Sunday, July 09, 2006

Kandinsky: The Path to Abstraction

Tate Modern, 22nd June to 1st October, 2006.
Review by Graham Buchan.

“I know of nothing more real than the painting of Kandinsky – nor anything more true and nothing more beautiful.” Diego Rivera.

One of the most extraordinary journeys in the visual arts was the one undertaken by Wassily Kandinsky. In his 50-year career he changed from a painter of landscapes in an impressionist style to the foremost exponent of abstraction in the twentieth century. This hugely interesting exhibition charts the first half of that journey, with works from 1905 until 1921. For decades many of these paintings were hidden away in galleries in the Soviet Union, so just being able to see so many unearthed treasures is reason enough to visit. However the late, masterful works of pure abstraction – for me some of the most sheerly pleasurable paintings ever made - are not here. What we see is the long struggle towards them.

Kandinsky was an intellectual who originally studied law and economics. He was thirty before he thought of painting as anything more than a pleasant diversion. He was also a poet, took a deep interest in theatre, and his life was imbued with music. Taking a chronological route, the exhibition starts with works such as Arab City and Song and we see an artist confident with vibrant colour and the bold depiction of form, but not really differentiating himself from legions of artists of the same period. Houses, castles, rivers: they are all here. But evidently an impulse within Kandinsky urged another approach. He believed painting was a pure spiritual medium and increasingly turned away from figurative representation in order to tap into primarily sub-conscious phenomena. “I could see clearly that objects harmed my pictures,” he later wrote.

But the journey to total abstraction – to rid his work of objects; to paint the invisible; to illustrate the sub-conscious – would be long and hard. By the time he had painted Cossacks (1910-11) the press were branding him a madman; later the Soviets would label him a formalist, and the Nazis, a degenerate.

Paintings such as these do contain recognizable objects, and indeed certain motifs, especially associated with Kandinsky’s spiritual beliefs, recur again and again. Riders with cutlasses; Cossacks with lances; boats with oarsmen. We see depictions of the deluge and the angel of the Last Judgement. But as the 1910’s progressed it is clear that the artist was increasingly preoccupied with the fundamental effects of form and colour. The various works entitled Composition and Improvisation have a huge chaotic energy. However it is a mistake to think that these are the fruits of sudden rushes of spontaneity a la Pollock: Kandinsky’s writings and many sketches confirm that every line, splodge and blob of colour was considered carefully for its shape, size, position and weight. He heard these colours, as if in a symphony. He had remarkable power of synesthesia (much like the later composer Messaien, who saw all his orchestral tones as different colours), and it is no accident that Kandinsky regarded music as the greatest art. He had been inspired by Wagner, worked with Hartmann, and admired Schoenberg.

Progress was not smooth and linear, however. Kandinsky occasionally lapsed back into traditional forms: folk art as in woodcuts and paintings on glass (note the lovely Two Girls from 1917), cityscapes of Moscow, and figurative work (the charming Bagatellen from 1916). But it was early in this period of struggle that Kandinsky wrote “I already knew quite definitely at that time that I would conquer absolute painting.”

The end of the exhibition shows Kandinsky on the very threshold of pure Abstraction. Geometric forms, particularly circles, which would dominate the lovely later work, are just beginning to appear. It is to be hoped that the second half of Kandinsky’s journey will be the subject of another exhibition in the future.

Acknowledgements due to Jelena Hahl-Koch: Kandinsky, Thames and Hudson 1993


1. Wassily Kandinsky Cossacks 1910-11

Tate © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2006

2. Wassily Kandinsky Improvisation 35 1914

Kunstmuseum Basel © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2006