching law and economics. On the side, he painted, sketched and studied anatomy. In 1889, as part of an ethnographic research group that traveled to peasant communities in the Vologda region north of Moscow, he later recalled, the houses and churches were decorated with such vivid colors — inside and out — that upon entering them he felt he was moving into a painting. He was also drawn to the region’s folk art, highlighted by bright colors on dark backgrounds.
Back in Moscow, he was struck by Claude Monet’s Impressionist style in “Haystacks,” which intrigued him with its powerful use of color that was almost independent of the objects themselves. He later wrote that he could not recognize the haystack, but that the “picture not only gripped me, but impressed itself ineradicably on my memory. Painting took on a fairy-tale power and splendor.” By liberating color from objects, Kandinsky opened the way to his breakthrough to abstract art.
In 1896, at the age of 30, Kandinsky gave up his promising teaching career to study art in Munich, then a leading center of European Modernism. In one class, academic strictures were rejected in favor of an Impressionistic idea of reality and “Kandinsky learned to use pure color, applied directly to the canvas in broad strokes with a wide brush,” writes Pompidou Kandinsky expert Rachel Milliez in the exhibition catalog.
Kandinsky’s paintings during this period were largely of landscapes and towns depicted with broad swatches of color — often employing a vivid Fauvist palette — and recognizable forms. “Old Town II” is an appealing view of an aging community with red-roofed houses and church towers.
After Munich, Kandinsky sojourned in the small Bavarian town of Murnau, with gaily painted houses and reflected light of Alpine hills that lent an unusual intensity to the colors. Inspired, over the next few years the artist painted numerous views of the village and its environs in spontaneous, fluid strokes. These works reflected Kandinsky’s inclination toward art that is presented independently of form and in which each color is given equal attention.
The series of large paintings that he termed “Improvisations” were dominated by a feeling for rhythm and light, almost pulsating with colored sound. “Improvisation 3” includes a favorite, ambiguous motif of a horse and rider crossing a white bridge, silhouetted against a yellow building. “The violence of the brushstrokes as well as the intense Fauve colors … begins to break up the landscape and represents the first signs of the path to abstraction,” says co-curator Lampe.
The gifted Munter, Kandinsky’s companion, is represented in the exhibition by several boldly painted landscapes and figurative works that feature vibrant colors and solid forms, suggesting her mentor’s influence.
In 1912, Kandinsky formed the Blue Rider group with such like-minded artists as Paul Klee, Franz Marc, Macke and Munter. They published an almanac and held two exhibitions, but further activities were shelved with the outbreak of World War I.
During this Blue Rider period, Kandinsky’s paintings featured large, expressively colored masses different from forms and lines, resulting in canvases of notable force.
Kandinsky’s role as an art theorist infused The Blue Rider Almanac and his Concerning the Spiritual in Art, 1911, one of the most important art treatises of the Twentieth Century. Both defended and promoted abstract art and the concept that all forms of art were capable of reaching levels of spirituality. Artists were encouraged to dramatically simplify forms and liberate color from the constraints of the natural world. Kandinsky’s ideas had an international impact, especially in the English-speaking world.
In 1913, Kandinsky painted what he described as his most complex piece, the jewel-toned “Composition VII.” It is the culminating work of his Munich period.
Kandinsky’s colorful abstraction, “Improvisation 27 (Garden of Love II),” was his first painting to be shown in America. Featuring bold colors and abstract forms, it was exhibited at the New York Armory Show of 1913, where it baffled viewers, including critic Royal Cortissoz, who referred to it as “fragments of refuse thrown out of a butcher’s shop upon a bit of canvas.” When the exhibition moved to Chicago, one collector, citing the painting, said, “This is admitted by all lay visitors to be a wonderful smear of many colors, the meaning of which is a secret.” As art historian Gail Levin has observed, “Kandinsky’s move toward a totally abstract style … challenged spectators to sanction his expression of his inner feelings through form and color.”
“Improvisation No. 27” was soon acquired by Alfred Stieglitz, America’s pioneer promoter of Modern art, who also published excerpts from Kandinsky’s provocative Concerning the Spiritual in Art in his influential magazine, Camera Work. American artists who were inspired by Kandinsky’s paintings and his art theories included Oscar Bluemner, Konrad Cramer, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, Georgia O’Keeffe, Hans Hofmann and Jackson Pollock. As Levin points out, in America Kandinsky’s “radical abstract style would again and again be associated with cultural innovation.”
Before the outbreak of war in 1914, Kandinsky painted the notable “Painting with Red Spot.” It is close to an abstract work. Here the artist experimented with the relationships of colors, using speckled effects and wavy lines learned from glass painting and with the red mark standing out against a pale background.
In Moscow for the war’s duration, Kandinsky worked on reforms of art education and museum practices. His spiritual, Expressionist view of art was rejected by peers as too individualistic and bourgeois.
In 1917, Kandinsky married Nina Andreevskaya. They spent time at a rural dacha, where the artist employed a naturalistic style in painting the gardens and surroundings of the country town, filled with luxuriant vegetation with occasional architectural elements.
In 1921, Kandinsky accepted Walter Gropius’s invitation to teach at the Bauhaus of Weimar (later Dessau and Berlin). During his 11 years (1922–1933) at the Bauhaus, Kandinsky taught a variety of courses and published another book of his art theories. Geometrical elements became increasingly important in his paintings, particularly triangles, circles, half circles, angles, straight lines and curves. “On White II” exemplifies many of those elements, as do “Black Grid” and “Yellow-Red-Blue.”
The centerpiece of the exhibition is a reconstruction of an extraordinary lounge created for the 1922 Jury-Free Art Show in Berlin. Featuring 26-foot-long Kandinsky murals, it was designed to immerse visitors in a complete aesthetic experience. Reunited for the inauguration of the Pompidou in 1977, the murals have never been shown outside Europe.
While at the Bauhaus, Kandinsky helped form the Blue Four with Paul Klee, Lyonel Feininger and Alexei Jawlensky. Portraits in the exhibition of a white-bearded man and a flame-colored young woman reflect Jawlensky’s predilection for bold colors and offbeat subjects.
After the Nazis forced the closure of the Bauhaus in Dessau and Berlin (and confiscated Kandinsky’s works for the 1937 “Degenerate Art” exhibition in Munich), he settled in Neuilly-sur-Seine, a Paris suburb, for the last ten years of his life.
From time to time, Kandinsky gave thought to emigrating to the United States. In 1935, his Bauhaus colleague Josef Albers, who was teaching at the now legendary Black Mountain College in North Carolina, offered Kandinsky an artist-in-residence post but he declined. In 1941, Varian Fry, who aided thousands of European artists and intellectuals hoping to escape through Marseille, offered to help the Kandinskys but they decided to stay in Paris.
During this period, Kandinsky’s paintings included biomorphic forms found in scientific journals, Surrealist motifs, formal abstraction and the natural sciences. He often synthesized earlier work, enriching various elements.
Kandinsky’s last major works were the type of elaborate canvases he had not created in many years. “Composition IX” shows his new vocabulary featuring strong diagonal strips that form a blond geometric background surmounted by a series of organic inventions — embryos, plankton and shrimp.
In his last large format painting, “Reciprocal Accord,” a variety of forms in the open middle are shown in a tentative balance, flanked by angular black forms. “This painting,” art historian Christian Derouet has written, “is the final outburst of energy against age, isolation, stagnation and the humiliation of living in an occupied country.”
In the 1940s, it became increasingly difficult for Kandinsky to find canvases, so he painted on whatever supports he could find, such as cardboard or wood panels. “Even during the war, his paintings were inventive, joyful and full of humor,” observes Derouet, “in stark contrast with the morose climate of occupied Paris in which they were painted.”
Kandinsky died of a stroke in December 1944, aged 78, in his home in Neuilly. He and his wife are buried in the town cemetery.
As this rewarding exhibition demonstrates, Kandinsky’s oeuvre is interesting and challenging, revolutionary and influential. Along with his writings, his art, in which he liberated color from object, created the breakthrough that led to abstract art. As art theorist and painter, Kandinsky deserves a permanent place of honor among the great artists of the Twentieth Century.
In addition to popular exhibitions, a measure of Kandinsky’s enduring importance are the large sales prices for his works at auction. In 1990, Sotheby’s sold his “Fugue,” 1914, for $20.9 million. “Study for Improvisation 8,” 1909, fetched $23 million at Christie’s in 2012.
The exhibition travels to the Frist Center for Visual Arts in Nashville, September 26–January 4.
The 224-page exhibition catalog with useful essays by a number of experts offers valuable insights into Kandinsky’s life and oeuvre. Distributed by Yale University Press, it sells for $60, hardcover and $39.95 softcover.
The Milwaukee Art Museum is at 700 North Art Museum Drive. For information, 414-224-3200 or www.mam.org