The Guggenheim Museum, New York City
September 18, 2009 – January 13, 2010
Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) has to be one of the most interesting major artists people know very little about. Or know the wrong things about. The main parts of his surviving work and reputation have been entrusted to entities in the several countries where he held citizenship—Russia, Germany and France—so we have multiple, often conflicting, versions of who he was. Other of his works can only be found far afield; still other works were lost due to historic and personal disruptions. Documentation of significant years he spent in, for example, Central Asia and revolutionary Russia, are still surfacing only now; scholars have often "filled in the blanks" in the records with interpretations that gave misleading emphasis to available information, however sparse. His own writings have sometimes received somewhat wooden, off-putting translations, and even in their originals, they can be an acquired taste: he often wrote in an exalted style that is part and parcel of the intellectual culture of his time, or in a combative, owing-nobody-anything style he earned by entering the field of painting at 30 after early professional successes in law and anthropology. Then, too, I often wonder whether, as a true synesthete, he was sometimes painting in images that evoked sounds for him that others cannot hear.
Impression III (The Concert). January 1911. Oil and tempera on canvas.
36 ½ x 39 3/8 inches (77.5 x 100 cm). Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich, Germany
Nevertheless, as I testified in my very first piece for Scene4 in April of 2000, I am smitten by Kandinsky's demanding paintings and galvanized by his fervent writings. From these, I have glimpses of Kandinsky that persist and align to form one of the primary lenses through which I view the world. And because of this, I have made regular "pilgrimages" to see his work over a 30-year period: to San Francisco, Paris, New York, Tokyo, Frankfurt, Moscow, Amsterdam, Los Angeles, and more. So that news of the most recent, big show in New York, "Kandinsky," was cause for special excitement, not only for the paintings themselves, but also for the discussion the show was sure to engender in scholarly and artistic circles long afterwards.
To name an exhibition simply "Kandinsky" is surely to promise something definitive, and the show by that name, organized for the Guggenheim's 50th anniversary in 2009, had grounds to promise that. The occasion brought together three major collections: from Munich's Lenbachhaus, which holds Kandinsky's early work, from 1910 to 1914, thanks to the selfless donation of the longtime partner he abandoned, the painter Gabriele Münter; from Paris's Centre Pompidou, which houses works of Kandinsky's from revolutionary Russia, from his middle period at the German Bauhaus and from his final ten years in Paris, thanks to the careful legacy of his wife Nina, whom he married unexpectedly in 1917 and lived with until his death in 1944; and from the Guggenheim's own holdings of his masterworks spanning 1914 to 1944, thanks to the museum's first director, the artist Hilla von Rebay. For the show, these three cornerstone collections were further supplemented by the loan of key works from private and small museum collections in a range of countries across Europe. In the press, the three museums called it a "full-scale retrospective," which sounded pretty comprehensive.
As my son and I started on the first of six levels of the main gallery's famous spiral, we moved through Kandinsky's earlier exploratory pictures to the grand abstractions many people know him for. These explosive, color-charged canvases made even the viewers come alive: everyone was talking, gesturing, moving up close and backing away; I've never seen so much physical participation in a painting exhibition. And Kandinsky's own physicality came through, too: how much mental and physical energy it took to make those astonishing paintings!
Sketch for "Composition II" (Skizze für "Komposition II"), 1909–10;
the final version was destroyed in the war. Oil on canvas, 38 3/8 x 51 5/8 inches (97.5 x 131.2 cm).
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
But after having scaled level after level for several hours, we were still in 1914, with more than 30 years of Kandinsky's career to go. As we neared the top, we were rewarded with a tiny trove of utterly original images: dashing geometric paintings from his influential Bauhaus period, and endearing biomorphic ones in kooky pastels from his final Paris years. These paintings were dynamic and delightful respectively, but constituted a puzzling smattering of Kandinsky's middle and later work, giving the public a troublingly skewed notion of Kandinsky's complete oeuvre. At that juncture, I thought a better title for the show might have been "Kandinsky: Guggenheim and Friends."
The Preface to the exhibition catalogue sheds some light on the thinning of the paintings on the upper levels: the curators chose to focus the show on large format canvases. It was a privilege and a treat to see these together, not just in the same country but in the same room. At the same time, that choice effectively excluded a great number of paintings the public would need to see for the "full" picture of Kandinsky. In practical terms, the large format requires a stability that Kandinsky didn't have as he left Germany for Russia in 1914, Russia for Germany (and the Bauhaus) in the final weeks of 1921, and then again Germany for France in 1933—in addition to other urgent trips he made to neutral countries over the years. During both the revolutionary and war years, workspace, canvas and materials were scarce (along with heating and food); during those times, he worked on small canvases, cardboard and paper when he could work. The Nazis also confiscated 57 of his paintings as "degenerate" when such paintings were burned, auctioned and otherwise disappeared. In 1935, relatively settled in Paris, Kandinsky himself noted that it had been a very long time since he'd been able to do large work: "Our life here has its rewards… Of late I have mainly been painting rather large pictures… I like the large format, but for many years had to deny myself this pleasure because the work at the Bauhaus took up too much of my time and constantly interrupted my painting." (Catalogue, Bashkoff, 111)
Stars, 1922. Color lithograph (after the opaque watercolor),
11 7/8 x 8 1/8 inches (30,4 x 20,6 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
Taut Line (Gespannte Linie), July 1931. Watercolor and india ink on paper
18 7/8 x 10 3/16 inches (48 x 25.9 cm). Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
The main body of this selected show was complemented by, but hardly integrated with, a side gallery of gorgeous works on paper from the less-represented periods. There was also a lovely, intimate exhibition of Münter's and Kandinsky's photos of their life and travels together; we saw this alone, so perhaps we were not the only ones who learned of it virtually by hearsay—and then it was down a single, unmarked elevator. Ultimately, the Guggenheim show served the good purpose of introducing the general public to a selection of Kandinsky's gorgeous works. An appealing name for the show might have been "Celebrating Kandinsky: Large Paintings."
Sadly, though, in addition to suggesting to the public that the full trajectory of Kandinsky's work was represented, the show let the general public think that Kandinsky was only a painter. As too few of the reviewers noted, he was also a poet, essayist, critic, playwright, theorist, teacher, arts activist, designer, education reformer, editor and more. As such, it didn't seem to me that the ensuing conversation about the show had much umph—though of course the article publication cycle is much slower than the press cycle, and we can hope a valuable discussion will develop over time.
Double spread from Sounds, Kandinsky's book of poems with images, 1913.
Munich, Stadtische Galerie in Lenbach, Germany
In any case, there is much good news for those interested in experiencing more of Kandinsky's power and charm. First, the catalogue for the Guggenheim's "Kandinsky" show was an unexpected triumph, taking superb advantage of post-perestroika and other new information, substantially moving forward a field that has been sadly inbred and marked by the dull re-combining of old facts and improbable interpretations of them. Also, fortunately, the Museum of Modern Art had an overlapping exhibit, "Bauhaus 1919-1933: Workshops for Modernity," where one could go to get a profound sense of Kandinsky's milieu during those critical years, and of his colleagues and his multi-disciplinary genius. Also furthering the primary discussion that currently surrounds Kandinsky, we can be glad of the 2010 Josef Albers and Wassily Kandinsky: Friends in Exile (Weber and Boissel, Hudson Hills Press), with letters from 1929 to 1940 in pitch-perfect translations by Oliver Pretzel. Lastly, it makes sense that overdue channels of communication will continue to be established with Russia as well as with the former Soviet republics in the coming decades, when we may learn more about any museum and private holdings of Kandinsky's work there. On this point, the perspective of art critic and historian Victor Turchin is intriguing: "We cannot exclude the possibility that certain Kandinsky paintings were lost or went missing during the revolution," he said. "It was complete chaos. Others may have been lost during World War II. Were these missing paintings destroyed or saved?"
Efforts to answer this question will doubtless bring about a larger conversation.
Two Riders and Reclining Figure, 1909-1910. Oil on mill board, 27 11/16 x 27 5/8 inches (70.4 x 70.1 cm). In 2005, this previously unknown Kandinsky painting "Two Riders and Reclining Figure" was featured at Sotheby's. Kandinsky had given it as a gift to the painter Alexej von Jawlensky in 1914. It had never been published and had been shown publicly only twice in nearly 100 years. It remains in a private collection.
Cover Photo - The Elephant, 1908. Oil on cardboard.
Nina Kandinsky Collection, Neuilly-sur-Seine, France