By Corinna Lotz
The eye-catching image being used to market Kandinsky – The Path to Abstraction is taken from one of the Tate gallery’s only two paintings by the artist – Cossacks, made between 1910 and 1911.
It was offered to the Tate back in 1938 by mining-family heiress, Mrs Hazel McKinley (Peggy Guggenheim’s sister), along with three more works by the artist. The Tate’s then director, John Rothenstein, felt that the Russian painter’s style was too abstract, and turned down the offer. The following month he agreed to accept one – Cossacks – for the public collection. Even then he sent the artist a letter saying he could not guarantee to put Cossacks on display.
It has taken nearly sixty years for the Tate to reverse its distaste for Kandinsky’s abstraction. Now its curators hail him as “one of the most significant artists of the early 20th century and a pioneer in the development of a new visual language”.
Until the years before World War I, colour and form were in thrall to a descriptive role. In Western art at least, painting had to be “about” something that we already knew. It had a representational role, connected to particular types of “genre”. A painting was, generally speaking, a picture of something recognisable - a portrait, a landscape or a religious theme.
But Cezanne’s teetering still-lives, the Futurists’ delight with movement through space, the Cubist break-up of Renaissance perspective, the wild colours of the Fauve group all challenged fixed notions of what art should be about. And then in 1910, Kandinsky’s watercolours and oils for the first time freed painting completely from its old functions and allowed it to dance and drift to improvised rhythms of the artist’s own making.
The 70-odd works made between 1905 and 1921, the first-ever major UK show devoted to the artist encourage us to immerse ourselves in his individual revolution which paralleled the social upheavals of the epoch.
Those familiar with Kandinsky’s work will feel the thrill of recognition – but also the discovery of paintings rarely, if ever, seen outside Russia and various collections in Munich, United States, Switzerland and elsewhere.
Most outstanding are two large canvases from St Petersburg and Moscow which form the heart of the show, Composition VI and Composition VII. These quite neutral sounding titles belie the tremendous impact they have. The viewer is drawn into a fluid ocean in which everything is set into motion. Each detail, each part, each colour and line moves to the rhythm of forces generated by the interaction between the forms and colours. The rounded waves, the zig-zags, swinging curves, crescents, black lines and staccato dentellations swoop and weave into one another. Form and colour associate and dissociate, interact and separate in a kind of cosmic big bang on the two by three metre wide surface.
Kandinsky set down his ideas in a famous book, Über das Geistige in der Kunst, known in English as On the Spiritual in Art, published in the Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider) Almanach, a magazine which Kandinsky produced together with the Bavarian painter, Franz Marc.
He noted the emotional power of colour following the lines of Goethe’s colour theory, drawing a connection of painting with music. Colour was a “means of exerting a direct influence on the soul”.
Curator Sean Rainbird pays tribute to the artist’s versatility as a theorist, writer and critic who oscillated between his native Russia and Germany, but also spent time in France between 1905-1907. Munich was attractive as a major intellectual and cultural centre in the pre-war years, home to theosophist Rudolf Steiner, art theorist Heinrich Wölflin and many talented painters including Franz Stuck, Gabriele Münter, August Macke and Alexei Jawalensky.
The opening rooms at Tate Modern show the tremendous excitement of this period in the artist’s life, in paintings set in Munich and Murnau, where the artist stayed with Münter, his muse, lover and fellow painter. There is a deeply felt, magical quality in Ludwigskirche, for example, which depicts a procession shimmering in the sunlight, set off against a dark arcade.
Kandinsky always remained deeply concerned about events convulsing his Russian homeland, to which he returned again and again. Travelling to Odessa with his father in October 1905, he was moved by the massive strikes and political upheavals that shook Russia that year. He wrote to Münter: “It has finally happened. We have a proper constitution and are no longer subjects, but citizens, proper citizens with all the important rights. After anticipating this for 25 years, I now experience the day… Finally, finally, freedom.”
At the outbreak of war in 1914 Kandinsky had to leave Germany as an enemy alien. He moved into a flat in Moscow, where he remained until the end of 1921. Although he lost his family fortune and property in the 1917 October Revolution, he participated actively in the re-organisation of the arts by the People’s Commissariat for Enlightenment. This was founded by the inspirational Bolshevik government’s minister for the arts, Anatoly Lunacharsky. In 1919, Kandinsky became director of the Museum for Painting in Moscow. In a short space of time, he and fellow artist Aleksandr Rodchenko founded 22 provincial museums and placed contemporary art in them, including his own. This is how the paintings in this exhibition came to be in far flung towns like Nizhny Novgorod, Astrakhan, Ekaterinburg, Tula and the state museum of Tartarstan.
Kandinsky was highly conscious of the quest for rebirth and cultural renewal before and after the Russian revolution. He saw every work of art as “the child of its time”.
The new kind of art he pioneered was not only an expression of internal emotion, but a search for a new kind of human existence. He saw literature, music and art as harbingers which showed not only “the murkiness of the present” but which could rise above the “soulless content of modern life, towards materials and environments that give a free hand to the nonmaterial strivings and searchings of the thirsty soul”.
The toughest conditions prevailed in the young Soviet Union which experienced a bitter civil war. In addition, as struggles over artistic styles foreshadowed the intolerance of the Stalinist bureaucracy to come, Kandinsky left Russia at the end of 1921, never to return. Six months later he accepted a post at the Bauhaus in Weimar.
In the masterpieces he made before and after the revolution, Kandinsky chose the biblical themes of deluge and resurrection as symbols for social and natural transformation. He saw himself as a vehicle that could give a contemporary form to historic change. His daring break with art as “description” to an art of abstract form, but with a concrete content, became a conduit for emotions aroused by the cataclysmic onset of World War I and its revolutionary consequences.
Kandinsky knocked away the scaffolding and lifted creativity on to a new plane. This allowed him – and others – to give expression to a daring, complex and holistic way of seeing the world.
Like the music of Kandinsky’s contemporary and friend, Arnold Shoenberg, these works can be hard to penetrate, refusing to yield up their secrets easily. They are “concrete abstractions” which generate emotional resonance out of the material existence of colour and form. There is a truly liberating aspect in the passage to abstraction with its powerful message of a new whole being created out of turmoil and destruction.
Kandinsky: the path to abstraction is at Tate Modern until October 1; Kunstmuseum Basel 21 October – 4 February 2007. Admission £10/£8. Open daily until 18.00 Fri and Sat until 22.00. www.tate.org.uk Exhibition catalogue by Hartwig Fischer and Sean Rainbird, £24.99