For Kandinsky, less was more

The path the painter Wassily Kandinsky excitingly trod on his way to abstraction consisted more of highly original experiment and intuition than fierce logic or rational analysis.

It wasn't a sudden revelation. He wasn't a figurative painter one day and a completely abstract one the next.

His path to abstraction, celebrated in an exhibition first shown at London's Tate Modern and now (until Feb 4, 2007) at the Kunstmuseum, Basel, Switzerland, shows him to have been an artist of his time. He was initially influenced by such forerunners as Van Gogh, Monet, Matisse, and Russian fairy-tale illustrator Ivan Bilibin.

Just as significant an inspiration was found, however, not in another artist, but in a composer – Wagner. Kandinsky discovered similarities between this sweeping, emotional music and the new dynamics of color and movement he visualized for painting.

His development of such a radical notion led him to making paintings in which color and finally, also line were liberated from their traditional functions as the means by which a painter described the features of a visibly recognizable world.

His contention was that the less descriptive a painting was, the more effectively it could be a kind of visual music, working directly on the feelings, as music does, without the limits imposed by the need to imitate the appearance of people, landscapes, buildings, and so forth.

Yet his paintings along the way are alive with narratives, events, figures, landscapes, and so on. Still, these motifs were increasingly disguised – or rendered ambiguous – by a rich, self-generated dynamism of movement, color, and line. Finally he arrived at what is claimed to be his first purely abstract painting, "Composition VII" of 1913.

It seems that Kandinsky struggled to retain the fullness and activity of conventional painting. His aim was not empty space or vacuity, but a space in which the imagination, feeling, thought, and fantasy could expand multidimensionally.

Paintings resulted that were almost frenetic with expressive activity – abstract, yet somehow still tied to the physical world; weightless yet substantial; cosmic in their distances, but close-up; tangible, even confrontational.

'Kandinsky, Malerie 1908 to 1921' is at the Kunstmuseum, Basel, Switzerland, until Feb. 4, 2007.

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