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have remained unpublished, or known only in Russia or France.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
Lissa Tyler Renaud
Let us start in 1901. This is long before the artist Kandinsky started painting "abstract" paintings—what he later called
"concrete" paintings of, say, sensations, intuitions, orchestrations of colors, energies. No, in 1901, he was still painting landscapes and such—that is,
recognizable things—but the Russian press was already wildly condemning him as a "charlatan" painting "unnecessary, stupid things with no connection
to art," complaining that his colors were "all mixed up," charging him with taking part in a "barbaric modern movement," and calling it "a
sin that the jury has accepted such works."
Kandinsky simply took these as a challenge and, trained as a lawyer,
answered that same year with an eviscerating article, "Critique of Critics," a methodical proof that the "naked" critics were incompetent, with pointed
reference to Hans Christian Andersen's story of the emperor's new clothes. A taste:
… [U]nfortunately they see themselves as authors and, unable to say
anything sensible, are forced involuntarily to confine themselves to a torrent of vulgar, hackneyed witticisms, of quasi-satirical descriptions
and… downright abuse. These authors, incidentally, are in no way ashamed of their total ignorance of the commonest art terms and make a brutal mess of them.
"The Port of Odessa," 1900
After all, although he had been living in Munich since 1896, he had been participating regularly in exhibitions in Odessa probably even before
1900—but, as he wrote to his partner, Gabriele M眉nter, it had taken him six years finally to be recognized. In 1905, he was officially asked by the
Odessa Artists Association to stay for a few months "to take over things": "A great energy is necessary and an immunity against the attacks of the press.
And you have these qualities." He did not stay, but he was already occasionally able to sell his works: for example, by a small miracle a letter
was found about a sale to Kiev (even the name and address of the buyer) of an unknown painting called, "In the Village."
Critics aside, in 1902, Kandinsky took part in an exhibition with the
influential "Mir iskusstva" ["World of Art"] group in St. Petersburg, and soon after that, in Moscow, and even in Helsinki. Living in Germany, of
course he also showed his work in Munich, Berlin, and other towns. But the "welcome" of the German public was similar to the one he had received in
Russia, and Kandinsky got used to being called "dishonest," "an idiot," and so on.
Again, his "immunity" against attacks. His consolation, which he repeated
several times to colleagues, was that the artists who are recognized too quickly are usually the less creative "followers," whereas for serious artists,
it takes longer. And doesn't history prove that he was right in hundreds of similar cases?
Kandinsky's equanimity about recognition stood him in good stead over the
years. In an ethnic slur in 1912, Arthur Lamm, a vocal rejector of the new art, spoke of the "half barbaric Slavs… Kandinsky especially is responsible
for a raw, poor art." And adding insults to slurs, in 1913, prominent Berlin journalist, Philipp Stauff, scolded the artist for the "talmudic sophistry" of
his theoretical writings. The same year, writer Kurt K眉chler, Hamburg, was sure that "by now we can calmly put an end to that Russian
Kandinsky"—and that if one were to look for an "ism" to describe Kandinsky's art, one would end up with "idiotism."
This last was a bit much, even for Kandinsky's friends.
"Dominant Violet," 1934, oil and sand on canvas
Much later in life, Kandinsky was still exhibiting that immunity he had
shown since the earliest days of his critics' attacks. In 1934, he wrote to a former Bauhaus student, Hans Thiemann:
The few friends who accepted my very first steps turned away as soon as I progressed in my art …. Believe me: I don't exaggerate. For years I
have suffered from 'active fights' or 'passive opposition' in all sorts of variations. If I did not break my neck, it was due to my inner voice
which alone accepted my development… Opposition can have a creative force, because it enhances concentration and strict self-control.
Just as he cautioned, so many painters who listened to the critics rather than to themselves—to their "inner necessity"—have vanished in the annals
of history while, today, we still recognize the creative force that Kandinsky's early critics galvanized in him.
To be continued…