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Seen and Heard Art Review


Kandinsky: The Path to Abstraction Tate Modern, London. 22 June-1 October 2006 (ED)

There are many ways of approaching Wassily Kandinsky's work: enjoyment of his vibrant colour use, appreciation of the often intricate designs and forms on his painted surfaces or the realisation that his images aim at expressing a wider spirituality with the artist seeking to mark his place within a greater cosmological frame. The last of these approaches is daunting enough for any visitor to this exhibition to grasp, but whichever approach the visitor takes there should also be an acknowledgement that Kandinsky is one of the greatest composers of music in a visual medium.

That Kandinsky can be thought of as a composer without having written a single musical note is something of a paradox, yet it is not one that Kandinsky himself might have overly worried about and, I suggest, neither should we. He viewed music as “the ultimate teacher” in all the arts. The line of composers who have drawn their inspiration from the visual arts is a long one, as is also the case vice versa. Kandinsky though remains a special case, being one of the few artists to think of colour and geometric form in musical terminology, which he eloquently expressed in a series of seminal texts.

Born in Moscow in 1866, Wassily Kandinsky's decision to paint was largely formed in 1896 following two important encounters: seeing one of Monet's "Haystack" paintings, which made him realise the importance of colour within form, and hearing Wagner's "Lohengrin". His ‘Reminiscences’ (1913) record that: "The violins, the deep tone of the basses, and especially the wind instruments at that time embodied for me all the power of that pre-nocturnal hour. I saw before me all my colours in my mind; they stood before my eyes. Wild almost crazy lines were sketched in front of me."

Works such as "Song - 'Chant de la Volga'" (1906) or one of his Munich-based works, a painting of the famous Ludwigskirche (1908) bear reference to his growing interest in the musicality of painting through the use and distribution of colour-as-notes, often in brilliant jewel-like sequences, to suggest differing 'voices' at work - possessing warmth, coolness or an inherent dynamic range when seen against one another.


Murnau - Mountain Landscape with Church (1910)

These works reflect in part his Russian roots. A noticeable shift occurred with the many scenes he painted from 1909 of the Bavarian town Murnau, a favourite destination with his painter wife Gabriele Münter. He remains firmly allied to representing the concrete and recognisable, but his painting technique developed to express the wider ideas that concerned him. Colour, though always integral to form, was becoming representative of a greater yearning of the aspirations of man. Pictorial elements such as the vaulting rider on horseback (representing yearning) recur throughout his oeuvre of this period.

Many of the works we have from 1910-1911 are studies for larger works that did not survive the allied bombing of the world wars, yet these studies are often remarkably complete in terms of both colour and composition, beginning to indicate a personal belief and sense of place within a wider spiritual cosmos that carries some potency about it. Few of his large-scale canvases express this as clearly as "The Last Judgement" (1910). That at around this time he also produced the Tate Gallery's "Cossacks", which he recorded proudly as "the first modern abstract painting in a London collection" and the image of a horse entitled "Lyrically", depicting the rhythm and flow of movement, shows the holding of several disparate concerns in close proximity: the fruit of a man with many layers to his being.

Cossacks (1910–1911)

With works from 1910-1911 showing use of colour at its brightest, and some might say most optimistic, it is not hard to substantiate how Kandinsky came to see his things in musical terms, "Pink, lilac, yellow, white, blue pistachio green, flame red houses - each an independent song [...] the deeper tremolo of the trees, the singing snow with its thousand voices, the allegretto of the bare branches" (1913). Again he was to comment that "vermillion has a sound like a tuba and a parallel can be drawn with a loud drum beat." Such parallels were to be explored in greater depth within the Blaue Reiter Almanac (published 1912), which he edited along with Franz Marc.

The watercolour, gouache and ink study (1911) for his cover to the Blaue Reiter Almanac positively pulsates density of tone - both visual and musical to the extent that one might almost hear it too. That the background is of the deepest blue is significant, as Kandinsky associated the colour with the sound of the cello, an instrument he played. A central feature of the Almanac is a simultaneous exploration of form and meaning within the visual and musical arts cannot be escaped.

Few of the Almanac's contributors were as fluent in the visual and musical arts as Arnold Schoenberg. Whilst his music broke new ground in terms of technique, in the same respect his paintings seem a little awkward. Subject matter held sway with inward looking expressionist visions of troubled souls, particularly the painter’s own, very much in contrast to Kandinsky who steered clear of the self-portrait genre. The world-view represented by Schoenberg’s paintings cannot easily be separated from that in Mahler's music - whose funeral Schoenberg captured with naively in hastily brushed oils on card. Wider knowledge of both composers can lend another dimension to viewing Kandinsky’s works as they can be both aligned to and pitted against the represented aesthetics.

1911 also saw the publication of Kandinsky's treatise "On the Spiritual in Art" and with it a growing interest in the categorisations of his works into Impressions, Improvisations and Compositions - terms he was to continue using with some frequency and specificity of purpose. His text would articulate his passionate belief that works must arise out of an internal necessity within the artist. The small room containing drawings from c.1911 emphasises the angularity of his line and sparseness of texture in forming his compositions. One included in the exhibition even bears marks that look uncannily like a musical stave - though devoid of any other overt musical references. A later painting on Glass (rarely exhibited due to the fragility of the support) shows both the influence of Russian painting style and a fine assimilation of naive Bavarian painting fused into one. A single image to perfectly capture one aspect of the Blaue Reiter aesthetic.


Two Girls – painting on glass (1910–1911)


1913 and the years of World War I reflected another change of mood and tone, picking up on the destruction around him. Increasingly a darkened palette is used, giving the apparent air of disillusionment with man's predicament to the works. That figuration is foregone also reinforces the impression in several large-scale works, such as "Composition VII" (1913) where painterly gestures form entangled webs of patterns overlaid on each other. "Painting is like a thundering collision of different worlds... technically every work comes into being as the cosmos by means of catastrophes, creating the cacophony of the various instruments of that symphony we call the music of the spheres. The creation of the work of art is the creation of the world." The words might almost have been spoken by Mahler.


Composition VI (1913)

"Fugue" (1914) most overtly brings to mind musical form its visual and musical parallels, and this is something Kandinsky very much intended, with colours taking on the role of instruments whose lines weave into one another and around to disappear and reappear: structure within apparently fluid confines. The years 1917-1919 saw a thinning out of forms in his work and subdued palette coming to the fore – greys, blacks. If there is a certain accompanying sparseness to his compositions too in them one can detect the influence of Malevich and Rodcheko in their treatment of pictorial space. Austerity though for Kandinsky did not require the abandonment of richness in the application of paint as it did with the others, and for this he was branded a bourgeois artist in Russia. The act of painting and the role he played as a painter still very much mattered to him personally.

The final years charted by this exhibition, 1920-1921, saw the attainment in his work of what many would understand as pure abstraction: “Form itself, even if completely abstract resembling a geometric form, has its own inner sound, its harmony.” Works such as “White Centre” (1921) display this with the dramatic inclusion of dark diagonals that might be read as waves or resonances out of which nature and a wider cosmology, represented by yellow triangles, seemingly appear.


Caption: White Centre (1921)

That I feel the exhibition concludes on something of a held chord when you can sense a passage of consolidation still to come is quite understandable. 1922 saw Kandinsky move to Berlin and the taking up of a post at the Bauhaus, where he taught until the Nazi’s forcibly closed the school in 1933. The final ten years of his life were spent in Paris in an atmosphere of some isolation; his work, which expounded and revisited its main themes with dogged obssessiveness, was increasingly felt to be out of tune with what became the avant-garde. As a unifying artistic force though, Kandinsky remains one of the most indelible of the twentieth century and his work is testament to that.

This is an exhibition that is intensely rewarding and endlessly resonating. Visit it with open eyes and equally open ears.

Evan Dickerson

Image credits:
Murnau - Mountain Landscape with Church (1910)
oil on cardboard 327 x 448 mm Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich

Cossacks (1910–1911)  oil on canvas 946 x 1302 mm
frame: 1118 x 1477 x 74 mm Tate Gallery, London; Presented by Mrs Hazel McKinley 1938

Two Girls (1917)  painting on glass 200 x 245 mm
frame: 265 x 310 x 35 mm Private Collection, London

Composition VI (1913)  oil on canvas 1950 x 3000 mm
State Hermitage, Saint Petersburg, 2006

White Centre (1921)  oil on canvas 1187 x 1365 mm
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York  Hilla Rebay Collection, 1971

All images obtained from the Tate Gallery website that accompanies the exhibition.


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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)