Please see the previous installment of The Obstacle Course Kandinsky Ran: 1. His Early Critics, here.
And a reminder:
Most of what follows comes from the important, least known parts of Kandinsky's exciting letters. Half of these have remained unpublished, or
known only in Russia or France. Until now: eminent co-author of this "Kandinsky Anew" entry, Jelena Hahl-Fontaine, has finally translated them—"with
enormous pleasure," she says—and is about to publish them in a German edition. Jelena muses, "Perhaps a similar edition might be of interest in English?" In
the meantime, we have worked to give Scene4 readers a historic, English-language preview of what the letters—not available to the public—contain.
The period around 1905 was nothing if not dreadful for Kandinsky. He was caught in Odessa in the first Russian revolution (1905-07) and the
pogrom against the Jews. He and his father had to vacate their home for a time, under threat of being bombed. His favorite half-brother on his mother's side died in the
Russo-Japanese war (1904-05), whereupon his mother became skeletal from depression. As if these weren't enough, he felt isolated in his sorrows: in September of 1905,
he wrote to his beloved partner and closest friend until 1914, Gabriele M眉nter, what he had said to her many times before: "You are indifferent to my sufferings for
Russia. … But your heart could feel with mine."
Kandinsky's "Composition VII," 1913.
One of the seven of his ten Compositions that survived WWI.
Between 1911 and 1914, Herwarth Walden, a galvanizing force in all progressive art in Berlin and beyond, was an enormous help to Kandinsky
regarding exhibitions and publications—even organizing an international defense against the most brutal accusations against him. But in 1914, World
War I began and the German authorities gave the Russian Kandinsky 48 hours to leave. In his rush, he was forced to leave as many as 150 paintings
in Berlin. Kandinsky fled to Switzerland, looking for the first chance to travel to Russia. From Switzerland, he had written to Walden asking him
explicitly not to sell any of his paintings.
The years around the 1917 Russian revolution were in a continual state of
turmoil for Kandinsky, both around him and internally. To be sure, he was initially optimistic: the end of "charismatic authority," and perhaps an
emerging democracy. His engagement in cultural politics is evidence of his positive attitude. But his optimism was profoundly misplaced, and it is
telling that in 1918, Kandinsky wrote to Poul Bjerre, a friend in Sweden, asking to borrow money, offering paintings at half price. The letter never reached his friend.
Parallel to all this, as late as 1917, his personal life—otherwise happy, with
a new marriage and a baby that year—was deeply marred by many dozens of letters from M眉nter insisting that he marry her, although he had made it
clear since 1914 that living together was impossible. In 1916 alone, M眉nter had sent nearly 40 angry letters in the space of only six months, and
mutual friends had tried to intervene on Kandinsky's behalf in vain. In spite of the vitriol against Kandinsky in the M眉nter literature—giving an
unjust impression of him that sorely needs correcting—all his letters to M眉nter show him to be loving, patient, and supportive towards her.
"With a Circle," 1911. Kandinsky's first abstract oil painting.
Early on considered lost, it has hung in Tbilisi since the 1930s.
By 1921, Kandinsky gave up trying to live in Moscow and returned to Germany. By then, he was not only poor: he had lost his house in Moscow
when it was appropriated by the new government, and in The Great Famine, his nearly three-year old son had died of malnutrition and disease.
In leaving Russia, he had to leave behind dozens of his paintings, among them his important "Composition No. 7" of 1913 (see above) and his very
first abstract oil painting, "With a Circle" of 1911. He tried desperately to get the latter back to no avail—it now hangs in the Georgian National
Museum. The state Kandinsky was in when he arrived in Berlin can be judged by his letters: he was sick and exhausted and needed weeks to
recover. His passport photo is additional proof of the hungry times in Moscow:
Kandinsky's passport photo, leaving Russia for Germany.
Modern dance cabaret performance in Herwarth Walden's art gallery, 1923.
Arriving in Berlin, naturally he went immediately to see Herwarth Walden,
with whom he expected to find his old paintings, which he could start selling. But not a single painting was left, nor any money either. It wasn't
that Walden had sold all of them—he had given some to his wife Nell before their divorce. So Kandinsky felt forced to start a lawsuit against
Walden, from which he was awarded a tiny amount of money. Add to that his disappointment!
During the following years as a professor at the famous Bauhaus school
(1922-33), things went well for him until, due to ongoing Nazi harassment, salaries had to be cut. Along with the obvious difficulties this brought him,
Kandinsky wrote to his friend and biographer, Will Grohmann, that he had to find additional income because he was supporting three families in
Russia who "would otherwise literally starve." From 1922 on, Germany had been denouncing Kandinsky as a "bolshevist propagandist," affecting not
only his private life, but also his application for German citizenship, finally granted in 1927/8.
Late-night costume party, Kandinsky's Master house, Dessau Bauhaus,
celebrating his German citizenship, 1928.
From left: Hinnerk Scheper, Nina Kandinsky, Lou Scheper, Moholy-Nagy,
Kandinsky (in German lederhosen) and Josef Albers.
Luckily, sales were possible in Paris before his fourth and last emigration,
to France, at the end of 1933. It was in that year that the Bauhaus was finally closed after years of Nazi threats and intimidation, and in 1934,
France swiftly issued Kandinsky French citizenship.
To be continued…