Natalia Avtonomova

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Exhibitions of paintings by the prominent artist and art theorist Wassily Kandinsky, one of the leaders of the avant-garde movement, became a significant event in the cultural life of Norway at the beginning of the 20th century. Kandinsky's works were exhibited there twice, first in 1914 at the "Der Blaue Reiter" (Blue Rider) exhibition (in Christiania, now Oslo, in February-March, and in Trondheim in April-May), and then in April-June 1916, at a joint exhibition with the German artist Gabriele Munter in Christiania.

The Blue Rider show, organized in 1913 by Galerie Der Sturm in Berlin, was slightly modified to tour other European cities. In 1914, it came to Oslo; five of Kandinsky's important works were exhibited there -"Composition V" (1911), "Pastoral" (1913), and three improvisations.

The Blue Rider circle of artists took shape in 1911 in Munich. Along with the Dresden group "Die Brucke" (The Bridge), it formed the core of a new movement in art - German expressionism. Blue Rider was a free artistic association that brought together many cultural figures from various countries: August Macke, Gabriele Munter, Heinrich Campendonk, Alfred Kubin, Henri Le Fauconnier, Albert Bloch, Robert Delaunay, David and Vladimir Burliuk, Thomas De Hartmann, Arnold Schoenberg, and others.

Headed by Kandinsky and Franz Marc, the group's main activity was organizing exhibitions in Munich and publishing in 1912 the "Blue Rider Almanac", which gained extraordinary popularity. The artists believed that the almanac should reflect events in various areas of cultural life of their time, and took charge in preparing it. The main idea behind the "synthetic" book, as they called it, was to compare different periods and artistic genres that were not previously considered to constitute common cultural heritage. The publication was planned to reflect the "parallel" existence of both "high" and "primitive" art: "We will put an Egyptian next to a child's drawing, a Chinese next to Rousseau, folk graphics next to Picasso, etc," 1 Kandinsky wrote to Marc in June 1911.

Two international art shows were organized in Munich under the leadership of the almanac's editorial board - the first in December 1911 - January 1912, the second in February-April 1912. 43 works by German, French and Russian artists were exhibited at the first one, while the second, dedicated to graphics, was called "Black-White" and featured close to 300 works by major European masters: Andre Derain, Pablo Picasso, Emil Nolde, Max Pechstein, Natalya Goncharova, Mikhail Larionov, Kazimir Malevich, Gabriele Munter, Wassily Kandinsky and others. The exhibitions toured to European cities. The organizers had planned to take them to Russia as well, but were not able to do so due to financial constraints.

The editors of the almanac opened their first art exhibition at Heinrich Tannhauser's Munich gallery and presented viewers with works by Macke, Munter, Campendonk, Delaunay, the Burliuk brothers, and the composer Arnold Schoenberg. After two weeks in Munich, the show toured Germany and Northern Europe, including Norway; to give a more complete picture of current trends in visual arts, the exhibition was expanded to include works by other artists: Erich Heckel, Ernst Kirchner, Paul Klee, Pechstein, Marianne von Werefkina, Alexej von Jawlensky and Natalya Goncharova. The second Blue Rider exhibition launched the famous Galerie Der Sturm in Berlin - for the next two years the gallery would continue to show the works of contemporary artists. Herwarth Walden, the progressive journalist and publisher of the avant-garde magazine "Der Sturm", organized the exhibition. Georg Muche aptly named him a "creator of a whole artistic empire." It was "Der Sturm" that in 1911 introduced and popularized the term "expressionism", while also providing it with a basis in theory. Thanks to Walden and his magazine, such European masters of modern art as Oskar Kokoschka, Klee, Marc, Macke, Kandinsky, Lyonel Feininger, Marc Chagall and dozens of others became famous. The magazine published polemic articles, critical reviews of art exhibitions, and excerpts from books; for example, in April 1912 it featured an excerpt from Kandinsky's treatise "Concerning the Spiritual in Art". The gallery also held the "Der Sturm evenings".

In spring 1912, when the first Blue Rider exhibition was on its way from Cologne to Bremen, Hagen, and Frankfurt, but before it had arrived at its destination, Kandinsky and Marc received a letter from Walden. It contained an unexpected request to grant him the right to open Galerie Der Sturm with their exhibition. The group responded by putting together a new show, with works by Jawlensky and Werefkina. The first exhibition at Der Sturm opened on March 12 and ran to early April 1912 under the title "Blue Rider. Franz Flaum. Oskar Kokoschka and the Expressionists".

Walden's gallery organized 170 shows in Berlin (out of a total of 250). He introduced expressionist art to other countries and was one of the first in Germany to exhibit and collect the works of Russian avant-garde artists, among them Kandinsky, Chagall, Jawlensky, Archipenko, Yakulov, Puni, Goncharova, Ekster, Boguslavskaya and Werefkina.

Walden's "First German Autumn Salon" (1913) presented 366 works by 90 avant-garde artists from 13 countries, including those of the group, such as Paul Klee and Alfred Kubin. It was one of the most important exhibitions of the "international" avant-garde; it showed modern art as a unified, multi-dimensional pan-European movement with no national divisions. Walden absorbed the concept of a new art that knows no borders, the idea that was conceived by the Blue Rider group, and brilliantly implemented it.

Walden's organizational abilities manifested themselves to an even greater extent during World War I. It was an extremely trying and tragic time for the artistic intelligentsia, and Kandinsky was no exception. When on August 1 1914 it was announced that Germany and Russia were at war, Kandinsky had to leave Munich urgently, before August 3; together with Gabriele Munter, to whom he was bound by many years of friendship and love, he moved to Switzerland, before returning to Russia in December. The two artists saw each other last time in winter 1915-1916 in neutral Stockholm, where Munter emigrated to see Kandinsky.

During the war, Walden and his wife, the Swedish artist Nell Roslund, actively helped to maintain communications between Russia and Germany. It was with their help that Munter moved to Sweden, from where she was able to write to Kandinsky with news from Europe; more importantly, she urged him to come to Stockholm in order to organize a solo exhibition of his art. Judging from their correspondence, they worked actively on it, discussing its composition, the contents of the catalogue, as well as the possibility of selling the English version of Kandinsky's "On the Spiritual in Art". Kandinsky came to Stockholm for Christmas 1915. The exhibition opened on February 1 1916 at the Gummeson Gallery (in September 1915 the gallery had displayed Franz Marc, and was planning to show Gabriele Munter's works in March 1916).

Kandinsky's exhibition included 19 paintings executed between 1909 and 1914, seven etchings, four panels (commissioned by Edwin R. Campbell, an American businessman, for his residence), seven watercolours and two tempera works. Five paintings were brought from Malmo, the site of a large industrial exhibition of the Baltic countries in 1914. At the Malmo exhibition, the visual arts were mostly represented by traditional works; against that background, Kandinsky's abstract canvases and the works of the "Munich Russians", who were leaning towards expressionism, seemed much more innovative. There was a strong public response to the Stockholm exhibition. Many newspapers published reviews; August Brunius defined Kandinsky in his article in "Svenska Dagbladet" as an "extraordinary, irrepressible natural genius, not a barbarian, but a highly educated person with a broad range of interests and a wealth of experience". The article by Selim (Ernst Klein's pseudonym) published in "Dagens Nyheter" was titled "Kandinsky: Composer of Symphonies in Colour. Discovering Russia." 2

During his stay in Sweden, Kandinsky created several watercolours on fairy tales themes and wrote a new work on art theory called "On the Artist", which was published in paperback in Swedish. "Konst" magazine published his other article, "Non-objective Art". Kandinsky was ambivalent about the results of his stay in Sweden. While in April he wrote to Munter that "the exhibition in Stockholm was quite successful" and his "paintings were selling even after it had closed", in November he expressed a different, more pessimistic opinion, stating that due to the war with Germany many of his works could not be shown in Stockholm, and thus sales were low. 3 When the artist returned to Moscow, he had to sell his house due to financial difficulties. "So at the end of the day, I did not get a chance to live in the apartment with a studio that I was building for myself," he wrote in one of his letters. 4

After Munter's solo exhibition in Stockholm in March 1916, some of Kandinsky's works were added to hers, and the joint exhibition was taken to Norway in May of that year. The exhibition took place in the centre of Oslo, in a building that belonged to the well-known philanthropist K. Blomqvist, the same venue that had previously housed the Blue Rider show. The best works by both artists were presented, including 17 pieces by Kandinsky: seven improvisations dating back to 1909-1913, and one of his best compositions, "Composition VI" (1913), paintings and landscapes of the Murnau period, when abstract elements were just beginning to take shape in his art ("Ladies in Crinolines" (1909), "Winter" (1909), "Arabs" (1911)). These works are decorative and filled with resonant colour harmonies. Landscape motifs here are often merely an excuse for creating colourful compositions, and the main expressive significance is transferred to the plastic means of painting.

Such exhibitions of Kandinsky's best works inevitably had an impact on the art and culture of Norway. In her article on Russian-Norwegian ties of that era, the famous Norwegian scholar Marit Werenskiold points out that Kandinsky's exhibitions had a strong influence on the country's artists, such as Henrik S0rensen, Ludvig Karsten, Rudolph Thygesen, and Gustav Vigeland. Gradually, their colour vision was transformed, and more artistic freedom appears in their compositional solutions. 5 From Oslo, the Kandinsky show moved to the Strindberg Salon in Helsingfors (now Helsinki) and later to Nadezhda Dobychina's Art Bureau in Petrograd.

In spring 1916 Kandinsky was in negotiations with Dobychina, the owner of Art Bureau, regarding exhibiting his works in Petrograd. Dobychina's agency was founded in 1912; it was originally located on Divenskaya Street, later moved to number 63 Moika embankment, and in 1914 to number 7 Marsovo Polye. The bureau's goal was not only to organize exhibitions, but also to serve as an intermediary in the art market. In the words of the artist Vladimir Milashevsky, Dobychina was an energetic, enterprising woman, who "was the first one to understand that Russia had 'ripened', matured to the point where selling paintings and managing artists' affairs was a 'business': this woman was the hidden lever of sorts behind many a turn in artists' lives; she did not follow anyone's lead, nor was she intimidated by authority or taken in by friendly publications..." 6

Dobychina's Art Bureau organized Exhibitions of Modern Russian Art, which presented the works of Kazimir Malevich, Lyubov Popova, Marc Chagall and Alexei Grishchenko. There were also solo shows by such artists as Jan Tsyoglinsky (Ciqgliriski) in 1914, Natalya Goncharova in 1915, Alexander Gaush and Abraham Manievich in 1916, Nikolai Kulbin (posthumously) in 1918, and many others. In 1915, the Art Bureau hosted the famous "Last Futurist Exhibition 0,10 /zero-ten/", where 39 suprematist canvases by Malevich were exhibited for the first time, among them his "Black Square", which became the manifesto of modern art.

Dobychina and Kandinsky began discussing the terms of organizing an exhibition of his art as early as 1913, and were planning to hold it in the autumn of that year. However, since Kandinsky's large solo show was underway in Germany and was scheduled to run until February 1914, plans for the exhibition in Russia came to nothing. It was only in autumn 1913 that six of Kandinsky's wood engravings were presented at the Bureau's graphics exhibition; also, seven of his works were part of the Permanent Exhibition of Modern Art; in 1915, three drawings by Kandinsky were exhibited. The "Exhibition of Modern Russian Art" in April 1916 presented his "Picture with White Form" and "Landscape", both from 1913. At about the same time Kandinsky and Dobychina resumed their negotiations regarding a personal exhibition in Petrograd.

Dobychina stayed at a resort in Finland in summer 1916, and visited Kandinsky's exhibition in Helsinki. She described her impressions of Kandinsky's works at the Strindberg Salon in her letter to the artist: "I liked the exhibition a lot; most of the works I saw were not really familiar to me, except two. I also liked the way it was arranged - it was not overwhelming; however, I would like to learn a bit more about different periods in the artist's development. Those were only some of your works, and they do not give me an idea of the artist's [your] oeuvre as a whole. However, the question of personal exhibitions is so controversial, and I am getting so much criticism, that I would like to have a much more serious conversation with you about it." She later added: "Will you be so kind as to tell me when your exhibition at Strindberg's is over? As of now, there is not a single day that I would be available, but something may open up from the end of November to January 1, even though the space is booked - there is talk that the exhibition scheduled for that time might not take place." 7

In his letter of November 1 1916 Kandinsky wrote to Munter that Dobychina was providing him with a hall to exhibit his works in Petrograd. He hoped to show the paintings that at the time were still in Helsingfors and two more that he was still working on and was planning to finish before then. 8 The exhibition in Petrograd opened on November 27 and continued until December 31 1917. It was not strictly speaking a solo show, since other artists took part as well - Natan Altman, David Burliuk, Robert Falk, Alexei Grishchenko, Lyubov Popova, Nikolai Krymov, Ivan Puni and Nadezhda Udaltsova; it was, however, the first major exhibition of Kandinsky's works in Russia. 15 paintings and nine watercolours were presented in a separate hall - mostly the same works that had been exhibited in Sweden, Norway and Finland. In his review of the exhibition published in "Apollon" magazine, Nikolai Punin had some harsh words to say about Kandinsky: "not only do I believe that this artist is profoundly serious, I also believe that he is talented; however, Kandinsky's artistic achievements are minor. As long as his work remains in the realm of the purely spiritual (assuming that there is anything pure in this world), he creates a certain feeling, but when he starts speaking the 'language' of objects, it turns out he is just bad at what he does (i.e., drawing); he becomes a banal and commonplace artist, like the ones that we see so often these days at the 'Mir Iskusstva' [World of Art] exhibitions." 9

The catalogue gives only numbers for the works that were presented at the exhibition: "paintings #79-93, watercolours #94-102". However, Kandinsky left a short entry in his diary indicating which of his works were exhibited there: "Dobychina - 17". Thus, he included the following: "Ladies in Crinolines" (1909, Tretyakov Gallery), "Yellow Cliff" (1909, not preserved), "Winter I" (1909, Hermitage), "Improvisation 4" (1909, Nizhny Novgorod Art Museum), "Improvisation 5" (version 1, 1910, not preserved), "Improvisation 7" (1910, Tretyakov Gallery), "Improvisation 11" (1910, Russian Museum), "Lake" (1910, Tretyakov Gallery), "St. George II" (1911, Russian Museum), "Arabs III" (1911, Yerevan Museum of Fine Arts), "Improvisation 20" (1911, Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts), "Improvisation 25" (Garden of Love, 1911, not preserved), "Black Spot" (1912, Russian Museum). Only two paintings from the 1916 exhibition in Stockholm and the joint exhibition with Munter in Oslo in April 1916 were not mentioned: "Domes" (1909, Astrakhan Art Gallery) and the second study for "Picture with a White Border" (1913, Hermitage). The fate of "Yellow Cliff" is unknown. Two years later, in his letter to Dobychina of July 1919, Kandinsky asked her to release the painting, which had remained after the exhibition, to Alexander Rodchenko and Tsezar Munster; it was not referred to in the receipt Rodchenko signed when he collected Kandinsky's works from Dobychina. The artist's diary mentions that "Yellow Cliff" was lost before the exhibition in Helsingfors 10 (probably it had been bought in Oslo exhibition); it is also conceivable that the above-mentioned 13 paintings and, most likely, the two works not mentioned in the artist's diary ("Domes" and the second study for "Picture with a White Border") were exhibited at Dobychina's Art Bureau in the winter of 1916-1917, after Stockholm, Oslo and Helsinki. The two additional works, which the artist Munter wrote about, were likely watercolours - in the letter to Dobychina of November 23 1916, Kandinsky said: "I hope that Yakovlev has delivered the watercolours to you. Please handle them with care, as they are framed/packaged face up, in the same way as the compositions."11 In the same letter Kandinsky described the troubles he had to go through when delivering the paintings and asked Dobychina to send him the list of the works: "I still do not know exactly what was exhibited in Helsingfors. I need to make a count and have a record. Maybe some are selling, which would make me happy, since the times are hard now."12

During the war years feelings of nationalism and patriotism were on the rise in Russia. Kandinsky recalled that upon his return to Russia, a colleague asked him: "Well, are we going to paint on national themes now?" And Kandinsky continued: "And when the war is over? Almost in all countries they were already singing national songs. However, I was glad I was not one of the singers." 13 The uncertainties of his life, financial difficulties, lack of contact with friends and colleagues, anxiety over the fate of his paintings that remained in Germany, and the breakdown of his plans - all these circumstances created an adverse environment for Kandinsky's work as an artist. Most importantly, the war destroyed the Blue Rider artists' idea - the idea of a single, common European space for the new art that knew no national or temporal borders.


  1. "The Blaue Reiter Almanac" (Edited by Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc). New documentary, edited with an introduction by Klaus Lankheit. N.Y., 1974, pp.15-16.
  2. Barnett V.E. "Kandinsky and Sweden". Malmo, 1989, p. 39
  3. Ibid, p. 73
  4. Avtonomova N. 'Kandinsky's Return to Moscow. Painting and Politics'. In: "New Retrospectives on Kandinsky". Malmo, 1990, pp. 75-76. (Further: Avtomonova N.)
  5. Werenskiold M. "Fra Kirchner til Kandinsky. Die Brucke og Der Blaue Reiter i Kristiania. 1908-1916" In: Kunst og Kultur. Arg. 72 (1989). Nr. 3., pp. 151-152
  6. Milashevsky, V.A. "Yesterday, the Day before Yesterday... An Artist Remembers". Moscow, 1989, pp. 120-121
  7. Avtonomova N. pp. 73-84; Soini Yelena. Finland in Literary and Artistic Heritage of the Russian Avant-garde. Moscow, Nauka Publishers. 2009. Pp. 34 - 39
  8. Ibid, p. 75
  9. Punin N. "In Defence of Painting". Apollon, 1917, #1, pp.61-64
  10. Avtonomova N., p. 75
  11. Ibid
  12. Ibid
  13. Hahl-Koch J. "Kandinsky's Role in the Russian Avant-garde". In: The Avant-garde in Russia. 19101930. New Perspective. Los Angeles. 1980. P. 89





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