Kandinsky Anew | Lissa Tyler Renaud | Scene4 Magazine | www.scene4.com

Kandinsky and the
Totalitarian State

Zarina Zabrisky

Lissa Tyler Renaud
Editor, “Kandinsky Anew” series


In both print and online, we too often find Disneyfied versions of Kandinsky’s life, which was actually one of considerable Sturm und Drang. It is tempting to be dazzled by his striking good looks and the fact that his paintings and writings changed the history of art, and to stop there.


But Kandinsky grew up “between cultures”—a Russian with Asian heritage, some childhood years in Odessa, a German grandmother—and he continued to be an outsider of one kind or another all his life. He suffered very real periods of depression; there was often a fine line between his famous synesthetic visions and the hallucinations that had driven his uncle to suicide. After some fitful-but-fruitful exploratory years, at thirty, he chose to live in Germany, where he wrote as well as painted. Publishers rolled their eyes and balked at his extravagant, Russified German; one slighted his abstract theoretical works as “Asiatic.” He sheepishly relied on friends to correct his written German. He was forcibly ejected from Germany at the start of WWI—easy to say, traumatic to live through—and made a harrowing trip back to Russia, where the revolutionary government confiscated his property, and his revolutionary colleagues treated him as an old fuddy-duddy and pushed him to the margins. He’d left a long relationship and countless, irretrievable paintings behind in Germany. At around 50, he married a (pregnant?) 17-year old; as was common at the time of the Russian famine, their child died of starvation, at around three years old. Indeed, Kandinsky was hard-pressed to find either food or materials for painting, and when he and his wife gave up and left for Germany in 1921—once again leaving his works behind—he appeared markedly thin in photos. He accepted a teaching job at the new Bauhaus in 1922, where his colleagues never knew of Kandinsky’s long period of privations or that he had a son buried in Moscow.


Writer Zarina Zabrisky tells the next, haunting chapter of Kandinsky’s story in the passionate essay that follows. She has been devoted to Kandinsky’s ideas for a long time, and her article serves as a corrective to the whitewashed—commercialized?—picture of his life that prevails in the public’s imagination. Zabrisky offers us the authentic texture of what Kandinsky lived through during those years, and gives us context for the final upheaval that resulted in his move to Paris for his last ten years. Zabrisky’s is also a cautionary tale, suggesting our own times.



Kandinsky and the Totalitarian State
by Zarina Zabrisky


Degenerate Art

The Nazi German exhibition, Entartete Kunst, widely known as Degenerate Art, was organized by the Third Reich in 1937 in Munich. The National Socialists’ attack on modern art, it showcased 650 out of 16,000 works of art confiscated from the museums and labeled “un-German,” “insult to German motherhood,” “insanity room” and “Nature as seen by sick minds.” The artists were fired, banned from work and most went into exile. Many paintings were burnt after the show. Hired actors loudly criticized the art in the galleries. This show stayed open for four months and was attended by two million visitors, including Hitler himself. In 1938, art historian Lucy Wasensteiner, in defending Kandinsky and other “degenerate” artists, wrote that for Hitler, a failed artist whose work did not receive any recognition or attention, “art was, and had to be, a mirror in which the reflection shows the discernible if idealistically transformed human material, and such art must relate to and be governed by the requirements of the struggle of the higher race against the lower and not by any suggestion that the creative process was the result of ‘inner necessity’.”



The organizers of Degenerate Art mistook Wassily Kandinsky for a member of the Dada movement and placed the enlarged details of his three Compositions, confiscated during a raid on the Bauhaus art school, on the “Dada wall” along with the art of Paul Klee. Considering that in 1933 Hitler remarked that “sixty years ago an exhibition of so-called Dadaistic ‘experience’ would have seemed simply impossible, and its organizers would have ended up in the madhouse,” this was not just an error. It could be a life sentence. The three Compositions were destroyed.



Degenerate Art
 featured works by several former professors of the Bauhaus, an experimental art school located in Dessau after 1925. Kandinsky had taught at the Bauhaus since 1922, after his return to Germany from the Soviet Union where the Bolsheviks had labeled modernist and abstract art as “decadent” and Kandinsky himself as the “lackey of the bourgeoisie.” Ironically, the Nazis proclaimed the Bauhaus "a hotbed of Bolshevism in culture" and closed it in 1933. From a German culture page entitled “Nazi and Bauhaus School”: “Paul Schultze-Naumburg was the architect that they sent into the school to re-establish pure German art instead of the ‘cosmopolitan rubbish’ the Bauhaus artists were doing. He described Bauhaus furniture as Kisten, or boxes…”


“The Great German Art Exhibition”

At the same time the Degenerate Art exhibit was running in the city of Munich, the Third Reich opened there The Great German Art Exhibition, featuring work approved by the Ministry of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment. From Dr. Lucy Wasensteiner again:

    The Nazi movement attracted many who had a grudge against modern art. There were daydreaming racist philosophers, embittered know-nothings, provincials who seized the opportunity to direct their spite against those engaged in activities they could not understand, small-town bigshots and big-town smallshots. Some of the leading party members took pride in what they regarded as their artistic inclinations and were prepared to speak out on the subject of art and artists. Herman Goering was a voracious collector of art; Josef Goebbels was a failed novelist and playwright (his novel Michael: A German Fate in Diary Form is a true literary curiosity): and even the peddler of pornography and obscenities, the corrupt publisher of the infamous Der Sturmer (The Stormer), Julius Streicher, attempted the writing of poetry and the painting of watercolors; Alfred Rosenberg, the self-styled philosopher, whose well-known if largely unread The Myth of the Twentieth Century was devoted in great part to a consideration of art and its relationship to society, had in the late nineteen-twenties organized the Combat League for German Culture, a collection of wooly-minded activists.

The Nazi artists turned to Hellenistic and Nordic visuals for inspiration.  They used symbols and imagery that reinforced the myth of “Aryan superiority,” and promoted youthfulness, health, fertility and purity, such as Hitler Youth Drummer by Anni Spetzler-Proschwitz, displayed at the show in 1939.


Sculptor Arno Breker, who created works such as Prometheus, an oversized sculpture of an Aryan male, all sinewy muscles, installed in the garden of the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, eventually joined the Nazi Party in 1937 and became an official state sculptor. Nazi-sympathizing organizations, such as the Military League for German Culture, established in 1928, promoted the idea of ‘pure’ German culture. The ethnic superiority of Nordic people and fear of Jewish and foreign influences, including “Negro” jazz, became the predominant themes in the art of the Third Reich. Hitler and Mussolini attended the exhibit. It became an annual tradition.  


London—Twentieth Century German Art

From June to August of 1938, exactly one year after Degenerate Art, an exhibition Twentieth Century German Art was organized in central London to challenge the Degenerate Art exhibit in Munich. By 1937, the Nazis had started to confiscate the art from Jewish art collectors, using the label “degenerate” art as justification. Many artists, as well as collectors and dealers, had escaped Nazi Germany and Austria. They sent art to the show, which showcased 300 paintings and sculptures from 90 private collections. Sixty-four artists participated, including Kandinsky, who donated at least two works for the show. All in all, thirteen works by Kandinsky were on display in Twentieth-Century German Art.


“This was the largest international response to the National Socialist campaign against ‘degenerate’ art, and it remains the largest display of twentieth-century German art ever mounted in Britain,” according to the curators of the exhibit London 1938: Defending 'Degenerate' German Art, which commemorated the 80th anniversary of the London show. “Much of this art is now in official disfavour in the country of its origin,” read the flyer that featured Franz Marc’s Blue Horses.

The show was a great success. The opening attracted over one thousand people. By mid-August, an estimated 12,000 people had visited the exhibit and it was extended three times. “Women were kept waiting in the rain, staircases and galleries were difficult to move in,” reported the London press. “Because their work shows the horrors of war, because it conflicts with Hitler’s “artistic ideas” (he is an amateur painter), most of the last century they have been forbidden to exhibit in their own country,” wrote another newspaper.


The Third Reich’s Reaction to London Exhibit

As noted in the informational materials of the London 1938: Defending 'Degenerate' German Art exhibition:

    In Nazi Germany, Twentieth Century German Art prompted a furious reaction. Adolf Hitler spoke out against the show at the opening of the second annual Great German Art Exhibition in Munich in 1939… and various angry reports followed in the Nazi-controlled German press. For example, the Voklischer Beobachter characterized it as ‘Judaism and Moscow’ presenting lies to the ‘politically clueless English.’

“The Progress of Bolshevik Art—Degenerate Exhibition in London—half of them, of course, Jews and Emigrants,” read a headline from the German press covering the London exhibit.


“Great German Art” and “Bolshevik Art”

In another ironic twist, the real “Bolshevik Art” was practically identical to the “Great German art.” The Soviet official style was called “socialist realism,” a representational art style that was class-based, widely accessible, and comprehensible to the masses.


Kandinsky, who had to return to his native Russia in 1914 from Germany after the beginning of World War I and got inspired by the experimental nature of pre-revolutionary and early Bolshevik Russia, left it for good in 1921, unable to create under the dictated mandates of the Communist party leaders.


The Soviets, like the Nazis, very quickly knew to allow only the art and culture that served the state and fit into the official ideology of the ruling party.


The art, as the regime’s tool, promoted the stereotypes of loyal citizens united by the ideals of the utopian future in the Soviet Union (blood and soil in the Third Reich); sacrifice of an individual life for the well-being of the nation and world proletariat in the USSR (the Aryan race in the Third Reich); the great destiny of the chosen class (race in the Third Reich); muscular masculinity; fertile femininity; sanctity of motherhood; athletic vitality; military power.


Art, Propaganda and the Totalitarian State

Fatherland and Motherland, traditional gender role distribution, racial or class purity, unity in the name of race or class—the vocabulary of a totalitarian state and authoritarian dictators is the same anywhere on Earth, regardless of the era.


In the 1930s, both the Nazis and the Soviets ideologues put culture in the center of propaganda work. As early as 1933, Hitler and the Reich Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, Josef Goebbels, signed a law on establishing the Reich Chambers of Literature, Press, Broadcasting, Theater, Music, and Visual Art. Thus, the Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda started to control all spheres of culture. In 1932, the Union of Artists replaced all art schools, groups, circles and societies in the USSR. The Soviets also had a Ministry of Culture that reported directly to the Kremlin and the censorship system that erased any voices outside of the party line. Stalin, like Hitler, was a failed artist; he started by writing poetry and “curated” the poets and writers personally.


In 1933, just as the Nazis closed the Bauhaus, the Soviets labeled Kazimir Malevich’s “Black Square” as the product of the “rotting” bourgeois art, and socialist realism took a monopoly on the cultural arena in the USSR.


While the messages of the Soviets and Nazis differed— the superiority of the ‘Aryan race’ vs. the hegemony of the proletarian class—the essence was the same. National Socialist and Soviet socialist realist aesthetics reflected the ideology of the totalitarian state intolerant to the liberal democracy individuation and freedom pioneered by the founder of modern art, Wassily Kandinsky.


For the break through the representational barrier into pure abstraction presents a danger to oppressive regimes. The rights of thought and imagination undermine the crowd mentality, military discipline and the blind obedience required of a loyal citizen of a fascist state. The chaos of colors is unacceptable. A strict order must rule. The departure from a utilitarian approach—the fascists’ doctrines and dogmas—is punished.


Nowadays, in Putin’s Russia, the same playbook is used. In 2015, the secret police raided an exhibition of a group called Blue Rider, inspired by the name of Kandinsky’s own group (1911-1914).  The artists dared to challenge the nationalist fervor of the Victory Day celebration and depicted the war in a horrifying way, “insulting patriotic feeling.” The art was confiscated. In the best tradition of the Third Reich, the artists were beaten up and detained.



One would hope that eighty years after the London protest exhibition, we would be examining it only in the light of art history. As we know, however, the chimera of fascism has made a full circle. The neo-Nazi and far-right forces present a serious threat to humanity yet again. In the context of today's political struggle between the darkness and the light, Kandinsky's work is as relevant as ever--and gives us hope.


*     *     *



Scene4 Magazine | Zarina Zabrisky | November 2019 | www.scene4.com | ©Simon Rogghe
Zarina Zabrisky

An award-winning American author of five books published internationally.
She holds an M.A. in Literature from St. Petersburg University, Russia. Her work has been featured worldwide in over fifty magazines, has won a 2013 Acker Award for Achievement in the Avant-Garde, and been nominated for the Pushcart Prize
three times.



Note: This article originally appeared in Kandinsky Beyond Painting: New Perspectives,

ed. Lissa Tyler Renaud, for a special 2018 issue on Kandinsky, Dramaturgias journal, Brazil.



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Lissa Tyler Renaud | Scene4 Magazine

Lissa Tyler Renaud, lifelong actress, M.F.A. Directing, Ph.D. Dramatic Art (thesis [with Art History]: Kandinsky and the theatre), U.C. Berkeley, 1987; founded the Actors' Training Project studio for training based on Kandinsky's work. Since 2004, training actors, directors and scholars; lecturing, and publishing widely–as visiting professor, master teacher, invited speaker, actor-scholar, recitalist–around the U.S. and Asia; in England, Mexico, Sweden, Russia. She is a Senior Writer for Scene4. 
For her other commentary and articles, check the Archives.

©2019 Lissa Tyler Renaud
©2019 Publication Scene4 Magazine



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