One of the most surprising and rewarding things about the Kandinsky exhibition at the Centre Pompidou is the fact that it is a complete retrospective. I am always bemoaning the Parisian tendency to exhibit an artist’s work, only as it intersects in some way with Paris or France. The paintings on exhibition often end up being without context, and therefore, not fully graspable. Because Kandinsky brings together the Kandinsky collections of the Centre Pompidou, the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich and the Solomon R. Guggenheim, New York — together the three largest public collections of Kandinsky’s work — Kandinsky is a veritable retrospective of his work. And what we learn about the artist’s development, technique, palette, obsessions, beliefs and so on, is so much deeper and wider and ultimately, much more satisfying, when we have the chance to see the oeuvre from beginning to end.
From his early days in Munich, even before he reduced the painted surface to a series of abstract lines and planes, the presence of the diagonal is everywhere on Kandinsky’s canvases. One of the most striking attributes of works such as Picture with an Archer (1909), is the use of paint to fill in the plane in a way that reminds of a child’s coloring in book. The always superficial brushstrokes move fluidly and easily from left to right of the canvas in what appears as a single gesture. Even in reproduction, the brightly colored strokes are discernable, not for their reflections on color itself, but for the speed at which they are applied and the movement they evoke. Similarly, from the beginning, in this and other paintings such as the many Improvisations and Compositions, because color takes the form of a filling in of the spaces demarcated by line, there is no hierarchy of medium, form or compositional importance in these works. Even without being familiar with his philosophical writings, one notices immediately that color, line and point are given equal weight on the canvas. And so, despite the fact that his canvases are filled with sumptuous, sometimes exciting, sometimes depressing, at others joyful colors, Kandinsky is not really interested in paint. This will continue throughout the next forty years of painting.
In keeping with the fascination for this balance between elements, the surface of Kandinsky’s paintings is everything. Thus, unlike the works of his countrymen — Malevich, El Lissitsky, even Rodchenko — there are no rewards for moving up close to the canvas. In fact, there is nothing to see when we are up close. There is no impasto, no thickness of paint, no evidence of a build up of paint, no signs of virtuosity, not even an intrigue of “how did he do that?” Up close, it’s just paint on a canvas. These are works executed in rapid succession and intended to be seen at a distance. While the paintings are full of energy — the movement of figures, paint, narration — this translates into an immediacy, the sense that they are sketches for a more serious, ponderous work, a work that nevertheless is never painted. Indeed, “improvisation” might well have been an appropriate title for the majority of the paintings on view here at the Centre Pompidou. However, unlike a jazz improvisation for example, as the spectator, we do not get to immerse ourselves emotionally in the excitement of the improvisation. We are kept resolutely at a distance from these works.
Thus, by the time Kandinsky paints Point and Line to Plane (1926) there is no surprise about the appearance of abstract geometrical elements mixed with black lines, still on the left to right diagonal. The later works filled with squiggles and hieroglyphic symbols might initially seem a long way from the brightly colored mountains of the pre-World War I paintings, but they are, in fact, the logical telos. Especially if we remember that Kandinsky comes to Paris in the 1930s via the Bauhaus with its commitment to rationalization and the systematization of ideas. Thus, in these later paintings we see a merging of the immediacy of application, as if the artist were himself a mere channel for spiritual inspiration, and the systematization of the image composition.
Kandinsky was painting in perhaps the most exciting moment in the history of twentieth-century Western European art and culture. At the turn of the century, up until the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Europe was alive with creativity, new possibilities, an intense cross-pollination of the arts. It was also a moment when art clearly responded to the upheavals of modernity as they were being experienced in the world beyond the salon and the museum. On the one hand, we see all of the artistic influences on Kandinsky’s canvases — the strident colors and animated brushwork of the Fauvists, the fascination with speed and mobility of the Futurists’ vision, the Expressionist’s insistence on the geometricization of the image as a way of expressing the chaos of the modern world, the surrealist fascination with a world beyond the rational. It’s all there and more on Kandinsky’s canvases. On the other hand, however, unlike the art and ideas that influenced them, Kandinsky’s paintings nowhere reflect the outbreak of two world wars, economic prosperity, or a depression. It is almost as though Kandinsky was so immersed in art and its history that he didn’t have time for the world outside.
With around 150 paintings on view in the exhibition, it is a wonderful opportunity to see the thinking, the obsessions and their translation onto the canvas of one of the most influential artists of the early decades of the twentieth century.
(*Images from top to bottom: Vassili Kandinsky, Der Blaue Berg, 1908-1909, huile sur toile – 106 x 96 cm,Guggenheim Museum, New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection, by gift, © ADAGP, Paris 2009. Vassili Kandinsky, Komposition 8, 1923, huile sur toile – 140 x 201cm, Guggenheim Museum, New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection, by gift © ADAGP, Paris 2009. Vassili Kandinsky, Mouvement I, 1935, Technique mixte sur toile – 116 x 89cm, Galerie Tretiakov, Moscou: Galerie nationale Trétiakov, Moscou © ADAGP, Paris 2009.)