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Stadtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus und Kustbau, Munich

October 25, 2008 to March 9, 2009

Centre Pompidou, Paris

April 8 to August 10, 2009

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

September 18, 2009 to January 13, 2010

"On Poiints"

"On Points," 1928, oil on canvas, 140 cm square, Musée national d'art moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris, gift of Nina Kandinsky, 1976
Many of the works in the exhibition are protected by the Artists' Rights Society but they are not indicated in the catalogue or the exhibition

By Carter B. Horsley

Wassily Kandinsky was a founding member of the Blaue Rider school of German Expressionism but he also was the greatest painter of geometric abstraction and the patron saint of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, the last venue in a major exhibition on the artist that ended January 10, 2010 and previously was shown at Stadtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus und Kustbau, Munich, and the Centre Pompidou, Paris.

This dazzling exhibition includes about 100 major oil paintings by Kandinsky, the "patron saint" of the Guggenheim's collection, and it is accompanied by a smaller exhibition of about 70 of his watercolors that, unfortunately, are not included in the painting catalogue and which are almost as spectacular as the paintings.

Kandinsky's oeuvre is fabulously colorful and his compositions are explosively intellectual. In comparison with the passionate art of Picasso and Matisse, Kandinsky comes off as initially as the expressionistic Fauve artist and later as the scientific genius. These are the titans of 20th Century modernism and no one comes close to Kandinsky's complex abstractions, either the early "soft" types or the later "hard" types.

In the exhibition catalogue, Annegret Hoberg observes that "Vasily Kandinsky can undoubtedly be described as the most important founder of abstract painting, even if other artists such as Frantisek Kupka and Kazimir Malevich were setting about it in different ways at nearly the same time." She notes that Kandinsky described his early artistic experiences when he visited "the gaily painted interiors of the peasant houses he visited on his journey to the remoted northeast: 'They taught me to move wthin the picture, to live in the picture....When I finally entered the room, I felt surrounded on all sides by painting, into which I had thus penetrated."

Ms. Hoberg wrote that Kandinsky was impressed by a Monet Haystack and "an intense experience of color at sunset in his native city:"

"This image does not last long: a few minutes, and the sunlight grows red with effort, redder and redder, cold at first, and then increasing in warmth.The sun disssolves the whole of Moscow into a single spot, which, like a wild tuba, sets all one's soul vibrating. No, this red fusion is not the most beautiful hour! It is only the final chord of the symphony,which brings every color vividly to life, which allows and forces the whole of Moscow to resound the the fff of a giant orchestra. Pink, lilac, yellow, white, blue, pistachio green, flame red houses, churches, each an independent song - the garish green of the grass, the deeper tremolo of the trees, the singing snow with its thousand voices, or the allegretta of the bare branches, the red, stiff, silent ring of the Krlemlin walls, and above, towering over everything, like a shout of triumph, like a self-oblivious hallelujah, the long, white, graceful, serious line of the Bell Tower of Ivan the Great. And upon its tall, tense neck, stretched up toward heaven in eternally yearning, the golden head of the cupola, which among the golden and colored stars of the other cupolas, is Moscow's sun. To paint this hour, I thought, must be for an artist the most impossible, the greatest joy."

"Riding Couple"

"Riding Couple," oil on canvas, 55 by 50.5 cm, 1907, Staditsche Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich, Gabriele Munter-Stiftung, 1957

"Riding Couple, a 1907 oil on canvas, is part of a large group of tempera pictures that almost all depict nostaglic scenarios with old Russian, old German, or Biedermeier figures and Kandinsky referred to these early works as "colored drawings," and they were usually executed on dark colored paper . They have a jewel-like and slightly primitive and pontillistic quality.

"Improvisation 3"

"Improvisation 3, 1909, oil on canvas, 94 by 130 cm, Musée national d'art moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris, Gift of Nina Kandinsky, 1976

"Blue Mountain"

"Blue Mountain," 1908-1909, oil on canvas, 106 by 96.6 cm, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection, by gift 41.505

The catalogue provides the commentary by Karole Vail about "Blue Mountain":

"In summer 1908, after several years of extensive travel throughout Europe and Tunisia, Kandinsky and his companion, the artist Gabriele Munter, settled in Murnau, a small pictureque market town south of Munich and much favored by writers and artists. Inspired by the Bararian landscape, Kandinsky featured it prominently in his work. He also discovered Bavarian-style Kinterglasbilder (reverse glass painting), which was renowned for its colorful depictions of folksy scenes. Blue Maountain..., painted in winter 1908-09, typcfies the notable shift in the artist's style evident in the bolder and brighter canvases that he prdouced afer this stay in Paris in 1906-07, ahen he had becaome acquainted with the brilliant canvases of the Fauves - including those of George Braque, André Derain and Henri Matisse - whose work he considered miraculous. Kandinsky had been fond of horses since childhood, and Blue Mountain is one of many works that depict horses and riders, motifs that symbolize his unconventional aesthetic values and mission to bring about a new, more spiritual sera through art. The outlines of the horses, mountain, and landscape - in a nod to his distinctive early graphic works, particuarly the expressive woodcuts - are more schematic and underline the plane. In his quest toward abstraction, Kandinsky shlowly detached his imagery from nature. Here he stripped the procession of riders and figures of any truly identiifable shapes, and the colors were intended to trigger emotional repsones. The gradual dematerialziation of forms and vivid colors play against each other as independent sensorial patterns that speak to this spearch for artistic freedom and his aim to present a new spritual reality."

"Landscape with Factory Chimney"

"Landscape with Factory Chimney," oil on canvas, 66.2 by 82cm, 1910, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

"Impression VI (Sunday)"

"Impression VI (Sunday)," March 1911, oil and tempera on canvas, 107.5 by 95 cm, Stadtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich, Gabriele Munter-Stiflung, 1957

"Improvisation 19"

"Improvisation 19," March 1911, oil and tempera on canvas, 120 by 141.5 cm, Stadtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich, Gabriele Munter-Stiflung, 1957

Annegret Hoberg remarks in the catalogue that Kandinsky was "deeply involved with Theosophical and mystical ideas in the years before World War I and in authors who "focused on extrasensory perceptions and parapsychology. "It seems as if an unknown ritual occurs in Improvisation 19, a kind of initiation and enlightenment of figures who can be understood as novices. One sees translucent figures outlined only in black. On the left is a procession of smaller form presses forward to the front, followed by shades of color. The largest part of the painting, however, is filled with a wonderful, supernatural blue, which also shines through the group of figures shown in profile on the right, who seem to move toward a goal outside the painting. The spiritual impact of these long, totally incorporeal figures draws both on the uniformity (that is, they are all the same height, as in Byzantine picures of saints) and on the fact that deep blue, almost violet shade in their heads may symbolize extinction or transition....This work underscores Kandisnksy's almost messianic expectation of salvation through painting."

"Improvisation 18 (with tombstone)"

"Improvisation 18 (with Tombstone), March 1911, oil and tempera on canvas, 141 by 121 cm, Stadtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich, Gabriele Munter-Stiftung, 1957

"Improvisation 18 (with Tombstone)" is a 1911 oil and tempera by Kandinsky that has an usually pale palette for the artist. "Throughout his career," Karole Vail wrote in the catalogue, "Kandinsky created series of paintings that he considered 'examples of he new symphonic type of construction.' In an effort to synthesize the arts, he titled these works Impressions, Improvsiations, and Compositions, all words that allude to music. The paintings are also works of spontaenous invention or intimations of his inner nature rather than material observation of the external world. During this period of intense activity, he accelerated his move toward abstraction."

"Sketch for Composition II"

"Sketch for Composition II," 1909-1910, oil on canvas, 97.5 by 131.2 cm, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection, 45.961

The catalogue provides the following commentary by Karole Vail about "Sketch for Composition II":

"The last in a series of studies for a monumental oil painting now destroyed, Sketch for Composition II...has an icongography that has often baffled scholars because of the presumed lack of thematic content claimed by Kandinsky in his writings. Nonethess, it has been suggested that opposing forces are at work: a peaceful and idyllic scene, revealed by the glowing colors on the right, contrasts with a catastrophic disaster, perceived through the darker and somber color palette to the left. Appearing as simplfied and spontaneous contours, the figures, rocks, riders, and horses are outlined in black, the brilliant colors powerfully create an exuberant medley of shapes that is meant to elicit emotions and connect to the viewer's inner spirituality."

"Impression III (Concert)"

"Impression III (Concert)," January 1911, oil and tempera on canvas, 77.5 by 100 cm, Stadtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich, Gabriele Munter-Stiflung, 1957

"Impressions III (Concert)" was painted by Kandinsky soon after attending a concert by Arnold Schonberg in Munich in 1911 and the catalogue notes that it is "one of modern art's most outstanding examples of synasthesia, correspondences between music and painting that other early twentieth-century artists sought. A dynamic wave of yellow paint flows across the painting from left to right like a great swell of sound that seemingly reverberates to and fro. Above it in the upper half of the painting is an energtic black in a diagonal position. In the prepratory pencil sketches one can clearly decipher the scene with the open, black grand piano as well as the curved backs of the seated listeners and those standing along the wall."

"Improvisation 26 (Rowing)"

"Improvisation 26 (Rowing)," 1912, oil and tempera on canvas, Stadtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich, Gabriele Munter-Stiflung, 1957

"Light Picture"

"Light Picture," 1913, oil on canvas, 77.8 by 100.2 cm. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection, by gift, 37.244

The catalogue provides the following commentary on "Light Picture" by Karole Vail:

"Although Light one of the paintings of 1913 that Kandinsky described as having 'nothing whatever to do with an object,' it is tempting to find remnants of landscape references in this work. In fact, he was not intent on discarding objects completely, particularly at this stage. Composed of hovering black lines and bright colors, Light Picture is a delicate and lyrical canvas. Looking more like a drawing or even a colored etching, it exudes an ethereal quality and a levity of spirit quite different from the artist's ohter works of this period when he was battling his way toward obstration. This painting may represent a moment of joyful respite before his imminent departure from Germany to Russia and eventual changes in his personal chricstances,. "


"Moscow," 1916, oil on canvas, 51.5 by 49.5 cm, The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

In June, 1916, Kandinsky wrote to his former companion, artist Gabriele Munter, that he had finally got his "creative powers" back and now wanted to do a "big Moscow landscape - gather the parts from everywhere and unite them in a single picture, weak and strong elements, everything mixed together, just as the world itself is composed of varied parts. It must be like an orchestra. I feel the general idea, but the broad composition is not yet clear. At 8 in the evening I went out to the Kremlin in order to see the churches from the viewpoint which I need for the picture. And new riches opened up before my eyes. Back in Sobovskaya I have so far done a painted sketch, which isn't bad." He wrote her again in September to say that the painting was "slowly taking shape in my imagination. And what was in the realm of wishing is now assuming real forms. What I have been lacking with this idea was depth and richness of sound, very earnest, complex, and easy at the same time." The catalogue notes that in the final work "his vision is caught up in an eruptive pictorial happening."

"White Center"

"White Center," 1921, oil on canvas,118.7 by 136.5 cm, Solomon R. Guggeheim Museum, the Hilla Rebay Collection, 71.1936.898

"White Center" is a strange title for a 1921 painting with such pronounced accents at its lower left corner. The catalogue notes that "the expressive vehemence of the pre-war pictures has given way to a more detached, seemingly rational mode of composition, using pure, simple forms. Kandinsky, however, always distanced himself from the mechanical art of the Constructivists. He, too, began, expecially from 1920 to 1921, to use geometric forms such as dircles, triangles, and precisely elongated arcs and lines, but often with soft borders and irregular combinations."

"Composition 8"

"Composition 8," July 1923, oil on canvas, 140 by 201 cm, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Solomon R. Gugenheim Founding Collection, by gift 37.262

The first major Kandinksy painting to enter Solomon R. Guggenheim's collection was "Composition 8," a 1923 work that Guggenheim bought at the Dessau Bauhaus in 1934. "A masterpiece of the artist's Bauhaus years," according to Karole Vail, "this late composition was painted nearly a decade after the previous painting in the series. Dominated by miscellaneous geometric and abstract elements as well as fine black lines, it is a commanding and highly organized canvas that Kandinsky considered a highlight of his post-World War I period. Still quite discernible are the triangular shapes of what may be mountain peaks, lending a harmouious and cool composition device to the picture. The work is dotted with colorful floating circles, which Kandinsky described as the 'synthesis of the greatest oppositions.'"

"On Points," a 1928 Kandinsky oil, illustrated at the top of this article, was regarded very highly by the artist.

Annegret Hoberg provides the following commentary on it in the catalogue:

"Its spare, almost meekly applied color and similarly drawn black outlines designating the geometric forms make it rather unusual in his oeuvre. These objects fan out and up into a large triangle over the paiting's square format from a narrow, slightly raised plinth at the lower edge. These shapes consist mostly of larger, greatly elongated triangles standing on their tips and of small equilateral ones that at the top serve as arrow-shaped ends either opposing the direction of the lower tips or suggesting upward movement. Another dominant element is the large circle hovering at the top of the fan of forms, expanding its narrow base. This circle is accompanied by six small floating circles that seem drawn with a compass and distributed around the given space. The paint is applied in cloudy patches mainly on these geometric figures, while at the edges the yellowish background is left largely freed. Hans K. Roetherl, who with Jean K. Benjamin, complied the catalogues raisonées of Kandinsky's oil paintings, sees this work in connection with the artist's striving to enable the viewer to exprience time in a painting. 'The dimension of time, however, took on quite a different, nonsubjective quality or Kandinsky during the Bauhaus period. Because the circle possessed for him 'the clearest indication of the fourth dimension, he preferred it as an element to such other geometric forms as the triangle or square. Thus by using the circle, movement - as the very essense of time - became a visual component of his paintings....As in counterpoint music, there is no one theme, formally speaking, to which the other forms are subordinated, but all the elements have an independent life of their own, and it is by their 'constellation' that both movement and emotion become evident as a result."

"Yellow Accompaniment"

"Yellow Accompaniment," February-March 1924, oil on canvas, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection, by Gift 39.264


"Yellow-Red-Blue," 1925, oil on canvas, 128 by 201.5 cm, Musée national d'art moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris, gift of Nina Kandinsky, 1976

"Yellow-Red-Blue (Gelb-Rot-Blau) is an important painting of the Bauhaus era whose dimensions and formal complexity approximate Kandinsky's ten great Compositions. Thanks to such works, Kandinsky's art exerted an influence on later modernism, including, for example, Barnett Newman's series Who's Afraid of Yellow, Red and Blue (1966-69). The theme of the primary colors, adressed in the title, was a major part of Kandinsky's Preliminary Course at the Bauhaus, which covered the analysis of yellow, red and blue, as well as their assignment ot the primary geometric shapes of triangle, square, and circle....The three sections form two centers, in a composition he often used, according to Kandinsky in a commentary on the 1913 work Painting with a White Border (Moscow)....and both...conjure anthropological asssociations. While in the yellow field one might see a human profile due to the structure of the lines and circles, the intertwining of red and blue form with the black diagonal is reminiscent of the theme of the battle between Saint George and the dragon...."

"Accompanied Contrast"

"Accompanied Contrast," March 1935, oil with sand on canvas, 97.1 by 162.1 cm, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection, by Gift 37.338

"Dominant curve"

"Dominant curve," April 1936, oil on canvas, 129.4 by 194.2 cm, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection, 45.989

"Dominant Curve," a 1936 work is a typical Kandinsky asymmetrical composition that combines an explosive center, a rectangular, almost seal-like box at the upper left and three circular targets at the upper right. "Though his last decade of creativity has often been criticized and less appreciated than his gtroundbreaking earlier work," observed Karole Vale, an assistant curator at the Guggenheim, in her notes on this painting in the catalogue, "Kandinsky's years in France were prolific in spite of difficult wartime conditions. When he arrived in France, Kandinsky found French modernists engaged in a dialectical controversy pitting the artists of Abstraction-Creation...., a loose association of artists who promoted abstract art through group exhibitions and a journal, against the Surrealists, headed by André Breton, and Kandinsky participated in the dialogue. During these twilight years, Kandinsky's work underwent stylistic changes, and he introduced an astonishing variety of organic and playful motifs inspired by biological and zoological imagery culled from scientific writings. At the Bauhaus, he had assiduously collected reproductions from technical and encyclopedic volumes and used them for his lectures. Kandinsky was inspired as well by the diversity of forms used by Jean Arp, Max Ernst, Paul Klee, and Joan Miro, but created an original biomorphic style, an automatic language of sorts, blending the infinite pictorial possibilities of Surrealism and formal abstraction with those of the natural sciences. Vestiges of favorate geometric elements remain in Kandinsky's oeuvre, such as the circle and the grid. His late works suggest ideas of transformation and rebirth, as exemplified by Dominant Curve (Courbe dominante), a vigorous painting that nonetheless has an astonishingly light touch. The enigmatic feeling prevading this mature work is reinforced by a set of mysterious steps at the right, which lead nowhere in particular but are possibly emblematic of an ascent to a higher spiritual plane. Kandinsky considered this harmonious canvas to be one of his most important works of that time."

In a September 22, 2009 article entitled "Falling Apart and Holding Together Kandinsky's Development" at, Donald Kuspit provided the following commentary about the artist:

"Wieland Schmied has called Kandinsky’s pre-World War I paintings 'apocalyptic landscapes,' arguing that they are informed with apocalyptic destructiveness, but also the elated expectation of post-apocalyptic redemption. The intense colors on which Kandinsky placed so much esthetic and expressive hope have redemptive power, even as their brightness is sometimes streaked with painful shadow. The forceful black lines, sometimes stylized squiggles and typically at odds with each other, awkwardly frame the eccentric patches of color, but also create an effect of what Kandinsky called 'dissonance,' suggesting apocalyptic destructiveness.The incoherence of Kandinsky’s apocalyptic landscapes - the messiness left after a so-called emotional storm, a destructive tornado that suddenly appears, an angel of death who comes out of the blue, that is, a horseman of the apocalypse (which is what Kandinsky’s and Marc’s 'Blue Rider' is [he has been associated with St. George who killed the dragon, but he quickly changes from a graceful realistic rider in an early representation to a demonic abstract rider in a later representation] - is the expression of the disintegrative terror and traumatic horror of the apocalypse. They convey the psychic truth that one has lost control of one’s consciousness and has no control of the world and thus become helpless....Kandinsky was able to impose geometrical order on his gestural disorder, which brings it under superficial control without changing it. The late geometrical works are abortive attempts to create a clear and distinct abstract picture rather than a sort of creative apperception - or at least introspective awareness - of his own breakdown.

Mr. Kuspit is the distinguished professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.

In her review of the exhibition at the Guggenheim in the September 17, 2009 edition of The New York Times Roberta Smith remarked that the circling ramp of Wright’s rotunda was surely designed with that Russian’s swirling, unanchored abstractions in mind. Kandinsky’s precarious, ever-moving compositions suggest that he never met a diagonal he didn’t like; Wright obliged with a museum on a perpetual tilt."

The exhibition, she argued, "simplifies a vision that held music, painting and language as part of a continuum and relegates his activities as theoretician, essayist, poet and (arts) community organizer to the show’s informative, discreetly placed wall texts. In both of his best-known books - “Concerning the Spiritual in Art” (1912) and “Point and Line to Plane” (1926) - he displays a remarkable ability to reconcile the redemptive power of art’s “inner pulsations,” meant to be experienced “with all one’s senses” and exacting diagrams of the formal effect of different colors, shapes and lines, each of which he felt had a distinct sound."

In her September 21, 2009 article on the exhibition in The Wall Street Journal Karen Wilkin correctly notes that "American artists found him a useful guide on the path to abstraction," noting that "We can find similar 'disguised references,' in Arshile Gorky's mature work, for example, as well as affinities, with the work and teaching of the German-born, New York-based Hans Hofmann."

Kandinsky's great works have tremendous dynamics and lyrical but extremely complex compositions that are remarkably harmoniously even when overloaded with countless squiggles and details. His best works are always bold and very strong and quite intellectual.

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