DE­CEM­BER 16, 1866 – DE­CEM­BER 13, 1944

The New European - - Eurofile Great Lives - BY CHAR­LIE CON­NELLY

The mu­sic he heard that night set Kandin­sky firmly along the path to the ab­stract art in which he was a key pi­o­neer, con­firm­ing he wasn’t alone in seek­ing a pre­ci­sion through tex­ture and form in the artis­tic ex­pres­sion of pro­found emo­tion.

On Jan­uary 2, 1911, in Mu­nich, 45-year-old Wass­ily Kandin­sky at­tended a con­cert of mu­sic by the avant-garde com­poser Arnold Schoen­berg. While the Aus­trian hadn’t yet com­pletely aban­doned tra­di­tional tonal­ity his Sec­ond String Quar­tet and Three Pieces For Pi­ano, Opus 11, both of which Kandin­sky heard for the first time that night, were huge, dis­cor­dant ad­vances in the dis­man­tling of the pre­vail­ing tech­niques and phi­los­o­phy of mu­sic.

“Dis­so­nances are only dif­fer­ent from con­so­nance in de­gree; they are noth­ing more than re­moter con­so­nances,” Schoen­berg was quoted as say­ing on the con­cert poster that con­vinced Kandin­sky to buy a ticket. “To­day we have al­ready reached the point where we no longer make the dis­tinc­tion be­tween con­so­nances and dis­so­nances.”

The mu­sic he heard that night set Kandin­sky firmly along the path to the ab­stract art in which he was a key pi­o­neer, con­firm­ing he wasn’t alone in seek­ing a pre­ci­sion through tex­ture and form in the artis­tic ex­pres­sion of pro­found emo­tion.

His long-term aim was a vis­ual lan­guage beyond artis­tic con­ven­tion in which the role of colours, shapes and lines went way beyond the re­pro­duc­tion of peo­ple, ob­jects and land­scapes to a pure form of ex­pres­sion evok­ing strong and deep emo­tions.

As he sat in the au­di­ence lis­ten­ing to Schoen­berg’s blur­ring of the lines be­tween con­so­nance and dis­so­nance, Kandin­sky ex­pe­ri­enced some­thing close to an epiphany and within two days he had spilled onto can­vas his re­sponse to the third pi­ano piece with his Im­pres­sion III (Con­cert). In the paint­ing the grand pi­ano is just about recog­nis­able, a fea­ture­less black slab that ap­pears al­most to be leap­ing up­wards out of the frame.

It is sur­rounded by a tide of yel­low that washes out of the in­stru­ment, over and around the rough-hewn fig­ures rep­re­sent­ing an au­di­ence which seems al­most to be drawn phys­i­cally to­wards the pi­anist and the in­stru­ment. It is an ex­hil­a­rat­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the joy and power of live mu­sic and the in­ter­ac­tion be­tween per­former and lis­tener and ex­actly what Kandin­sky strove to achieve through his work: vis­ual prompts that in­voked emo­tions to­wards a higher spir­i­tual truth.

A fort­night later the artist fi­nally plucked up the courage to write to Schoen­berg. “What we are striv­ing for and our whole man­ner of thought and feel­ing have so much in com­mon that I feel com­pletely jus­ti­fied in ex­press­ing my em­pa­thy,” he gushed.

“I un­der­stand you com­pletely,” replied the com­poser, “and I am sure that our work

has much in com­mon, es­pe­cially in what you call the ‘anti-log­i­cal’ and I call the ‘elim­i­na­tion of the con­scious will in art’.”

Im­pres­sions III (Con­cert), a ma­jor step to­wards that goal, could al­most be an artis­tic rep­re­sen­ta­tion of synaes­the­sia, a con­di­tion whereby two or more senses find them­selves re­act­ing to an ex­ter­nal stim­u­lus con­ven­tion­ally aimed at one, for ex­am­ple, an abil­ity to smell sounds. For Kandin­sky, mu­sic pro­duced colours and pat­terns, some­thing he’d first ex­pe­ri­enced as a youth in Moscow at a per­for­mance of Wag­ner’s

Lo­hen­grin. “I saw all my colours in spirit, be­fore my eyes,” he re­called. “Wild, al­most crazy, lines were sketched in front of me.”

It worked the other way too – from around 1910 Kandin­sky named all his paint­ings in mu­si­cal terms un­der the head­ings Im­pres­sions, Im­pro­vi­sa­tions and

Com­po­si­tions – and while he al­ways de­nied that he was creat­ing pieces of mu­sic on can­vas, some­thing he de­scribed as “im­pos­si­ble and unattain­able”, Kandin­sky had from child­hood be­lieved that each colour at least had a spirit and per­son­al­ity of its own.

Born in Moscow to a wealthy tea dealer fa­ther and a mother de­scended from the Mon­go­lian aris­toc­racy, Kandin­sky spent most of his child­hood in Odessa, al­though the fam­ily would travel widely through cen­tral Europe and Italy. This wi­den­ing of hori­zons had a pro­found ef­fect on his art and when he moved to Moscow to study law and eco­nomics, the city’s ar­chi­tec­ture and Rus­sian Or­tho­dox iconog­ra­phy proved to be key early in­flu­ences.

Al­though he was a keen artist, as a young man Kandin­sky felt the se­ri­ous prac­tice of art to be a “lux­ury un­avail­able to a Rus­sian” and in­stead con­cen­trated on law and eco­nomics. He al­ways felt the pull of art, how­ever, and a trip dur­ing the 1890s to see some works by Rem­brandt on a stu­dent visit to the Her­mitage at St Peters­burg, com­bined with a pe­riod spent in Vologda,

close to Siberia in the ru­ral north of the coun­try, study­ing lo­cal ju­di­cial pro­cesses that in­tro­duced him to folk art only fu­elled this in­creas­ing in­ter­est. Yet it took un­til he was 30 for Kandin­sky to be­gin paint­ing in earnest, hav­ing ex­pe­ri­enced a rev­e­la­tion in front of one of Monet’s Haystack se­ries at an 1896 ex­hi­bi­tion in Moscow.

“It took the cat­a­logue to in­form me it was a haystack,” he wrote later, “be­cause I could not recog­nise it as such. This non-recog­ni­tion was a painful feel­ing for me. I con­sid­ered that the painter had no right to paint in­dis­tinctly, feel­ing that the ob­ject of the paint­ing was miss­ing. Yet I no­ticed with in­creas­ing sur­prise and con­fu­sion that the pic­ture not only gripped me, but im­pressed it­self ir­re­vo­ca­bly on my mind. Paint­ing at that mo­ment took on a fairy-tale power and splen­dour.”

Kandin­sky had been mulling over the of­fer of a pro­fes­sor­ship at a univer­sity in Es­to­nia but in­stead he packed his bags and de­camped to Mu­nich to study art un­der An­ton Abzé. The legacy of that Monet mo­ment is clear in his early works, which are strongly im­pres­sion­is­tic. But when in 1909 he moved to Mur­nau in the Bavar­ian hills, the land­scapes he pro­duced there show a clear pro­gres­sion to­wards ab­strac­tion with their strong brush­strokes, sim­ple shapes and loud colours.

When Ger­many de­clared war on Rus­sia in 1914 Kandin­sky found him­self sud­denly an en­emy alien in the land he called home and he was forced to re­turn to Moscow, where he wit­nessed and em­braced the Rus­sian Revo­lu­tion. Within a year of the Bol­she­viks com­ing to power Kandin­sky was pro­fes­sor at the Moscow Academy of Fine Arts and a mem­ber of the arts sec­tion of the Peo­ple’s Com­mis­sariat for Pub­lic In­struc­tion, ef­fec­tively a cul­ture min­istry.

So mu­tual was the re­spect be­tween artist and revo­lu­tion that his mem­oir Ret­ro­spect was pub­lished by the state pub­lish­ing house. In 1919 he was a founder of the In­sti­tute for Artis­tic Cul­ture, be­came di­rec­tor of the Moscow Mu­seum for Pic­to­rial Cul­ture and helped to or­gan­ise a string of mu­se­ums across the coun­try. A move to the pres­ti­gious Moscow Univer­sity fol­lowed, as well as the foun­da­tion of the Academy of Artis­tic Sciences, but when the Soviet regime be­gan to cool in its at­ti­tude to the avant-garde in favour of so­cial­ist re­al­ism, Kandin­sky re­alised that if he was to have a fu­ture in­volv­ing free artis­tic ex­pres­sion it would lie out­side the Soviet Union.

A move back to Ger­many fol­lowed and a se­nior post at the Bauhaus school, at the in­vi­ta­tion of founder Wal­ter Gropius, only for pol­i­tics to in­ter­vene once again when the Nazis closed down Bauhaus al­most as soon as they came to power in 1933. Set­tling in the Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-seine, Kandin­sky saw nearly 60 of his works re­moved from Ger­man gal­leries and mu­se­ums, 14 of them in­cluded in the no­to­ri­ous De­gen­er­ate Art ex­hi­bi­tion in Berlin in 1937.

Kandin­sky lived through ex­tra­or­di­nary times, the great 20th cen­tury shifts in Euro­pean his­tory and pol­i­tics ar­riv­ing re­peat­edly on his doorstep. As a re­sult his art il­lu­mi­nates the tur­bu­lence of the pe­riod, pro­vid­ing both an ab­stract com­men­tary on and es­cape from the events of the day.

“Lend your ears to mu­sic, open your eyes to paint­ing, and – stop think­ing!” he ad­vised. “Just ask your­self whether the work has en­abled you to walk about into a hith­erto un­known world. If the an­swer is yes, what more do you want?”

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