The Guggenheim’s Kandinsky Crash Course 

click to enlarge "Red Spot" by Vasily Kandinsky

More than previous retrospectives of the work of Russian painter Vasily Kandinsky (1866-1944), which are practically generational rituals for Guggenheim curators at this point, the museum’s current 40-year survey on the occasion of the institution’s 50th anniversary portrays the artist’s career in broad, dynamic strokes not unlike those that defined his most iconic work in the 1910s and 20s. Rather than a focused chronology or thematic through-line, Kandinsky demonstrates in 99 paintings and some 60 works on paper why the artist is one of the most important of the 20th century. Simply put: his work was in a constant state of evolution.

As with Picasso or Cézanne, reference to “a Kandinsky” conjures a certain set of shapes and movements, a meticulous eye for composition, some sense of depth and continuity, but little else recurs consistently throughout his oeuvre. His earliest works–here, a set of small oil paintings from 1902-06–feature pastoral greens and, lurking in the shadows, shades of the pastel hues that defined his last decade’s work. Within two years he’d left that impressionist phase for an eclectic blend of pointillism, fauvism, Art Nouveau and a uniquely Russian kitsch sensibility. Already the canvases burned with the brash primary colors that would consume most of his work over the next 30 years, save a period immediately following World War I when shrouds of gray framed his compositions.

Kandinsky’s eccentric and fervent periods of evolution also touched on contemporaneous avant-garde movements, as the exhibition texts chronicle many travels throughout Europe for different jobs and in order to avoid various wars. In an early visit to Paris (1906-08), Kandinsky took little interest in the city’s revolutionary artistic developments–though shades of post-impressionism and prototypic cubism are hard to miss. Back in Moscow during WWI and after the Revolution, Kandinsky was very active alongside both the Suprematists and Constructivists, whose monochrome rectangles and linear structures quickly seeped into his work. Pieces like “Red Spot II” (1921, above) look as though he painted over one of Kazimir Malevich’s white square paintings. Visions of great modern machines and cities are speckled throughout disjointed canvases like “Blue Segment” (1921) and “White Cross” (1922), traces of the technophilic subject matter favored by the Constructivists.

click to enlarge "Composition 8" by Vasily Kandinsky

Thereafter that stripped and streamlined aesthetic increasingly defined Kandinsky’s work, especially as he moved to Germany to teach at the Bauhaus. During his tenure at that high temple of Modern aesthetics–from 1923 until it was forced to close by the Nazis in 1933–his canvases were increasingly conceived as symphonies of shapes, with clean lines, hard geometry, contained fields of primary color and only the vaguest likeness to landscapes, street scenes and portraits. “Composition 8” (1923, above) evokes clouded mountaintops and soaring birds, but its title suggests a musical interpretation may be more suitable–allusions to synesthesia recur throughout Kandinsky’s writings and in this exhibition’s text. Likewise, “Yellow-Red-Blue” (1925) might be read as a portrait of ego and id, but it’s most rewarding conceived as a series of overlapping color fields embedded with traces of Piet Mondrian, Joan Miró, surrealism and cubism.

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