Lissa Tyler Renaud
Editor, “Kandinsky Anew” series
This article answers a question that might be asked by someone long familiar with Kandinsky or someone new to him. Here, historian and architecture critic Ross Wolfe poses the question this way: Why is Kandinsky so seldom mentioned in surveys of architectural history?
I am especially delighted by this inquiry because, as a theatre historian and critic, I have been asking for a long time why Kandinsky is “so seldom mentioned in surveys of” theatre history. While bringing clarity to the matter of Kandinsky and architecture, Wolfe might offer parallel new paths for thinking about the theatre.
In the meantime, about Kandinsky, architecture and theatre: Kandinsky did consider the architecture of the theatre building itself to be a critical component of the theatre experience. The theatre building is designed as a magnet that draws the public all the way from the streets outside the building—into the lobby, into the seating area—to its powerful center in the inner reaches of the stage. That is, the structure of the building and the performance work together: the building creates tension and the performance releases it.
About Kandinsky and architecture: It is reasonable to wonder how the painter Kandinsky remained so integral to the Bauhaus in its day, and how he is now considered such a crucial element of the Bauhaus legacy. In fact, even though we may think of the Bauhaus as a school of architecture, the primacy of architecture in the school’s curriculum was fitful at best. Mostly, over the years, the Bauhaus repeatedly re-invented itself, keeping its identity malleable as it moved from Weimar to Dessau to Berlin, staying half a step ahead of the Nazis, who finally made it impossible to go on.
Originally, founder Walter Gropius had proposed the Bauhaus as a training ground for those who would create “the building of the future.” This building was to emerge from the synthesis of painting, architecture and sculpture, a program which would have made logical use of Kandinsky’s work. But as the Bauhaus developed, tensions persisted between the “creative artists” and the “talented craftsmen,” between theory and practice; it became a school focused on design, then on art and technology, then on art and industry. Along the way, in nerve-wracking fashion, even the organization of the school continually shifted—first based on the idea of guilds, then workshops; then becoming an official school, and finally a university.
The tensions increasingly strained the relationship between Kandinsky the painter and Gropius the architect. In The Bauhuas Idea, Éva Forgács tells us that, many years later, Gropius’s wife Ise wrote of the “non-participation” of Kandinsky and even Klee: “The Bauhaus… was not established in order to give a few remarkable painters the financial independence to live entirely for their art.” But Gropius always defended his having hired Kandinsky, for the enormous prestige he brought to the Bauhaus, for his teaching, and for the contribution his color theory brought to the field of design, which is now applied around the world to household objects as well as to buildings.
Now we turn to our guest expert, Ross Wolfe, whose unusual article tells us not why something happened, but why something did not happen: “By looking at Kandinsky's uneasy relationship with constructivism in art, the reason for his absence from histories of architecture becomes clear.”
Kandinsky and Architecture
by Ross Wolfe
Wassily Kandinsky is not often mentioned in surveys of architectural history. If he is at all, it is usually only in passing, in connection with his time spent teaching at the Bauhaus. Even then, this is because the school became so well known for its contributions to design, whereas Kandinsky was just one of the major visual artists on its staff. Paul Klee, Johannes Itten, and László Moholy-Nagy taught there as well. Other abstractionists, for example Kazimir Malevich or Piet Mondrian, tend to receive more ink when it comes to the relationship between painting and building. Given the influence of the former upon the latter in the twentieth century, especially as upheld by the historian Siegfried Giedion, this is perhaps a bit surprising.
Maybe it is due to the lack of overt tectonic elements in Kandinsky’s art. Unlike Malevich, whose model Архитектоны [Architecton] simulated the volumes of built structures, or Mondrian, who corresponded at length with architects such as Gerrit Rietveld and JJP Oud, Kandinsky never explored the implications of his work for architecture nor inspired contemporaries to do so. He was nevertheless held in high regard by figures like Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the first and third directors of the Bauhaus, respectively. Gropius had invited him to come teach in Weimar, sending a handwritten note via the Bolshevik Karl Radek in Moscow. Similarly, Mies told his student Howard Dearstyne that he considered Kandinsky “a highly intelligent man” [“ein hochintelligenter Mensch“]. Dearstyne himself recalled years later:
Kandinsky was a profound student of color, who realized that if it were to be applied to architecture, its physical characteristics had to be understood and the techniques of its application mastered. Being a painter, knowing the psychological potential of that particular medium, he was aware of what color could do to architecture.
According to his friend and biographer, the critic Will Grohmann, an architectural excursus was one of Kandinsky’s longstanding ambitions. “To work in space — or with architecture — is an old dream of mine which I hoped to realize when I went to the Bauhaus, but unfortunately have not as yet,” he wrote to Grohmann in 1924. “So far, my only large-scale effort was painting the reception room for a museum of art commissioned by the Juryfreie two years ago.” Previously, Kandinsky had written in his 1921 program for the Institute of Artistic Culture [Инхук] in Moscow that “as far as architecture is concerned, this art possesses a condition that distinguishes it from either painting and sculpture: its applied aspect, the necessity to adapt a building to the existence of people inside it, so that inevitably abstract form is left out.”
In that same document, Kandinsky nevertheless affirmed: “When the cultural renaissance occurs, architecture will be renewed, at long last heeding the resonant voice of the new art.” Clearly, he was optimistic about the future of architecture. Not long after arriving in Weimar, Kandinsky sketched an outline for his lecture on form in which he highlighted its relation to painting and sculpture. “Building (architecture) can be nothing if not colored (painting), able at any moment to fuse divisions of space (sculpture)… sucking streams of people through open doors in accordance with a strict schema,” he wrote. Undoubtedly, one of the main reasons teaching at the Bauhaus appealed to Kandinsky was its commitment to synthetic collaboration, as he put it in a 1922 exhibition catalogue: “Today we stand under the sign of synthesis. Roads hitherto traveled separately have now become one road, traveled
all together, like it or not."
Wassily Kandinsky. Composition VIII (1923)
suggests some constructivist influence.
One of the more controversial claims regarding Kandinsky’s oeuvre is that he ended up adopting constructivist forms, despite his repeated polemics against their cold, almost mathematical precision. He dated his Première abstraction to about 1910, a watercolor marked by conical shapes and sudden splotches of color. Some of his other watercolors from this period were simple preparatory studies, working out beforehand how the component parts of his oil paintings would be arranged. Kandinsky thus called his more consciously-produced canvases “compositions,” while more spontaneous pieces were filed under “improvisations.” For the most part, however, even his most deliberate works from the Blaue Reiter years were expressionistic, featuring jagged lines and dramatic arcs of light. They give a sense of pure immediacy, as if they bubbled up out of the depths of
Kandinsky’s soul, the products of unfiltered intuition.
After he returned from Russia in 1921, Kandinsky began to incorporate more geometric shapes in his sketches and paintings. Many have speculated that this was an effect of constructivism, a young movement pioneered by Vladimir Tatlin and Aleksandr Rodchenko, rubbing off on the older painter. Grohmann was skeptical of such interpretations, though. “It has often been suggested that Kandinsky transitioned to his later, colder style while in Moscow, and did so under the sway of constructivism,” wrote Grohmann. “But there were strictly geometric elements in Kandinsky’s works even during the Munich period, and moreover, the works of his Russian years down to 1921 reveal no constructivist influence whatsoever. Subsequently during his tenure at the Bauhaus, he attested that constructivism was alien to him… His paintings after 1922 are
referred to as constructivist only on account of their austere structure and unmistakably geometric forms, not their aesthetic spirit. Constructivists had no ties with him either in Germany or in Russia, and tended to regard him as an opponent… Kandinsky largely went his own way.”
Evidence of the constructivists’ hostility can be seen in some of the critical barbs they directed at Kandinsky’s work. Władysław Strzemiński, the Polish constructivist, reviewed an exhibition of Russian art in 1922, dismissively remarking: “One ought to see Kandinsky as the last representative of a dying impressionism, as an artist mistakenly included in the new art.” Likewise Adolf Behne, an avant-garde critic, observed: “In no sense is Kandinsky’s abstract canvas the last word in Russian painting.” At any rather, such comments did not pass unnoticed. He explicitly instructed gallerists in 1928 not to refer to him as a constructivist in their catalogues. In late 1931, Kandinsky wrote:
Artists calling themselves “pure constructivists” have made various attempts to construct on a purely materialistic basis, trying to eliminate “out-of-date” intuition so as to serve our present, “rational” age by means adapted to it. They have never been able to establish a clear-cut formula that corresponds to every proportion of a painting, obliged either to paint poor paintings or correct their reason using “out-of-date” intuition.
Kandinsky’s ire did not end there. Later, for a 1935 issue of Christian Zervos’ periodical Cahiers d’Art, he wrote:
Regarding misunderstandings and harmful “mix-ups”: The constructivists state that emotions received by the artist from outside are not only useless, but must be fought against. According to these artists, they are “remnants of bourgeois sentimentality” which must be replaced by the pure intention of the mechanical process. Constructivists build “calculated constructions” to do away with feeling, not only within themselves, but also within the beholder, to liberate him from psychology and turn him into a “man of the present.”
In truth, these artists are mechanics (spiritually limited children of “our mechanistic age”). Yet they [e.g., Tatlin] produce machines deprived of movement, engines that do not move, planes that do not fly. Most constructivists [e.g., Rodchenko] soon stopped painting altogether. One of them [Lissitzky] declared that painting is merely a bridge which must be crossed to reach architecture. He forgot that there are many great architects [Le Corbusier] of the extreme avant-garde who have not ceased to paint at the same time.
The tacit allusions Kandinsky made in this passage are here placed inside brackets for easy reference, but are obvious enough. Because the example/counterexample of Lissitzky/Le Corbusier is the most germane to present purposes, it will be dealt with in the following paragraph. Each of these figures had been an accomplished painter.
Lissitzky was a student of Malevich and a supporter of suprematism in art. He famously declared in the early 1920s that his Proun series of canvases were stations on the way to architecture. Indeed, he felt that the art of painting had been definitively superseded by the art of building, and was now a part of history. Although Lissitzky never managed to get anything built, several of his proposals came to be quite well known (like the Wolkenbügel slab, meant for Moscow). Far more successful was Le Corbusier, who had originally been trained as an architect but started dabbling in postcubist painting after he met Amédée Ozenfant in 1917. Together they innovated purism, a flattened style depicting mass-produced objects of everyday life. Corbusier returned to architecture in the 1920s, launching a legendary career that spanned four decades on multiple continents, but he continued to paint every morning after breakfast.
Kandinsky had a point, it would seem, about architects who continue to paint even as they practice their trade. Why then did he never make a transition to architecture? Once again, his painterly abstractions did not lend themselves well to architectural cognates. Still, this might have been a function of the age in which Kandinsky worked. Emulating the biomorphic curves of his later paintings would have been impossible in the first half of the twentieth century. Now with computer aided design, irregular dips and surfaces can be more readily fabricated. Perhaps only today is a “Kandinskyesque” architecture possible, if still unlikely.
* * *
ROSS WOLFE is a writer, historian, and architecture critic living in New York. His interests range from Marxism to the modern movement. He blogs at The Charnel House and has written for a variety of publications, including e-flux, Radical Philosophy, Situations, Mediations, Brooklyn Rail, and Los Angeles Review of Books.
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.
Note: An earlier version of this article appeared in
Kandinsky Beyond Painting: New Perspectives,
ed. Lissa Tyler Renaud, for a special 2018 issue
on Kandinsky, Dramaturgias journal, Brazil.
©2020 Ross Wolfe and Lissa Tyler Renaud
©2020 Publication Scene4 Magazine