”This exhibition follows Wassily Kandinsky’s intriguing journey from figurative landscape painter to modernist master, as he strove to develop a radically abstract language.”
Sometimes it’s all too easy to react. What’s more, the rarified air of galleries can stir this in you. You find your brain vying with the documentation and curatorial efforts, as if they’re all part of some conspiracy conjured up to keep us apart from the pictures. (Albeit a conspiracy conjured up by the very people showing us the pictures.) I do this myself and I know I do.
Of course the world has no shortage of educated idiots, and with Modernism in particular there’s aspects that are almost always (if not consciously) suppressed. But if all you do is react you’re never actually acting – you’re just being somebody else’s mirror image. It’s more likely the problem here lies in reducing art to mere words, and in so doing tying it down to a neat narrative.
‘The Path to Abstraction’ is more a sound-bite concept that fits neatly on a poster than some plot. But it's still reducing Kandinsky's career to a “path”, a “journey”, a series of linear “developments” we can cut up neatly into successive rooms like marking it out with milestones.
The exhibition “focuses on the early, exploratory period of his career, as he moved from early observations of landscape towards fully abstract compositions.” (So says Kate Pau in the catalogue). The first two rooms therefore offer us the Fauvist Kandinsky, but their benefit in being there lies in “offer[ing] a foretaste of his later explorations into the use of colour”.
This skating over Fauvism is so common as to be almost orthodox. Fauvism is like the middle child who parent attention skipped over. Indeed, it suffers from something of a double whammy. See Modernism as a linear series of formal innovations and Fauvism becomes incidental, a staging-post, a way-station on the road from Impressionism to Expressionism. On a more popular level, Fauvism lacks the big hitter that can turn a Tate show into a blockbuster. No Monet, no Picasso, no Dali. (Matisse is the exception to the rule, except he’s rarely popularly associated with Fauvism.)
Personally I find Fauvism, with its solid blocks of bright and often unexpected colours, somewhere I’m happy to linger. (See for example 'Landscape With Factory Chimney', 1910, above.) I enjoy the similarity not just between it and folk art but much commercial art. (Commercial art presumably uses the style more due to skimping on printing processes than any fancy philosophising. But then so did folk art.) But mostly I just enjoy it, the juxtaposition of realist and non-realist styles appeals to something deep in my brain I couldn’t vocalise. (Something Kandinsky himself would have been proud to hear!) I even found myself taking a guilty pleasure in the perspectives used, the key element expunged by abstraction, like indulging in the last piece of chocolate before Lent.
Try this for an angle: “Kandinsky’s paintings during the years immediately preceding the First World War often convey a dramatic sense of a world on the verge of destruction… An artistic revolution was also underway, with Kandinsky emerging as one of the key figures.” Now just wouldn’t that make a great montage on 'The South Bank Show', World War One trenches morphing into Kandinskian colour and all that? From this angle the pictures are scanned for elements representing cannons and swords, as if it was the violence of the world around him which drove Kandinsky off into the arms of the abstract.
In 'The Last Judgement' (1912, above), for example, a figure is described as cowering before a trumpet. Now there are dark paintings on show here, but they all follow a fairly simple code. One of the codes is that they’re always …um… dark. This one could hardly be painted in brighter colours and still be visible without sunglasses! Moreover, the “cowering” figure may possibly have her hands over her ears, but could as easily be said to be kneeling in prayer. Compositionally she’s not recoiling against the trumpeter but facing the same way. It’s like they’re alongside each other.
Certainly, Kandinsky was no bloodless New Ager who shied from savagery. All his works of this era have a dynamic, convulsive quality, and there’s often a sense that they are storms. But there’s a greater, and finally overpowering, sense that they are dances.
I see Kandinsky as a more spiritual than political figure, always asking what was universal and rarely what was particular. With bombs going off around him, he’d probably just ponder the mystery of the purple rectangle regardless. I don’t imagine war somehow ‘abstracted’ him from the world and I don’t think he was ‘driven’ down that path in any case. If there is a narrative journey towards abstraction here, it’s one of revelation more than damnation.
His great compositions have a sweep and swirl to them. (See 'Improvisation Gorge',, 1914, above.) As you stand before them you won’t fix on their entirety so much as take in one then another element, you eye being pulled backwards and forwards like exploring a city across it’s criss-cross tramlines rather than surveying it from outside and above. His favourite Biblical image, the deluge and flood, is partly a metaphor for the journey from solidity to swirling liquid.
If the hippies hadn’t run off with the word, we’d be able to call Kandinsky truly cosmic. The transition from Room One (Fauvist) to Room Nine (Abstract) merely mirror the changes he hoped to see in the world, changes he hoped to help magic into being by depicting them. He’s not fearing apocalpse but pining for revelation, the time we can just cast off the outer forms which divide everything and inter-mingle.
Kandinsky asked the viewer, should they notice any representational elements, not to comment on them. But there’s more to this than just good manners, like not telling the critic whose just been on the Late Review his flies were undone. The best way to approach these impressions, improvisations and compositions is to just go with the flow, open yourself up to their suggestion. If one thing looks like a face, a boat or a ladder and another just the sweep of a line, don’t dwell too much on the distinction.
In life our sight passes between 'abstract' and 'non-abstract' images all the time. Walking down the street our eye might flit betwen on a pattern of cracks in the pavement and a tree or a shop window. This doesn't cause us much concern, so I don't see why it should if the two things were in a painting.
Pretty soon the sense that these pictures aren’t completely abstract, and the attendant notion that it’s hard to tell when they are from when they aren’t, stops being a problem and starts becoming part of the pleasure of looking at them. It’s like listening to a song or reading a poem. By seting yourself the task of deciphering it you’re just going to bypass the point for the sake of a thousand trivial details. We’re here being asked to do the same thing the other way up, expunge the representational for the sake of the abstract. But it is the same thing – and it’s not the most useful thing.
And all art is abstract if you choose to look at it that way, an arrangement of lines and coloured shapes on a canvas. Abstraction in art is like ambience in music, more a way of looking at or responding to art than a way of creating art. Even if some works try harder to evoke such a response, all can be responded to that way. Equally our eyes are adept at picking scenes and images from clouds or out of the grain of wood. When we stop to look at a painting we can sometimes listen to the polemicists more than we do our own senses. We shouldn’t.
Partly the problem comes from the ‘ism’-ness of Modernism, which in a way was the supreme ‘ism’. Modernism was widely written about, in fact in some ways it existed to be written about in a way previous art movements hadn’t. The art most written about is often that which is most easily written about, which takes a concept or theory and exemplifies it. But the art best remembered is often that which takes a bunch of seemingly incongruous or even contradictory concepts and notions and holds them in perfect balance.
This problem could even turn inward, like a particularly nasty toenail. Modernists frequently felt obliged to come up with grand high-faulutin’ theories to justify their daubs, and it wasn’t always to the work’s benefit. Mondrian was a classic example of an artist who was far better when just flailing around, before he boxed his thinking up into his grand scheme.
Kandinsky wrote voluminously, if not always coherently. But perhaps the secret of his talent is that he was willing to follow his nose. Draw something over and over, and pretty soon it will start looking more and more codified. When you see yourself doing that, you can fight against it (like you’re supposed) or go with it to see where it takes you. I suspect the origins of Kandinsky’s abstraction lie far more in such roots than in any grand narrative of advancing art.
And his paintings are great not because they finally reach the point where they expunge the representational for the abstract, but because they mix the two up so... well, I think the word is carelessly, though in the positive sense. Ernst employed a thousand tricks and devices to leave the viewer unsure what they were actually looking at, as it created a potent ambiguity and forced the viewer to take a far less passive role. Kandinsky just swung it like a natural. His great paintings are like that song or poem you figure must be about something but can never quite pin down to what, so you always want to go back to it.
Perhaps another weakness of this “path to…” stuff is that we only get one tiny room at the end for the later, geometric Kandinsky (such as 'Circles On Black', 1921, above) – as a kind of post-script. Of course there might well be too much to the man’s career than could be captured in a single exhibition, but there’s significance in fixing on the beginning and middle of the story rather than the finale. These Bauhaus-era works may appear more stately, more considered than the convulsive early abstracts but ultimately they’re my personal favourite Kandinskys.
Coming Soon! More on abstraction and semi-abstraction in the arts...