MILWAUKEE — In the foreword to the exhibition catalogue, Bernard Blistene and Alain Seban of the Centre Pompidou, Paris, glue together a new retrospective on Wassily Kandinsky with two words: “intrinsic coherence.”
They are right. This well-staged and tersely edited exhibition, organized by the Pompidou and the Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM), traces Kandinsky (1866–1944) through two world wars, two wives and a long-term relationship, the Bolshevik Revolution, residence in three countries, and a swath of art movements, from Post-Impressionism to Suprematism. Yet, symbolic threads within Kandinsky’s oeuvre hold it all together.
Milwaukee, a city know for its beer and Germanic history, has one of the country’s best collections of work by Gabriele Münter, Kandinsky’s long-term partner, as well as his former student and collaborator in founding Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) group. This exhibition unites both artists’ formative work done in Murnau, Germany, and then spins a tale of Kandinsky’s evolving explorations into abstraction.
Prior to Murnau, Kandinsky was entrenched in his native Russia, studying for a law and economics degree. It is said that at in 1897, aged 30, he happened upon a painting from Claude Monet’s haystack series — and abandoned his career path to study art in Munich. Richard Wagner’s opera Lohengrin was another riveting influence.
A row of small landscape paintings from 1900 to 1906 marks his initial developmental phase, which was swift. Surprisingly, even these Signac-influenced, modest studies have an inventiveness. The mark making is already more self-conscious and assertive than the desire to represent. They also carry a hallmark of Kandinsky’s enduring style, a sense of calculation. Each daub feels painstakingly decisive.
When, in 1909, Kandinsky and Münter moved to the Bavarian village of Murnau, contact with Franz Marc and others fueled their expressionist explorations. Following the Fauvist impulse, Kandinsky’s work from Murnau turns increasingly painterly, now in service to creating rhythms that suggest emotion rather than describing hill, house, or mountain. The group was reading and thinking about Madame Helena Blavatsky, Rudolf Steiner, and theosophy. They retreated to this village to shun fin de siecle industrialization and materialism, replacing smoke stacks and factories with auras, astral bodies, and atoms. Theosophy represented a dimension outside the clutches of greed and development, a more utopian universalism, as did ethnographic sources ranging from Russian folk art to Oceanic, African, Japanese, and Native American art.
One painting from this Murnau phase speaks volumes. Gabriele Münter’s “Boating” (1910) shows her from the back, rowing a boat, with a woman and child seated in the middle and Kandinsky standing tall at the prow, lording over both sea and destiny. Münter rows toward the blue hills that mark the countryside. A historically underrated talent, she seems to already know the plight of female artists: hard work, tireless effort on behalf of the male and anonymity.
Indeed, Kandinsky’s gaze is dead set on something. The next year, he published his book Concerning the Spiritual in Art, opening a theoretical pathway towards a potent merger of spirituality and abstraction. Kandinsky’s big leap is documented with three paintings from 1913–14. One of them, “Fragment 1 for Composition VII (Center),” owned by MAM, is actually an oil study for a larger, finished work now in Moscow. Symbols replace subjects and all hints of perspective are abandoned. The canvas becomes more of a cosmos than a surface. With WWI on the horizon, Kandinsky’s reds, yellows, and jabbing shapes render cataclysm. Cannons, a boat with oars, barbed wire, orbs and radiant fields of seething color, a serpent, arrows, a horseman, circles pierced by lines — Kandinsky now juggles his already established images as increasingly abstract symbols, winnowing the imagery into calligraphy. It is 1913 and along with Picasso, Duchamp and Matisse, Kandinsky is in the Armory Show in New York with one of these experimental paintings.
Throughout the exhibition, although Kandinsky sways to the influences around him — be they Suprematism or the more schematized, geometric abstraction of the Bauhaus, where he was employed — his stylistic approach carries through, anchored by repetitive motifs. The boats, horse, and rider, the glowing orbs endure. In an increasingly secular early modern world, he holds onto the reins of religion. We forget that abstraction is borne of faith.
Kandinsky’s major paintings on canvas are airtight affairs — dense, worked, self-contained worlds of mystical vortexes. Always controlled, the paintings developed from preparatory watercolor studies, some with measured angles and dimensions penciled in. Fortunately, this exhibition includes many of those small studies, and this is the knock-out surprise: they feel fresh, alive, contemporary. The air-filled watercolor marks almost dance on the light ground of the paper, unlike the sticky, monumental oil paintings that stew in apocalyptic juices. While the studies feel assured and rehearsed, they also hold an immediacy that transcends their historic moment.
The exhibition offers one more big bang. Midway through the show is a constructed room of “wall paintings” that Kandinsky planned and executed in 1922 with students at the Bauhaus. In the 1970s, his surviving wife, Nina, orchestrated their re-creation from preparatory gouache studies for the grand opening of the Pompidou. They have never been shown in the US. One enters the room, engulfed floor to ceiling with enlarged Kandinsky collisions. By the 1920s, whiffs of Matisse, Klee, Miro and Malevich had synthesized into his own sandwich style: compilations and overlapping layers of gloriously colored marks, oozing clouds of fluff, shapes, lines, stuttering rhythms of dots and arcs — a veritable theater of formal inventiveness.
Kandinsky’s later years (1933–44) were spent in Paris with Nina. His palette changed to pastels, shapes becoming softer, biomorphic, more light and lyrical than prophetic. The show concludes with “Last Watercolor (Derniere Aquarelle)” (1944). Despite WWII, Kandinsky turns to bugs and amoebas; he seems more fascinated by creation than chaos. The compositional noise quiets. Strewn with almost cartoony protoplasmic litter, Kandinsky’s aging cosmic consciousness sides with regeneration rather than destruction. Form generates life. Art making and the chorus of the universe gently hum.
Kandinsky: A Retrospective continues at the Milwaukee Art Museum (700 N Art Museum Dr, Milwaukee, Wisconsin) through September 1.