Thursday, November 12, 2009

Kandinsky at the Guggenheim

Kandinsky at the Guggenheim
to January 13, 2010

Without ever having set foot in New York, or the U.S. for that matter, Russian born artist Vasily Kandinksy (1866 - 1944) played an inordinate role in the founding of the Guggenheim Museum itself. Introduced to Kandinsky's work via artist Hilla Rebay, Samuel R. Guggenheim not only became one of the foremost collectors of Kandinsky's spiritually infused paintings, but an advocate of non-objective, abstract art itself in the U.S., and in fact it became part of the mission of the Museum.There would seem few more fitting celebrations in this year of the Guggenheim's 50th anniversary than this show that draws on collections from all over the world to present a comprehensive look at Kandinsky's career from the early paintings to his last large canvas, completed in 1942. To view it is really a once in a lifetime opportunity.

The show sprawls all over the Frank Lloyd Wright designed Museum, spiralling up to the top of the snail-like structure grouped by periods in his very productive working life. As a point of fact, Kandinsky was 30 years old when he gave up a budding law career and professorship to study art in Munich. He was impressed with the Impressionist's use of colour. He came to believe in abstraction as a conduit to a more spiritual understanding of the world. It had the power to transform.

He called his abstractions "absolute pictures", meaning they had no reference to realism. I've always been delighted by Kandinsky's use of colour and form, his kinetic, sometimes whimsical canvasses, animated by something - as if indeed they captured some spiritual essence. His early paintings are quite representational, and the show's scope lets you view his evolution to avant garde abstractionism and his more visionary view of art as completely removed from the physical realm. Kandinsky became influential and well known as a theorist as well as a painter of note. Art can transform, colours can feed the soul. In 1911, he published "Uber das Geistige in der Kunst", or On the Spiritual in Art, (there are excerpts to check out at the link).

He was part of the famous "Blaue Reiter" group, part of the German Expressionist movement - in fact it was founded in reaction of a rejection of one of his pieces at an exhibition, and the name comes from one of his paintings. Horses and riders were a frequent part of his painterly vocabulary, and in fact he was quite fond of horses in real life in an era where they were being replaced by the advent of the automobile. He also used unconscious imagery. Kandinsky was very much interested in the intersections between the arts, with avant garde music in particular, and that of Arnold Schoenberg specifically, and he referred to his works often in musical terms like improvisation, composition, movement. Images flowed freely with a colour range that fascinates and delights the eye - "free flowing" as the result of his meticulous planning.

He was forced to leave Germany as an unwanted foreigner when World War I broke out in 1914, and he spent the years until 1921 back home in Russia. Another large block of work in the show represent his Bauhaus period from 1922 to 1933, after he returned to Germany. Kandinsky taught at the famous school of architecture and art, and during this period his forms become more recognizably geometric and precise, the colours more saturated, emphatic rather than the nuanced and lyrical washes I saw in many earlier works, his practices based on his continued explorations into colour and psychology.

Predictably, the emerging Nazi power structure in Germany hated the Bauhaus School and shut it down in 1932. From there, Kandinsky went to Paris, where he stayed until his death in 1944 during the German Occupation, and this despite offers of help in leaving the country for safer shores. He always intended on returning to the Germany whose art world he loved.

His later paintings evidence his growing interest in biomorphism and science, and he began to use organic imagery along with abstract geometric forms. He continued to work on paper after canvas became too scarce under the Occupation, sitting beside a coal stove for heat. The pieces from this period show a delicacy I didn't see in earlier works, some incredibly complicated with subtle colouring. It comes as no surprise to learn Kandinsky was fond of children's games and the circus, that he preferred fireworks over "serious" theatre, and that he had a quick sense of humour. He produced pieces that held sparks of joy while the world quite literally fell to pieces around him - solid evidence of his own theories on the transformative powers of art. There is something pure about his intent, I think that's how I've always reacted to his work. Throughout the evolution in his style, his directness of his expression and enchanting use of colour are constant threads.

In addition to the vast collection of paintings, you can view Gabriele Munter and Vasily Kandinsky: A Life in Pictures, as well as a separate collection of works on paper to round out your Kandinsky experience. His watercolours (from the Bauhaus period) show a rare precision.

N.B. I did also check out Paired, Gold: Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Roni Horn, and if you're interested in Ms Horn's work, she's taking over a couple of floors at the Whitney as we speak.


  1. Is this the ONLY signature of Kandinsky? Has he ever printed it on a painting along with a date?

    M. Johnson

  2. I have to confess that I have no idea.