Will Stone

Links in the Chain

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Kandin­sky, Marc and Der Blaue Reiter, Edited by Ulf Kuster for Fonda­ton Beyeler Beyeler Stiftung, Wyss Foun­da­tion 2016

It should be al­most su­per­flu­ous to em­pha­sise specif­i­cally that in our case the prin­ci­ple of in­ter­na­tion­al­ism is the only one pos­si­ble. How­ever, in these times we must say that an in­di­vid­ual na­tion is only one of the cre­ators of all art; one alone can never be a whole. As with a per­son­al­ity, the na­tional el­e­ment is au­to­mat­i­cally re­flected in each great work. But in the last re­sort this na­tional col­oration is merely in­ci­den­tal. The whole work, called art, knows no borders or na­tions, only hu­man­ity.’

From the pref­ace to Der Blaue Reiter, 1912 edited by Wass­ily Kandin­sky and Franz Marc

Con­trary to pop­u­lar myth, Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) was never the name of an art move­ment per se, it was the ro­man­tic ti­tle con­jured up in a Mu­nich cof­fee house by two avant-garde artists, Wass­ily Kandin­sky and Franz Marc, for an Al­manac they had con­ceived in June 1911 as a means to se­cure fur­ther ex­hi­bi­tion space to com­mu­ni­cate the new art forms they and their brethren were then pas­sion­ately ex­pound­ing. These Mu­nich-based artists were united in open re­volt against the con­ser­vatism of the ex­ist­ing or­der, namely the Neue Kün­stlervere­ini­gung-Munchen (New Artists So­ci­ety Mu­nich) and pro­vided an ab­stract coun­ter­part to the dis­torted fig­u­ra­tive style of Die Brücke. This book, pub­lished to co­in­cide with the lav­ish ex­hi­bi­tion at the ideally suited Fon­da­tion Beyeler in Basel, fo­cuses on this now leg­endary Al­manac, which ap­peared in early 1912, hot on the heels of ‘The First Ex­hi­bi­tion of the Ed­i­to­rial Board of the Blue Rider’ in De­cem­ber 1911. The an­o­dyne back­drop of the airy, spa­cious and ju­di­ciously light­bathed cham­bers of the Beyeler showed off these ex­tra­or­di­nary colour laden paint­ings to full ef­fect. This was the first ex­hi­bi­tion of its kind in Swit-

zer­land in thirty years and the or­gan­is­ers chose to se­cure rarely seen high qual­ity pieces drawn from pri­vate col­lec­tions around the world in­stead of merely draw­ing from the Ar­chive of the Zurich Art So­ci­ety and Kun­sthaus Zurich. For those who were un­able to reach Basel, then this su­perb book with its scrupu­lous at­ten­tion to de­tail and gor­geous il­lus­tra­tions serves as some rec­om­pense. Aside from the paint­ings the book of­fers a num­ber of fas­ci­nat­ing es­says to flesh out the na­ture of the pe­riod and the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the main play­ers. That be­tween Kandin­sky and Marc is the most cru­cial and the re­spect they held for each other is ex­am­ined through the works they ex­changed as gifts. Also in­cluded is a study of the in­flu­ence of French paint­ing on the Blue Rider artists, no­tably Robert De­lau­nay whose cu­bist-in­spired work fas­ci­nated both Marc and Macke.

Although Marc at­tested that the choice of blue for the rider was sim­ply be­cause both painters loved the colour, the name is surely taken from Kandin­sky’s Blue Rider of 1903, show­ing a blue-caped rider gal­lop­ing across a meadow on a white steed, the image fairly bristling with vi­tal en­ergy. Yet Marc saw colours as di­rectly cor­re­spond­ing pic­to­ri­ally to the male and fe­male spirit, or sym­bol­is­ing the strata of el­e­ments in na­ture of light, earth, shadow, fire etc. and thus their selec­tion was for him as an artist highly sig­nif­i­cant. The rider then rep­re­sents dy­namism and the leaps be­tween these el­e­ments, seen to full ef­fect in the evo­lu­tion of Kandin­sky’s works, sat­u­rated as they are with un­bri­dled move­ment and ten­sion. These Mu­nich­based artists were united in open re­volt, seek­ing noth­ing less than an over­turn­ing of the ex­ist­ing sta­tus quo, or as they saw it, the des­ic­cated ‘easel paint­ing’ of the aca­demic old or­der. Their ob­jec­tive was to em­brace a new sense based ap­proach to the fig­u­ra­tive sub­ject, pi­o­neered by Van Gogh and Munch. ‘It is not form (mat­ter) that is most im­por­tant but con­tent (spirit)’ de­clared Kandin­sky. ‘Every­thing then, choice of sub­ject, the harmony of colours, all must be in ac­cord with ‘the prin­ci­ple of the pur­pose­ful touch­ing of the hu­man soul.’

Both Marc and Kandin­sky saw that un­der­stand­ing the sym­bi­otic re­la­tion­ship be­tween tone and colour was para­mount and that any sense of harmony de­rived from the out­come of that re­la­tion­ship could only be mean­ing­ful through the hu­man eye’s di­rect in­volve­ment with the paint-

ing. Although other artists such as Kandin­sky’s part­ner Gabriele Mün­ter, Alexej von Jawlen­sky and Mar­i­anne von Were­fkin ap­pear in the col­lec­tion, their work is some­what over­shad­owed by that of the three lead rid­ers, Kandin­sky, Marc and late­comer Au­gust Macke. Eschew­ing the mythol­o­giz­ing of his fel­lows, Macke’s works, mostly in­spired by an eight-month so­journ at Lake Thun in Switzer­land in 1913, con­cern them­selves with or­di­nary scenes from mod­ern life and through his com­bin­ing of ab­stract colour com­po­si­tions with fig­u­ra­tive truth demon­strate a wel­come hu­man­is­tic qual­ity.

How­ever, for many, Marc’s more recog­nis­able animal works will al­ways have the great­est pulling power. What mat­tered for Marc was not rep­re­sent­ing the animal lit­er­ally or even wholly fig­u­ra­tively, but rather com­mu­ni­cat­ing its in­te­rior life as an ex­pres­sion of au­then­tic na­ture. Safe­guard­ing the animal’s soul through paint also rep­re­sents a stand against the re­lent­less tech­ni­cal progress of an era where animal pro­tec­tion was in its in­fancy. The rarely ex­hib­ited and ma­jes­ti­cally im­pos­ing The Large Blue Horses (1911), proves the dom­i­nant can­vas. In this strik­ingly se­duc­tive image, the tri­umvi­rate of volup­tuous horses present their in­clined heads, sin­u­ous rumps and dark-edged manes, while the land­scape around them is like­wise in mo­tion, mim­ick­ing the grace­ful curves of their bod­ies. Blue-black Fox, of the same year, has a grey mauve coloured fox re­clined upon a back­ground of con­trast­ing blocks of care­fully ap­pointed colour. But ob­serve more closely, the fig­u­ra­tive is giv­ing way to the ab­stract. We may see the fox clearly enough, but the tree and the fo­liage on ei­ther side is be­gin­ning to shed its vis­i­ble con­tours, slip­ping ir­re­sistibly into enigma. Marc’s achieve­ment cli­maxes in The Wolves (Balkan War) 1913, a paint­ing heavy with fore­bod­ing and dire pre­mo­ni­tion on the eve of World War. An omi­nous trio of scar­let, black and brown wolves ad­vance hor­i­zon­tally from left to right across a des­o­late cu­bist-in­spired land­scape to­wards a bleed­ing prey. The whole paint­ing is com­pressed, claus­tro­pho­bic and dis­ori­en­tat­ing to the eye. Through well­judged sym­bol­ism, Marc has prophet­i­cally cap­tured the dis­lo­ca­tion and ab­sur­dity, the un­bri­dled ter­ror of a con­flict which would later claim him as a vic­tim.

But this march from fig­u­ra­tive to ab­stract over only five years, 1908-13, is most clearly ob­served in Kandin­sky’s works, from the early pas­toral land-

scapes of 1908/9, ex­em­pli­fied by the dream-like Blue Moun­tain, 1908-09, with its rich, lu­mi­nous colours and still per­fectly vis­i­ble moun­tains, trees and rid­ers, to the cli­mac­tic in­ten­sity of the en­tirely ab­stract ‘com­po­si­tions’, which Kandin­sky con­sid­ered the pin­na­cle of his work. Through his three si­mul­ta­ne­ous ap­proaches, ‘Ex­pres­sions’, ‘Im­pro­vi­sa­tions’ and ‘Com­po­si­tions’, Kandin­sky sought to com­mu­ni­cate the purest ex­pres­sion of a feel­ing. Im­pro­vi­sa­tion 12 is a per­fect ex­am­ple of this quest, as the horse and rider, though still vis­i­ble as such, be­gin to morph into un­ten­able shapes, sac­ri­fic­ing their re­as­sur­ing ma­te­rial form for a kalei­do­scopic vis­ual dishar­mony.

Kandin­sky and Mün­ter’s in­tu­itive es­cape from Mu­nich in 1908 to Mün­ter’s house in the pre-alpine idyll of Mur­nau in Up­per Bavaria proved the mo­ment to con­sol­i­date the cou­ple’s de­ter­mined re­jec­tion of the then dom­i­nant im­pres­sion­is­tic style for one of teas­ing out the soul from a sub­ject. Jawlen­sky soon joined them in this ru­ral hot­house of creativity. Ri­valry be­tween the painters at Mur­nau fu­elled the rapid evo­lu­tion of the new ap­proach. Marc had wit­nessed an NKM ex­hi­bi­tion of the Mur­nau painters in 1909 and over­whelmed, made a de­ci­sive break from the iso­la­tion which had threat­ened to side­line him. Once Kandin­sky had met Marc on 1 Jan­uary 1911 and their part­ner­ship was ce­mented, things be­gan to progress at al­most break­neck pace to­wards es­tab­lish­ing that ‘new in­ner re­nais­sance’.

As for the al­manac it­self, what sur­prises is the sheer length of the doc­u­ment, the wealth of writ­ers, artists and even com­posers rep­re­sented. Not only key founders of Die Brücke, such as Ernst Lud­wig Kirch­ner and Eric Heckel pre­sented, but fig­ures as di­verse as mav­er­ick Aus­trian il­lus­tra­tor and au­thor Al­fred Ku­bin, Henri Rousseau, Pi­casso, Braque, Matisse and com­poser Arnold Schoen­berg. The al­manac also in­cluded ex­am­ples of tribal art and Eastern art. The Blue Rider mem­bers were keen to stress the link be­tween pri­mal art and the new un­sul­lied art by con­ser­vatism they were them­selves pur­su­ing. The Blue Rider was a truly in­clu­sive ven­ture with a real sense of in­ter­na­tion­al­ism. In Kandin­sky’s fa­mous let­ter to Marc of 19 June 1911, he en­thuses over the ini­tia­tive.

A kind of al­manac with re­pro­duc­tions and ar­ti­cles... and a chron­i­cle!

That is re­ports on ex­hi­bi­tions re­viewed by artists, and artists alone. In the book the en­tire year must be re­flected; and a link to the past as well as a ray to the fu­ture must give this mir­ror its full life... We will put an Egyp­tian mask be­side a small Zeh (Mu­nich ar­chi­tect Au­gust Zeh) a Chi­nese work be­side a Rousseau, a folk print be­side a Pi­casso, and the like!... The book could be called “The Chain”, or some other such ti­tle...

The ar­rival of The First World War abruptly can­celled any fur­ther pan­the­is­tic pro­ceed­ings, with first Macke and then Marc trag­i­cally join­ing the roll call of the slaugh­tered. In 1924 Kandin­sky, Jawlenksy, Lionel Feininger and Paul Klee formed Die Blaue Vier (The Blue Four) which lin­gered on un­til 1936, more from a de­sire to ex­hibit to­gether, and the rev­o­lu­tion­ary at­mos­phere of Der Blaue Reiter could not be res­ur­rected. How­ever, the five in­cen­di­ary years pre­ced­ing the Euro­pean apoca­lypse had been suf­fi­cient. View­ing the gi­ant can­vas of Kandin­sky’s leg­endary Com­po­si­tion VII, 1913, from the Tretyakov State Gallery in Moscow, is to look ver­tig­i­nously out into the fu­ture of mod­ern art, a dis­ori­en­tat­ing riot of colour, form and lin­ear ab­sur­di­ties sym­bol­ise the up­end­ing of val­ues in­her­ent to the twen­ti­eth cen­tury and beyond. I com­mend this book to any­one who seeks to bet­ter un­der­stand the pow­er­ful cur­rents lead­ing into ab­strac­tion and the tra­jec­tory it took when its bold ini­tia­tors, armed only with be­lief in the resti­tu­tion of the es­sen­tial, the un­tainted, delved so spirit­edly into the enig­mat­i­cal prop­er­ties of the soul.

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