Marking the150th Anniversary of Wassily Kandinsky's Birth

Natalia Avtonomova

Article: 
CURRENT EXHIBITIONS
Magazine issue: 
#2 2017 (55)

In 2016 the art world celebrated the 150th anniversary of the birth of Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944). In Russia, the country where Kandinsky, the founder and theoretical architect of abstract art, was born, this was marked by a number of exhibitions in the country's major museums, as well as international conferences hosted by the leading Moscow higher educational institutions.

The celebration began with a remarkable project titled “Wassily Kandinsky: Counterpoint. ‘Composition VI’ - ‘Composition VII’”, a cooperation between the Tretyakov Gallery, the Hermitage, and the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art. It was the first time since the iconic 1989 Kandinsky retrospectives in Moscow and St. Petersburg that the artist’s two famous masterpieces, his expressive abstract compositions painted in 1913, were shown in the same exhibition space. This innovative format allowed for a kind of dialogue between these two paintings created in the same year: their diverging tone and contrasting artistic expression illustrated the artist’s evolution by giving voice to the emotional intensity and dramatic events in Europe before World War One.

As part of the same project, the Garage Museum held an international seminar “Who’s Afraid of Kandinsky? Exhibiting Wassily Kandinsky in the 21st Century”, an event that served to exchange new ideas about the place of Kandinsky’s heritage and the Russian avant-garde in the context of contemporary museum practices. The organizers of the artist’s first retrospectives and the curators of the latest projects dedicated to his oeuvre alike shared their analysis of Kandinsky’s works, as well as their plans and ideas for future shows and related programmes.

In autumn 2016 a major anniversary exhibition of the artist opened at the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg. The show focused on those works that the artist painted in Russia, so major St. Petersburg, Moscow and regional museums, as well as private collectors, lent works that put special emphasis on the national roots of Kandinsky’s art. By including works by Kandinsky’s fellow artists who shared his ideas and were members of numerous contemporary artistic associations, the show’s organizers significantly broadened its scope.

In November 2016 the Institute of Art History at the Russian Academy of Arts hosted the XXVII Alpatov conference on Kandinsky’s heritage, with talks on his work as an artist, art theorist and educator. In December, Moscow State University, the Russian State University for the Humanities and the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts held another international conference, “Wassily Kandinsky: Synthesis of Arts, Synthesis of Cultures”, dedicated to questions of cross-cultural dialogue, the relationship between science and art, and the analysis of the universal language of form in art, music and poetry.

Moscow’s Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts opened another anniversary exhibition in December 2016, “Bagatelles by Wassily Kandinsky. Paintings on Glass, Watercolours, Drawings. 1915-1920”. Many museums lent works from their collections, including the Russian Museum (four paintings on glass, including “Amazon with Blue Lions”, “Amazon in the Mountains” (both 1918)), the Appolinary and Viktor Vasnetsov Vyatka Regional Museum and the Yaransk Natural History Museum (including “Non-objective Composition”, a study for “Composition in Red and Black”, “Watercolour”, “Drawing”, all 1915), the Museum of Ceramics at the Kuskovo 18th Century Country Estate and the Moscow Stroganov University of Art and Industry (painted china tableware designed by Kandinsky, 1920s), as well as the Azerbaijan National Museum of Art (“Lady with Flower” and “Rider”, both 1917). Visitors to the exhibition had a chance to see 70 works by Kandinsky in all; for the first time a significant number of his paintings on glass, executed with the use of a unique technique, as well as his drawings of 1915-1920 (a period when Kandinsky returned to representational art) were shown in the same space.

Visitors also had the first opportunity to see seven works by Kandinsky’s wife, Nina - six from the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, one from the Azerbaijan National Museum of Art.

At the time of his departure for Berlin in December 1921 Kandinsky was forced to leave behind all the works he had painted in Moscow, to be temporarily housed at the 2nd Museum of New Western European Painting. When the artist became a German citizen in 1928, his works that remained in Russia were nationalized and distributed among Soviet museums.

Kandinsky lived a long and eventful life. Twice he became an immigrant - initially from Russia, then from Germany. During the Nazi years in Germany his work was deemed “degenerative art” and local museums were eager to get rid of his paintings, while in Soviet Russia the state art ideology meant that his works remained in museum storerooms, with the public denied the chance to see them.

Two national traditions, those of Russia and Germany, were at the core of Kandinsky’s art, and two cities, Moscow and Munich, played equally important roles in it. The artist was born in Moscow and attended university there: while living abroad, he would travel back to his native city almost every year, drawing inspiration and strength from Moscow’s distinctive, original beauty. In Munich, the European art education centre of the time, Kandinsky enjoyed his first success and recognition as the founder of the Munich New Artists’ Association and the “Blue Rider” (Der Blaue Reiter) group. World War One disrupted Kandinsky’s plans: as a Russian citizen, he had to leave Germany. After spending two months in Switzerland, he finally made his way home to Russia in September 1914; close to 250 paintings and 600 drawings were left behind in Germany.

From December 1914 to December 1921 Kandinsky lived in Moscow - a period of seven years that was both happy and tragic. In early 1916, he was in Sweden for a solo show and saw Gabriele MQnter for the last time. Those were also the years when he married Nina Andreevskaya, lost his young son Vsevolod (1917-1920), and experienced serious financial difficulties.

In September 1916 Kandinsky met his future wife Nina, the daughter of a Russian army captain killed during the siege of Port Arthur, at the Alexander III Museum of Fine Arts (now the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts). In May of the same year they had first talked on the telephone, and the artist fell in love with her voice (he even created a watercolour titled “To the Unknown Voice”, now held in the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts). After their wedding, the couple went to Finland and spent their honeymoon in Imatra, a small place famous for its rapids; Kandinsky’s watercolour “Imatra” (Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts) reflects the fairy tale, idyllic mood of the newly married couple.

Between 1916 and 1921 Kandinsky did not finish a single major painting. This was his time for exploration and giving up abstraction to return to representational art. Kandinsky worked on watercolours, drawings, and etchings; inspired by the Bavarian folk tradition of Hinterglasmalerei, he also painted on glass. This complex optical and colour technique of applying oil paints to the reverse surface of a glass panel accords with the viewer’s tendency to visually assess a composition from left to right. The tradition has been known and practiced since the 15th century, and became popular with 19th century folk artists in Austria, Bavaria, Bohemia and southern Russia. Kandinsky was an avid collector of old German icons on glass, as well as lubok popular Russian folk prints, and wooden toys.

In 1911-1912 he painted a series of neo-primitivist religious compositions on glass. He was captivated by the iconography of St. George and the dragon, and the romantic image of the Saint on horseback became Kandinsky’s personal emblem, a symbol of striving and victory. The Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts lent the exhibition its collection of lubok prints and a photograph of Kandinsky in Munich: the artist sits at his desk, with his collection of lubok prints and paintings on glass displayed on the wall behind him.

While living in Moscow, Kandinsky created a series of abstract watercolours and numerous paintings on glass. In his primitivist genre scenes he returned to the representational manner of his early symbolist works of 1908-1909. The artist called them bagatelles, from the French word for “trifles” or “little things”. The word “bagatelle” is more commonly used as a term for small-scale musical forms; Beethoven, Liszt, Dvorak, as well as Kandinsky’s contemporaries Bartok and Webern, each created such works.

Kandinsky’s “Bagatelles” are neo-romantic - decorative and stylized, they often allude to medieval images. Even though they are narrative in nature, it is hard to establish a connection with any fairy tale based on mythological themes; as for his painterly technique, Kandinsky used abstract lines and colour motifs. The exhibition introduced the viewer to the world of Kandinsky’s “Bagatelles” by way of religious paintings on glass from South Germany (late 19th-early 20th century, from the collection of Vladimir Spivakov) and decorative black-and-white prints depicting elegant ladies and gallant knights from the collection “Poems without Words” (1903-1904, Chapkin private collection).

Kandinsky created close to 27 paintings on glass in the period 1916-1918. The technique required that he first prepare the drawings and then transfer the composition on to the back of the glass panel. Several of those pairs (preparatory drawing and matching painting on glass) survive: “Lady with Flower”, “Madonna with Child”, “Accordion Player” (all 1917) depict gallant scenes with ladies and gentlemen enjoying their leisure against the background of country estates and luxurious expanses of water, or pastoral motifs with cows grazing in a meadow. Two compositions, “Two Ladies. Akhtyrka” and “Golden Cloud” show Kandinsky’s wife Nina and her sister Tatyana in 1917, during the summer they spent in the countryside close to Abramtsevo and the famous country estate of Akhtyrka, not far from Moscow. Three glass panels show elegant ladies on their galloping horses; like the mythical Amazons, these are skilful riders, shown in motion, as if in the middle of a jump, soaring over the landscape, the hills, the mansions, the parks with their lion sculptures. Kandinsky’s glass “Bagatelles” are dedicated to both Biedermeier-era characters and national Russian fairy tale motifs. The artist’s interpretation is ironic: he often starts playfully, in jest, and ends up with something grotesque.

Along with such representational-style watercolours, Kandinsky created a series of abstract graphic compositions, which served as a unique “exercise” before he commenced his major, seminal works. His watercolours of 1915-1920 have earned their place in history as small masterpieces executed with precise mastery and virtuoso artistic expression. Some of the watercolours gravitate towards Kandinsky’s expressive abstract works of the 1910s, while others represent his new, purely geometrical approach. The latter works are characterized by their colder palette, with a dominant rational basis. The tendency towards geometrical compositions is clearly present in Kandinsky’s interior design projects, as well as his porcelain designs: the exhibition presented cups with saucers produced at the former Imperial and Dulyovo porcelain factories, painted with designs by Kandinsky.

Six drawings by Kandinsky (1915-1919) from the Appolinary and Viktor Vasnetsov Vyatka Regional Museum and the Yaransk Natural History Museum were exhibited in 1921 at the 3rd Travelling Arts exhibition in the town of Sovietsk in the Kirov province. Fifty-five artists showed more than 300 of their works at this exhibition, among them well-known masters such as Varvara Bubnova, Alexander Drevin, Alexander Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova, Nicolai Fechin, David Shterenberg, and others. The exhibition was touring the Kirov province when its financing ran out: it had reached the small town of Yaransk, so it “stopped” there, and all the works ended up in the collection of the local natural history museum. Only quite recently, at the beginning of this century, were Kandinsky’s watercolours discovered there, catalogued as works by an unknown artist. The watercolours were attributed to Kandinsky and the discovery was announced to the artistic and museum community.

Of the four paintings on glass and four appliques shown at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts Kandinsky exhibition, four works are associated with Nina Kandinskaya. The technique of painting on the reverse of a glass panel became a kind of “initiation into art” for the artist’s young wife. Her first experiments with this genre are defined by their family life and shared creative pursuits. Nina’s paintings on glass “A Stroll” and “Sleeping Woman” (both 1917) are both based on Kandinsky’s earlier drawings, while “Scene with Phaeton” is based on a drawing by an unknown artist. The shiny tinfoil appliques depict fantastical oriental characters in a slightly ironic manner; “Three Idols”, “On a Dog” and “In the Armchair” form a curious kind of a triptych. The most touching and naive applique is “Flowers”: executed on an underlay of pleated paper, it has a personal note inscribed on the reverse, “To Vasik [a nickname for Wassily] with my boundless love. Forever yours, Nina. Congratulations on July 15 1918.” July 15 was Wassily’s saint’s day.

Nina and Wassily were married for 30 years and never spent a day apart. A special love and mutual understanding kept them close. “When Kandinsky died, I thought: ‘This is the end of everything...’ In my eyes, there wasn’t a man born who could compare to Kandinsky. So I focused all my energy on working to preserve his heritage, which revived me and gave my life a new and wonderful meaning,” Nina wrote in her memoir.

To mark Kandinsky’s anniversary, the “21st Century Art” publishing house has issued the first Russian translation of Nina Kandinsky’s memoir “Kandinsky and I”: it gives the public the chance to learn much more about the years Kandinsky spent at both the Bauhaus and in Paris.

Illustrations

WASSILY KANDINSKY. Accordion Player. 1917
WASSILY KANDINSKY. Accordion Player. 1917
Oil on glass. 23.5 × 19.6 cm. Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts
WASSILY KANDINSKY. Imatra. 1917
WASSILY KANDINSKY. Imatra. 1917
Watercolour on paper, brush. 22.9 × 28.9 cm. Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts
WASSILY KANDINSKY. Composition J. “To the Unknown Voice”. 1916
WASSILY KANDINSKY. Composition J. “To the Unknown Voice”. 1916
Watercolour on paper. 31 × 20.5 cm. Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts
WASSILY KANDINSKY. Drawing. 1915
WASSILY KANDINSKY. Drawing. 1915
Ink on paper. 33.6 × 22.8 cm. Yaransk Natural History Museum
WASSILY KANDINSKY. Watercolour. 1915
WASSILY KANDINSKY. Watercolour. 1915
Watercolour on paper. 21 × 26.8 cm. Yaransk Natural History Museum
WASSILY KANDINSKY. Non-objective Composition. 1915
WASSILY KANDINSKY. Non-objective Composition. 1915
Watercolour on paper. 33.7 × 22.4 cm. The Appolinary and Viktor Vasnetsov Vyatka Regional Museum
WASSILY KANDINSKY. Study for “Composition in Red and Black”. 1915
WASSILY KANDINSKY. Study for “Composition in Red and Black”. 1915
Watercolour on paper. 23 × 33.9 cm. The Appolinary and Viktor Vasnetsov Vyatka Regional Museum
WASSILY KANDINSKY. Golden Cloud. 1918
WASSILY KANDINSKY. Golden Cloud. 1918
Oil on glass. 24 × 31 cm. Russian Museum
WASSILY KANDINSKY. Rider. 1917
WASSILY KANDINSKY. Rider. 1917
Oil on glass. 14 × 10.6 cm. Azerbaijan National Museum of Art, Baku
WASSILY KANDINSKY. Madonna with Child. 1917
WASSILY KANDINSKY. Madonna with Child. 1917
Oil on glass. 21.5 × 19.5 cm. Azerbaijan National Museum of Art, Baku
WASSILY KANDINSKY. Poems without Words. 1903–1904
WASSILY KANDINSKY. Poems without Words. 1903–1904
Cover
23 × 16.1 cm; 23.4 × 16.5 cm
Spectators
7.4 × 13.7 cm; 9.1 × 14.6 cm
Serpent
5.5 × 15.8 cm; 7.1 cm × 16.3 cm
Mountain Lake
9.3 × 14.8 cm
Woodcut. Tretyakov Gallery
WASSILY KANDINSKY. Composition VI. 1913
WASSILY KANDINSKY. Composition VI. 1913
Oil on canvas. 195 × 300 cm. Hermitage
WASSILY KANDINSKY. Composition VII. 1913
WASSILY KANDINSKY. Composition VII. 1913
Oil on canvas. 200 × 300 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
WASSILY KANDINSKY. Lady with Flower. 1917
WASSILY KANDINSKY. Lady with Flower. 1917
Oil on glass. 16 × 13 cm. Azerbaijan National Museum of Art, Baku
WASSILY KANDINSKY. Two Ladies. Akhtyrka. 1917
WASSILY KANDINSKY. Two Ladies. Akhtyrka. 1917
Watercolour on paper. 27 × 19.6 cm. Private collection, Moscow
WASSILY KANDINSKY. Amazon with Blue Lions. 1918
WASSILY KANDINSKY. Amazon with Blue Lions. 1918
Oil on glass. 34.2 × 24.2 cm. Russian Museum
WASSILY KANDINSKY. Amazon in the Mountains. 1918
WASSILY KANDINSKY. Amazon in the Mountains. 1918
Oil on glass. 31 × 24.7 cm. Russian Museum
NINA KANDINSKAYA. Sleeping Woman. (Based on Wassily Kandinsky’s earlier drawing). 1918
NINA KANDINSKAYA. Sleeping Woman. (Based on Wassily Kandinsky’s earlier drawing). 1918
Oil on glass. 12.5 × 16 cm. Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts
NINA KANDINSKAYA. A Stroll. (Based on Wassily Kandinsky’s earlier drawing). 1917
NINA KANDINSKAYA. A Stroll. (Based on Wassily Kandinsky’s earlier drawing). 1917
Oil, foil on glass. 14 × 12.5 cm. Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts
NINA KANDINSKAYA. Scene with Phaeton
NINA KANDINSKAYA. Scene with Phaeton
Oil on glass. 10.5 × 15.5 cm. Azerbaijan National Museum of Art, Baku
NINA KANDINSKAYA. A Vase with Flowers. 1918
NINA KANDINSKAYA. A Vase with Flowers. 1918
Oil, foil on paper. 13.7 × 10.5 cm. Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts
NINA KANDINSKAYA. Three Idols
NINA KANDINSKAYA. Three Idols
Oil on paper. 16 × 12.4 cm. Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts
NINA KANDINSKAYA. On a Dog
NINA KANDINSKAYA. On a Dog
Tempera, foil on paper. 15.7 × 12.4 cm. Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts
NINA KANDINSKAYA. In the Armchair
NINA KANDINSKAYA. In the Armchair
Oil, foil on paper. 15.7 × 12.4 cm. Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts
A Cup with a Saucer. 1920s
A Cup with a Saucer. 1920s
Painted with design by Wassily Kandinsky. Dulyovo porcelain factory. Porcelain, overglaze painting
Height of the cup – 6.8 cm
Diameter of the saucer – 14 cm
Museum of Ceramics at the Kuskovo 18th Century Country Estate
A Cup with a Saucer. 1920s
A Cup with a Saucer. 1920s
Painted with design by Wassily Kandinsky. Porcelain, overglaze painting
Height of the cup – 5 cm
Diameter of the saucer – 14.5 cm
Moscow Stroganov University of Art and Industry

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