In September of 2015, I was invited to give an opening talk on Kandinsky for an event in the Modern Russian Avant-Garde Series in San Francisco. The series is sponsored by impresaria extraordinaire of The Arts Resistance group, Zarina Zabrisky. The Arts Resistance "creates a passionate thinking space outside of the totalitarian mentality by means of the arts." This context gave me the chance to introduce Kandinsky from an internationalist perspective too often neglected in the literature on him.
The evening was dedicated to welcoming Evgeny Avilov, the Moscow painter behind "Blue Rider," an arts and activism collective named after Kandinsky's own Blue Rider group, which Kandinsky co-founded with painter Franz Marc in 1911 to protest Munich's out-of-date artistic establishment. That night, Avilov was to speak briefly about today's "lack of freedom of expression, human rights, and rising militarism in Russia," all of which Kandinsky saw in Moscow in his own time.
The task for my talk, then, was to connect Kandinsky, The Arts Resistance, and the two Blue Riders for an audience as interested in activism as in Russian culture. The text follows.
The author at the podium, San Francisco, September 2015.
Towards International Unity:
Kandinsky's Inclusive Arts Aesthetic
Lissa Tyler Renaud
I've been working on Kandinsky for over thirty years—teaching, lecturing, publishing, giving readings, and more. And just recently, I asked myself yet again: why do I like Kandinsky so much? And one of my answers is: his Blue Rider group. This crazy, daring group was just a great idea, and many of its members would have fit in perfectly in this room tonight! That Blue Rider also has points of contact with The Arts Resistance group that has gathered us here tonight, and with the new Blue Rider group—warmest welcome to our guest of honor.
I'd like to begin by giving you a more general sense of Kandinsky, for context:
I always say: Kandinsky is the most famous artist nobody knows much about. That's partly because he was born and educated in Russia, but he did his most famous paintings when he was living in Germany, and then spent his last years in France. So the main body of his work is spread out over at least three countries. Russia says he's Russian, Germany says he's German, and France says he's French. And the relationships between all their museums and archives and publishers are—well, it's complicated.
Another reason it's been hard to know too much about Kandinsky is that he was born in 1866, so he lived through World War I, the Russian Revolution, and almost survived World War II: he died in 1944, at just 78 years old. And having lived through these periods means that a lot of his work was lost, or destroyed, or hidden and still hasn't been found. Friends and colleagues who might have told us more about him died too early or were killed, a lot of his most interesting projects were cut short, and photographs and letters scattered.
Unfortunately, instead of just saying there were huge gaps in the information they had, Kandinsky scholars connected a lot of dots and ended up giving us a weird picture of him as—a painter. Actually, he was successful as a lawyer, ethnographic researcher, designer of clothing and jewelry, art theorist and critic, teacher, administrator, author, poet, playwright—and painter.
So. Kandinsky had a lot of fragmentation in his life: he had to change homes and countries quite a bit, and he had professional activities in quite a few different fields. And his reaction to everything's being spread out or disrupted like that was to put everything together. Unify everything. He was interested in anything that created connectedness, or inter-relatedness, or "synthesis." He thought all nations should have free contact, and all artists of all nations should work together, and all art forms from all periods should be connected and interact any way they want.
Kandinsky was multicultural before there was multicultural, interdisciplinary before there was interdisciplinary. He was inclusiveness incarnate. He spent his life fighting to replace either-or with both-and. He wrote:
"Nearly the whole of the nineteenth century consisted of a [ ] calm process of ordering, categorization, and division…. The astronomer had just as little time for Sanskrit as the musician had for sculpture. On this basis, all possible kinds of colleges were built, which produced highly trained specialists and completely uneducated people. And still do today."
Friends of The Blue Rider on the balcony of Münter
and Kandinsky's apartment at Ainmillerstrasse, 36, Munich, 1911.
L to R: Maria and Franz Marc, Bernhard Koehler, Wassily Kandinsky (seated),
Heinrich Campendonk and Thomas Hartmann. Photo by Gabriele Münter.
And this is why Kandinsky formed the Blue Rider group in Munich in 1911. To use the "arts for resistance" against all these divisions. When Kandinsky and his friends put on Blue Rider exhibitions, they didn't show "the usual"—that is, similar German paintings hung in chronological order. No, the Blue Rider group showed a grand mishmash of styles by artists from different countries, and in different mediums: Cubists, Futurists, paintings, graphics, drawings, designs, on the walls and in cases, abstract and not—exhibitions so inclusive that they horrified the public and baffled the critics.
The Blue Rider group published The Blue Rider Almanac, which put Kandinsky's "inclusive aesthetic" on paper. The Almanac was even more diverse than the Blue Rider exhibitions: Bavarian glass paintings, woodcuts from the Middle Ages, Chinese painting, Italian mosaics, sculptures from Mexico and Cameroon, Japanese ink drawings, Russian folk prints and Egyptian shadow-play puppets. There were essays on the new art, new music, new theatre—and so much more that I've hardly begun.
Study for the cover of The Blue Rider Almanac
[Almanach Der Blaue Reiter], 1911
The Blue Rider exhibitions and The Blue Rider Almanac are works of genius. Kandinsky recognized that every individual art form has its own positive force, or strength—and that if you put all the arts together, and harness the strengths of all the arts, you can change the world for the better.
Kandinsky said this same thing for the rest of his life. When WWI started, Germany expelled Kandinsky as an enemy alien. Back home in Moscow, he made plans for "an international house of the arts." He created programs for training all artists together. He proposed a Congress for Representatives of All the Arts of All Countries—with the funny comment that just the shock of such a meeting had to do something!
After World War I, Kandinsky said the politicians had failed, and now it was up to the artists to repair international relations. War, he said, would succeed where peace had failed—that is, war had created a climate of activism that would bring about an era of internationalism never seen before. The higher and thicker the walls became, he thought—between nations, between artists—the more energy could be mustered to knock them down.
I think we can see this coming true in our own time.
I'll close with this:
Here is a passage from a document Kandinsky wrote before he fled Russia in 1921. It's called, "Steps Taken by the Department of Fine Arts in the Realm of International Art Politics":
We have every right to hope that the wall dividing nations has not only been breached, but razed to the ground, from the ruins of which we shall create the possibility of both continuous contact with our Western comrades and actual international cooperation in art…There can be no doubt that we are standing on the threshold of an age in which we shall no longer prefix East and West with the word "Far," when, in an ever-broadening stream, East and West will meet at one single point, and the international unity of artists will embrace the whole globe and rise to the level of the unification of all mankind.
As an important step on this long road to unity, we are all here tonight, together.
* * *
Note: You can find Zarina Zabrisky's own 2019 contribution to this KANDINSKY ANEW Series, "Kandinsky and the Totalitarian State," here.