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
, 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
, 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
, 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.
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
The way Kandinsky
is displayed–in a generous, spacious style moving chronologically up the Guggenheim’s atrium ramp–the dazzling development of his various periods comes into sharp focus. This has the added effect of making his last pieces–lesser-known canvases dating from the mid-1930s to the early 1940s–seem like the ultimate goal of a four decades-long artistic journey. That impression is misleading, yet somewhat appropriate: the show’s last ten paintings are its greatest revelation. Living and painting in a Parisian suburb for the last eleven years of his life, Kandinsky toned down his trademark primary colors in favor of a pastel palette, tightened his compositions into highly regimented spaces (often organized by grid-like structures) and populated his works with small, self-contained anthropomorphic figures. In canvases like “Thirty” (1937, above) and “Sky Blue
” (1940) these actors on his stripped, minimalist stages resemble small critters and insects, elsewhere the lettering or musical notation of some foreign nation. While his earlier and best-known works evoke emotional extremes with saturated colors and vibrant brushstrokes, the cool control and meticulous, manicured forms in these late masterpieces are like painterly science experiments.
Finishing with those last works can be misleading, though, as they suggest that the end of Kandinsky’s life coincided with the culmination of his artistic development. Meanwhile, his best known works date from 20 years earlier and one could argue that his most formally accomplished period came during his tenure at the Bauhaus–though he produced significantly fewer works in those years. It’s well worth going through Kandinsky from both the top down and the bottom up to appreciate the great variety of evolutions in his work, rather than focusing on one movement.
The pieces brought together for this exhibition–mostly from the Guggenheim, Paris’s Centre Pompidou
and Munich’s Städtische Galerie
, the three institutions where the exhibition has been presented–have the advantage of showcasing all Kandinsky’s phases and not prioritizing one over the others. This expository curatorial style lets more obscure pieces breathe whereas they’re often left as footnotes to Kandinsky’s best known works. In two paintings from winter 1913, for instance
, he does away with strong black outlines and gestural brushstrokes to compose a set of circular color splotches scrawled with black marks. The effect reminds of Raoul Dufy
, but fits awkwardly and intriguingly into the chronology of Kandinsky’s work. The gray-dominated postwar pieces are also a stunning revelation and one in particular, “In Gray” (1919, above), with its violently disjointed and abstracted cityscape, is nearly as violent and moving an indictment of war as Picasso’s “Guernica
.” Beyond being an oft-referenced developer of expressionism, Kandinsky’s multitudinous succession of styles touched upon virtually every contemporaneous movement.
Appropriately, many subsequent developments and innovations seem to be foreshadowed throughout the exhibition. The American school of abstract expressionists
, from Jackson Pollock
and Willem de Kooning
through Franz Kline
and even sculptor David Smith
, deployed the same dynamism and set of shapes that characterized Kandinsky’s work in the 1910s and 20s. His later style’s rigid lines, clean forms and clear backdrops evoke the carefully orchestrated chaos of post-Pop
artists like Takashi Murakami
and contemporary abstract artists like Julie Mehretu
–his “Dominant Curve” (1936, below) is uncannily similar to some of her best work.
Those associations and implications grow organically from the exhibition, which confines its text and subject very rigidly to Kandinsky’s biography. The richness of his work, its wildly varied, multi-faceted development, testify to a uniquely rich career and invariably touches upon almost every significant art movement of the first half of the 20th century. In his opening remarks Richard Armstrong
, the director of the Guggenheim, stated: “It’s important for a younger generation to understand the centrality of this artist.” By that criterion this retrospective is a resounding success: Kandinsky’s vital role in the development of modern art remains the greatest constant throughout his innumerable evolutions.
(image credits: Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Musee national d’art moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris)