Kandinsky Unlocked Abstraction

Guggenheim museum's Soho branch traces his career from 1911-44

IN ``The Bells,'' a classic example of onomatopoeia, Edgar Allan Poe tried to simulate the sound of bells jingling. He even invented a word ``tintinnabulation'' to approximate the tinkling sound of his subject. Russian-born Wassili Kandinsky (1866-1944) believed certain hues could ``ring'' and stir the soul as directly as music. Where the poet used words, the painter used lines, shapes, and color to create a language that could be ``heard'' everywhere, as universal as a melody.

Kandinsky's experiments in painting resulted in a turning point in Western art. He is credited with exhibiting in 1910 the first totally abstract, or nonobjective, painting - a watercolor. An exhibition of 80 watercolors by Kandinksy can be seen at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum's SoHo branch through August. The selection shows 30 years (1911-44) of this pioneer abstractionist's art that radically changed the concept of what a painting is.

Early watercolors on display like ``Study for Improvisation 28''(1911-12) reveal two things. First, how ``improvisation'' is a misnomer for the major oil paintings based on these watercolor sketches. Kandinsky planned and placed every ``spontaneous'' dash and dot. Second, allusions to landscape elements like hills and grass frequently recur in these ``abstract'' works. Although Kandinsky tried to rid his paintings of realistic references, which he believed ``harmed'' the pictures, his liberation from the material was incomplete. Throughout his career, he only partially transformed the visible world into a hybrid realm of his own creation.

In 1908, purely by accident, Kandinsky experienced a road-to-Damascus revelation of the power of nonrepresentational art. Returning one night to his studio, he was thunderstruck by, he wrote, a ``picture of indescribable and incandescent loveliness.'' He could discern no recognizable object, just vivid patches of color, but it spoke to his senses like a flourish of trumpets. The painting was his own, turned sideways, and this encounter solidified his determination to rise above what Marcel Duchamp termed merely ``retinal'' art. Kandinsky forsook art that imitated appearances to render feelings and ideas.

These watercolors show the working out of this crucial insight. They also offer a tour of important art movements, as refracted through an abstractionist vocabulary. In ``Picnic'' (1916), a playful watercolor Kandinsky termed a ``trifle,'' he uses the curvilinear lines and organic motifs of Art Nouveau.

Works from the 1920s, after Kandinsky joined the technocratic utopian school called the Bauhaus, show a shift in sensibility. His earlier dense compositions of soft, coiling daubs of paint are replaced by taut planes and geometrical shapes laid out with straight-edge, as in ``Untitled'' (1922).

In his late Bauhaus period, Kandinsky produced his masterpieces. To create diffuse backgrounds and hazy atmospheric effects, he sprayed paint with an atomizer or through a straw. In ``Horizontal Blue'' (1929), a red square hovers above overlapping horizontal and vertical lines. The extreme simplicity of the composition vibrates with the ``inner resonance'' Kandinsky sought. In ``Evasive'' (1929), ethereal circles melt into each other with seamless transition, like the shifting colors of twilight. Thin washes of color in ``Bridged'' (1932) define shapes as stately, stable, and timeless as Stonehenge.

Many works are like textbook illustrations for his theory that colors and shapes induce emotions. He equated squares, for example, with calm, triangles with aggression, green with tranquillity, and white with silence. In ``Hard but Soft'' (1927) the artist juxtaposed ``soft'' (curvy, organic) with ``hard'' (linear, geometric) shapes.

As formulaic as this sounds, the art drawn on these theories is more than a pastiche of Pavlovian stimuli. Kandinsky, an amateur cellist, aimed to transcend the particular and achieve the same ``klang,'' or sound, of ``spiritual vibration'' that he experienced on first hearing Wagner's ``Lohengrin.'' According to the artist, painting could convey spiritual meaning when liberated from descriptive functions.

Exiled from Russia by the Bolshevik revolution and from Germany by the rise of Nazism, Kandinsky spent his last decade in France. To paraphrase the poet Derek Walcott, Kandinsky had ``no nation but the imagination.'' Having formerly assimilated elements like the Fauves' intense, expressive color during his ``Blue Rider'' period in Munich and then the hard-edged, architectonic structuring of the Bauhaus, he next appropriated the biomorphic imagery rampant among the Parisian Surrealists.

The last of four galleries of watercolors pulsates with curved shapes resembling primitive cellular organisms such as the ``cavorting beasties'' the early microscopist Leeuwenhoek reported in a drop of pond water. Rather derivative, Kandinsky's late work resembles decorative patterning.

Although Kandinsky aspired to equate ineffable emotions with geometry, his art owes more to Mozart than Euclid. At his best, as in ``Bright Sound'' (1923), Kandinsky melded diverse notes into a unified ensemble. Kandinsky sounded a wake-up call for Modernist art. Henceforth, it would be less objective and increasingly subjective.

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