In the Mountains

John Haber
in New York City

Wassily Kandinsky

When I visited Munich, I expected a museum devoted to the group known as the Blue Rider. Instead, I found myself in a footrace. So, they must have felt, did the artists.

With each room at the Lenbachhaus, Wassily Kandinsky reoriented modern art, and I could share the thrill of just barely keeping up. Then I would move onto the next, and he had done it again. Meanwhile the artists around him seemed to belong better in the last room. This is what it must have been like in the decade before World War I. They were embracing a new style. He was making it up as he went along. Wassily Kandinksy's White Line (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1920)

"The spiritual life, to which art belongs and of which she is one of the mightiest elements," Kandinsky wrote in 1911, "is a complicated but definite and easily definable movement forwards and upwards. This movement is the movement of experience." He hoped for a vocabulary of painting to mime that experience. T. S. Eliot evoked something like it with an edge of sadness: "In the mountains, there you feel free."

At what point did he know that it would turn out as abstract art? Maybe not even he knew, and he changed his mind more than once along the way. A retrospective at the Guggenheim cheats here and there on the details. It skips back and forth over the months. It leans where it can on its own ample holdings of Kandinsky. At least for the first three ramps, though, the race is on.

Between Russia and Germany

If Wassily Kandinsky seemed in a hurry, too, he started late. Born in 1866, he studied law in Russia, not painting, married, and came as close as he ever could to settling down. The earliest painting in the show dates to 1904, and at that age Pablo Picasso had already raced through Cubism and landed on the other side. Just before moving to Germany in 1908, at the very birth of German Expressionism, Kandinsky turned down a professorship of law. His whole life had that mix of stubbornness and volatility. Years later, he would refuse an offer to come to America, only to move yet again in the face of the Nazis.

He studied law, but he knew the arts. His family was steeped in German language and culture. He knew its music, which inspired both his operatic scale and wish for a more abstract art form. It shows in the frequent titles like Composition and Improvisation. It shows in the mountainous landscape of all his early art, real or abstract. It shows in the many figures out of myth—princes, archers, riders, and their brides.

Both the music and the myths have Russian roots as well. The first painting on display, from 1907, packs the entire cast of a Russian novel into a single lawn. It has the hermit with his cane, the Orthodox priest with his long beard, the costumed lovers, and any number of people out to bask in leisure. They haunt him as late as 1914, the year of his finest and perhaps freest abstractions. In the alcove off the first ramp, the show hangs the series of four tall compositions from MoMA—each with a distinct palette and rhythm of its own. Next to them, in a very similar painting, a couple walks along one of the tumbling abstract forms, and the oars of a boat peek out from behind.

He knew painting as well. That 1907 lawn looks like an overcrowded Sunday Afternoon on La Grande Jatte, and its dots, too, derive from Georges Seurat. Kandinsky spoke of the impression that Haystacks by Claude Monet made on him, and their crests may lurk amid the mountains. His first paintings, though, look closest to Fauvism. The small landscapes center on simple shapes, like the side of a house—each shape in a single bright color. As John Russell points out, long before the abstract paintings, he must have known where Fauvism would lead.

Naturally he traveled abroad to Germany. He even set up a school there. In 1902 in Munich, still married, he met Gabrielle Münter, and that was that. He was ready to move on anyway, and they took off. It freed them both in every way. At Lenbachhaus, I had to note that one other artist pretty much did keep up, Münter.

Their travels together took them to north Africa and back. Memories of Moroccan robes, houses, and sunlight help him years later, in 1910, at a crucial time to recover his inner Henri Matisse. The two were back in Germany in 1908—first to Munich and then Murnau. In Munich he found common ground with Franz Marc, whose Blue Horse proclaimed the new association, and August Macke. They and others formed first the NKVM (for Neue Künstlervereinigung München) and then the Blue Rider, and the race was on.

Between spiritualism and geometry

You must be breathless already. Even at the Guggenheim, those key years rush past almost too quickly for understanding. Kandinsky wrote two books in his life, Concerning the Spiritual in Art (which I quoted earlier) and Point and Line to Plane. They correspond to two stages in his career, before and after World War I. Yet they also correspond to two poles in his art all along. For the years of transformation one has to add just one thing, color.

First come the modest but intense pursuit of Vincent van Gogh and Fauvism. Already, though, they have Kandinsky's inner discipline. The lawyer might have run free, but he did not believe in lawlessness. He is not by nature an expressionist. He has the characteristic orange and yellow, but a warm rather than an acid yellow. It holds together the structure of the landscape and the painting, rather than ripping it apart.

The dots of 1907 flatten things a bit, while introducing human elements that dominate the landscape more and more. With a glittering Night Rider, the dots add a luminous echo of George Rouault and stained glass. The dots also show Kandinsky's use of the palette knife along with brushes. He drags the paint thinner and thinner, but it never soaks into canvas. He blends strokes of paint, but they always remain visible and distinct. These will become his elements, his point and line to plane.

With the bright notes of 1910 he finds his prewar palette in intense, startling, but never dissonant color. And then he sets them in motion. He still loves those lovers and warriors on horseback, and he loves the mountains. But the mountains get higher, and the ride gets rougher. Almost all compositions have a strong peak, always a bit off center, with smaller shapes rushing up one slope. Clouds or trees to either side connect to foreground masses, anticipating the abstract unity to come.

In 1911 white borders grow, lightening up the composition and accelerating its motion. In 1912 come more blues and, with Black Arch, the first sign that the mountains will become abstract shapes. That painting also underscores a new reliance on lines and curves amid the planes of color, with the setting sun a glowing red circle. It also shows his commitment to improvisation, thanks to an interest in both Theosophy and that spiritual in art. One might imagine that line comes first, setting a composition, with colors filling the gaps. For Kandinsky, colors spill every which way, and the lines come only last, pulling it all together.

This sequence lets him put more and more activity into a composition, while also increasing its scale. The Guggenheim gives some paintings entire bays, and it pays off. The four compositions from MoMA, commissioned by the founder of Chevrolet for his apartment, do not depict the seasons. Still, they work together to insist on a larger, more encompassing cycle. The show takes a huge risk in putting them so near the start. It makes everything else look like an explanation of how they came to be—or a falling off.

Between Bauhaus and Paris

And they do announce a falling off—or at least an ending. With World War I, Kandinsky found himself unwelcome in Germany and returned to Russia. It hurt him deeply, as if he could no longer reconnect with himself. He saw Münter once more, but only once. He remarried in 1917. He quit painting entirely for a year.

When he started again, he was part of quite another scene, and it did not suit him. Kazimir Malevich, Alexander Rodchenko, and Russian revolutionary art had a radical edge very different from Kandinsky's immersion in European culture and spiritualism. It had a public side, in posters and stage sets, where he preferred inner visions. Its geometries floated, while his colors blended, collided, and soared. Besides, the stubborn artist did not get to play leader. He gave up and got out.

He returned to Germany in 1922, but the years apart had changed him. The retrospective's second half can seem like a whole different show. It even has a second wall time line. One can imagine the excitement for the artist. He must have felt it as the culmination of his prewar art. He had discovered abstraction, geometry, and line, and now he insisted on their purity. He had found the perfect home for all these at the Bauhaus.

These years have great paintings, and so do his years in Paris after the Nazi rise to power. They take more pleasure in detail and in sheer black. The details still dart across the surface at the Bauhaus, only to become more distinct after 1933, like scientific illustration. They have particular interest one by one, where one can give adjacent shapes time to unfold. The late years, too, mark Kandinsky's influence on America and, through Hilla Rebay as collector, on the Guggenheim.

Taken together, though, the second half has to feel like a letdown, into pale colors and wiggly shapes. It may not help that a more costly retrospective would range more widely. This show fits with the Guggenheim's celebration of itself, as with Frank Lloyd Wright a few months before, but also with the recession. The month it opened, Holland Cotter in The Times called for an end to blockbusters. Where was he when museums boasted of them so much more? In collaboration with Christian Derouet of the Pompidou Center and Annegret Hoberg of the Lenbachhaus, Tracey Bashkoff of the Guggenheim can put on a good retrospective, with a tower gallery for the museum's own Kandinsky drawings.

All the same, Kandinsky means most in that first decade, when painting seeks an equivalent to music, not musical notation. The whole idea of the avant-garde as the march of progress has taken a real beating by now, and it says something about Modernism that artists kept inventing abstraction for themselves in those same years. Malevich had to find it for himself in Russia, Robert Delaunay in France, and Georgia O'Keeffe in America, each with help from others. Kandinsky's early invention still seems the least dogmatic, even as his writings seem the most doctrinaire. A mountain can hint at a giraffe, a face, a pure form, or a misstep with a palette knife, sometimes all at once. Yet it also did the most to insist on a search for what art is all about—and to push others to keep up.

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Wassily Kandinsky ran at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum through January 13, 2010.


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