Welcome Back to my A-Z Series: Letters to Dead Artists. Today, I’ve written to Russian artist, Wassily Kandinsky, one of the driving forces behind German Expressionism. Kandinsky will be accompanied by Arnold Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night for String Quartet. Schoenberg and Kandinsky worked closely together and were very like-minded.
When I very first saw Kandinsky’s paintings in a German Expressionist Exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW in 1990, all I saw was COLOUR!!! Bright colours and expressive forms. They were such a break from all the paintings I’d known growing up, with the dull greens and browns of the Australian landscape populated, as it were, by swagmen and sheep.
However, Kandinsky wasn’t just a man of bright, alluring colours and interior design. Rather through his book Concerning the Spiritual in Art, he expounded an entire theory about the emotions and spirituality of colour and devised a complex code of colours and symbols, which were also closely intertwined with music.
When I saw the German Expressionist Exhibition, I was a 20 year old university student living in a crumbling terrace house in urban Glebe. Caught in all the lurid emotions of semi-requited love and paralyzing self-doubt, I was a living, breathing powder keg of angst. Indeed, I went to the exhibition with the source… someone I’ll simply call “Sunflower”.
As that paralyzed, love struck young woman, these paintings weren’t just something on the wall. They were ME spurting through the canvas wrestling with love, rejection and hope against all hope. I guess you could say this was a “turbulent period” for me, where I gouged my torment out with my pen, scrawling ink across the page. I then released my inner demons at poetry readings at Chippendale’s Reasonably Good Cafe, which I now consider fun.
As it turns out, there would’ve been better artists for a young woman struggling with semi-requited love to turn to, such as Gabriele Münter. She would’ve been very sympathetic, and could well have made me chicken soup. Indeed, I can even hear her reflecting on her relationship with Kandinsky…“He’s not the Messiah. He’s just a very naughty boy.” (Life of Brian).
Gabriele Munter – Self Portrait in front of an Easel, 1909 at Princeton Art Museum, Princeton NJ
Kandinsky’s personal life was rather complicated. In 1892, he married his cousin, Anna Chemyakina. She took care of her husband and moved with him to Germany. However, in 1903 Kandinsky met and began a relationship with Gabriele Münter, one of his students at the Phalanx School. The two became inseparable. Kandinsky kept promising to divorce his wife and marry her, stringing love struck Münter along. Finally, in 1911, Kandinsky returned to Russia, and divorced his wife.
Yet, he still didn’t marry Gabriele Münter. Rather, he continued living with her as his lover. Unfortunately, when Germany declared war on Russia in August 1914, their relationship received a jolt. Kandinsky was considered an enemy alien and only had three days to get out. Since he couldn’t take much with him, he left the bulk of his paintings and possessions with Münter. The couple rushed to Switzerland and while in Zurich, Kandinsky broke up with her. For two years she urged a reunion. It took place in neutral Scandinavia in 1916, but failed. Well, that’s according to some of the sources I’ve read. Others are less clear about the breakup, suggesting he was still stringing her along.
Well, Kandinsky did get married, but it wasn’t to Gabriele Münter. Rather, he married 18 year old, Nina Andreievskaya, and he didn’t tell Münter. Indeed, he only came clean four years later when she received a letter from his lawyer demanding she return his personal effects and artworks. Not unsurprisingly, Gabriele didn’t return all his paintings, and kept these as “moral compensation”. While I’m very surprised Gabriel didn’t burn the lot, she actually kept them safe behind a secret wall in her basement during successive raids by the Nazis and Russians. Kandinsky never saw his paintings again. However, in 1957, Münter gave the stash to Munich, Stadtische Galerie in Lenbach. At least, the survival of this collection was a positive outcome of Gabriele’s grief.
Perhaps, there’s nothing about Kandinsky which is easy to understand. Indeed, for me, he’s an iceberg with only his head peering out above the waves. I even wonder whether he remains a mystery to experts who have studied him all their working lives, and know each and every millimetre of each work. I don’t know. Yet, despite the difficulties and also thanks to a sense of madness, I am still trying to fathom the unfathomable. Trying to unravel Kandinsky and his art.
So Who Was Wassily Kandinsky?
Wassily Wassilyevich Kandinsky was born in Moscow on the 4th December, 1866, the son of a wealthy tea merchant. He spent his childhood in Odessa, where he graduated from the Grekov Odessa Art school and enrolled at the University of Moscow, where he studied law and economics and was offered a professorship.
However, in 1896 at the age of thirty, Kandinsky and his trajectory permanently changed. Struck in a sense by lightning, he threw in his day job to become a professional artist.
This was fueled by two events:
Firstly,he attended an Exhibition of French Impressionists in St Petersberg in 1896, where he was spellbound by Claude Monet’s painting: Haystacks in the Sunlight:
“So, I saw a painting for the first time. That it was a haystack the catalogue informed me. I could not recognize it. This non-recognition was painful to me. I considered that the painter had no right to paint indistinctly. I felt that the object of the painting was missing. And I noticed with surprise and confusion that the picture not only gripped me, but impressed itself ineradicably on my memory. Painting took on a fairy-tale power and splendour”.
Also in 1896, he attended Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin at the court (Bolshoi) Theatre in Moscow, which seemingly unleashed a moment of synesthetic apotheosis “which appeared to be the materialization of my fairytale Moscow. Violins, deep basses and wind instruments in the first place materialized my impression of evening hours in Moscow, I saw all the colours before my eyes – crazy, almost insane lines. I just could not admit that Wagner musically drew “my hour”. But I realized that art has much more power than I used to think about it and painting can have the same powers, as music”.
Music influenced Kandinsky’s art profoundly: he admired the way it could elicit an emotional response, without being tied to a recognisable subject matter. Painting, he believed, should aspire to be as abstract as music, with groups of colour in a picture relating to one another in a manner analogous to sequences of chords in music.
Kandinsky moved to Munich with his wife and studied at Anton Ažbe‘s private school and then at the Academy of Fine Arts. It was here, that Kandinsky formed some artistic associations, which were to change the face of modern art. At Azbe’s school he met co-conspirators such as Alexei Jawlensky, who introduced Kandinsky to Munich’s artistic avant-garde. In 1901, along with three other young artists, Kandinsky co-founded “Phalanx” – an artist’s association opposed to the conservative views of the traditional art institutions. Phalanx expanded to include an art school, in which Kandinsky taught, and an exhibitions group.
In 1909, he was one of the founding members of Neue Kunstlervereinigung Munchen (NKVM, or New Artists Association of Munich), a group that sought to accommodate the avant-garde artists whose practices were too radical for the traditional organizations and academies. In 1911, after one of Kandinsky’s paintings was rejected from the annual NKVM exhibition, he and Franz Marc organized a rival exhibition and co-founded “Der Blaue Reiter” (The Blue Rider).
“Der Blaue Reiter” (The Blue Rider) initiated and deeply inspired the highly influential German Expressionist style. It was a loose association of nine Expressionist artists that included August Macke, Münter, and Jawlensky. As a group, they believed in the promotion of modern art and the possibility for spiritual experience through the symbolic associations of sound and colour – two issues very near and dear to Kandinsky’s heart. Despite the similarities between the group’s moniker and the title of Kandinsky’s 1903 painting, the artists actually arrived at the name “Der Blaue Reiter” as a result of the combination of Marc’s love of horses and Kandinsky’s interest in the symbolism of the rider, coupled with both artists’ passion for the colour blue. During their short existence, the group published an anthology (The Blue Rider Almanac) and held three exhibitions. Kandinsky also published Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911), his first theoretical treatise on abstraction. It expounded that his theory that the artist was a spiritual being who communicated through and was affected by line, colour, and composition. He produced both abstract and figurative works, but expanded his interest in non-objective painting. Composition VII (1913) was an early example of his synthesis of spiritual, emotional, and non-referential form through complex patterns and brilliant colors. Unfortunately, the outbreak of World War I in 1914 led to the dissolution of the group.
Kandinsky returned to Moscow in 1914. Following the Russian Revolution, Kandinsky “became an insider in the cultural administration of Anatoly Lunacharsky”and helped establish the Museum of the Culture of Painting.However, by then “his spiritual outlook… was foreign to the argumentative materialism of Soviet society”, and opportunities beckoned in Germany, to which he returned in 1920. There, he taught at the Bauhaus school of art and architecture from 1922 until the Nazis closed it in 1933. He then moved to France, where he lived for the rest of his life, becoming a French citizen in 1939 and producing some of his most prominent art.
He died in Neuilly-sur-Seine in 1944.
So, without further ado, I’m off to write to Kandinsky and I promised myself that I wouldn’t mention his love life. Instead, I’m going to play it safe and stick to art and music.
A Letter to Kandinsky
I’m burning the midnight oil trying to find the right words and my pen is stuttering away like the love struck uni student of days gone by. I’ve gone through sheet after sheet of paper, trying to find the right words and finally put together some kind of meaningful question to ask.
So, I’ll cut to the chase.
Could you please paint me playing my violin?
I know that’s a big ask when you’re world famous, and I pass right under all forms of radar. However, the world also needs to acknowledge the full scope of musicians, and not only honour those at the very pinnacle of success. Kandinsky, people forget that music doesn’t just refer to the maestros playing million dollar instruments. It also includes the beginners…the scratchy violinists, the annoying recorder players, the tone deaf, as well as the rhythmically challenged. Someone needs to represent the musical battler, and it might as well be me.
Of course, I can’t help wondering how my playing would affect your vision, and the corresponding relationship between colour and sound. Would you still paint my violin a relaxing tone of green? Or, would it all be reds, oranges, yellows? Maybe, somewhere in between?
Speaking about musical battlers, last weekend, I spotted this decrepit, dilapidated piano at the Scout Hall and I just had to play Moonlight Sonata on it. Moreover, I even asked my husband to record it. It sounded so bad, that it hurt your ears and we dubbed it: “The Sorry Sonata”…even “The Suicide Sonata”. Ironically, I usually play Moonlight Sonata on a Steinway Grand, but who hasn’t experienced the horrific twang of an old hall piano? Well, I guess that’s changing because the piano is dying and you might be shocked to know that you can’t even give one away.
Anyway, why am I talking to you about pianos, when I wanted to talk about painting violins?
Getting back to my question, could please paint me playing my violin. It would really make me smile.
A Letter From Kandinsky
Thank you very much for your letter. Jackson Pollock had insisted I’d be next, but you never can be sure. There must be plenty of other artists who you admire starting with K.
Nothing would delight me more than painting you playing your violin. However, I should warn you that I’ve developed a new minimalist style where nothing actually goes on the page. I know that sounds very much like Hans Christian Andersen’s classic: The Emperor’s New Clothes. However, please trust me. It’s been liberating…just like painting nude. John Lennon got me into that.
Let’s make a time.
Featured Image: Composition VII 1913– The State Tretyakov Gallery
References & Further Reading
Kandinsky, “Steps” an autobiographic novella