JB and I drove to the Milwaukee Art Museum last week to see the Wassily Kandinsky Retrospective. The show was put together by the Pompidou Center in Paris of pieces donated to them by Kandinsky’s widow that he had personally kept for himself as well as several pieces on loan from other museums.
Kandinsky is credited as the originator of pure abstract art. He was also a theorist on art, writing several treatises on his ideas including Concerning the Spiritual in Art 1912 and Point and Line to Plane 1926. He was a firm believer that art was in fact very spiritual and that art had to reflect the inner life of the artist, “inner necessity” as he described this fervor of the spirit and inner beauty.
Originally a lawyer in Russia, he began art lessons when he was 30, giving up a prestigious opportunity to teach law at the University of Dorpat, instead going to Munich to continue his art studies. In 1911 Franz Marc and Kandinsky formed the Blue Rider. When World War One occurred beginning in 1914, Kandinsky went back to Russia (as a Russian citizen, he needed to leave Germany). After the war, in 1922, he was invited to teach at the Bauhaus in Weimar Germany. When the Nazis closed the Bauhaus in 1933, Kandinsky went to Paris where he died in 1944.
The structure of the exhibit is chronological so one can see him grappling with styles at the beginning of his career (including impressionism and art nouveau), becoming more abstract yet still somewhat representational, to eventual total abstraction. A plethora of media are on display including paintings, lithographs, dry points, woodblock prints, and linocuts. His works are compositionally striking, colorful, and sophisticated.
Some believe Kandinsky had synaesthasia which is a condition where stimulation of one sense leads to the experience of a second sense. The sensations of sound and color seem to have been simultaneously experienced by Kandinsky and he often equated the two in his writings (and some of the titles of his pieces). After seeing Wagner’s opera Lohengrin in Moscow, he said, “…I saw all my colours in spirit, before my eyes. Wild, almost crazy lines were sketched in front of me…”
This is all to say that wandering through this exhibit was like experiencing a sonata— Kandinsky’s “exposition,” even in his earliest representational works, where the signatures were already there; through the “development” of his abstractions exploding with color, exuberance, and “inner necessity;” finally “recapitulating” at the end of his life where the visual themes are recognizable and familiar, but somehow more intimate and distilled.
As Kandinsky instructed us, “… lend your ears to music, open your eyes to painting, and … stop thinking! 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?”