Sydney Morning Herald Column


Published November 20, 2023
Vasily Kandinsky, 'White Centre' (1921)

In 1982, the Art Gallery of NSW hosted the show, Kandinsky, which featured 40-odd works from the Guggenheim collection. Forty-one years later, the AGNSW is hosting the show, Kandinsky, which features 40-odd works from the Guggenheim collection. Comparing the two events, the chief difference is that the earlier exhibition ran for only a month, before touring to Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth and Melbourne, whereas the current show will continue in Sydney until 10 March. Within seven months the 1982 show had travelled around Australia, while the 2023 version will spend four months in one venue.

Allowing for the lack of imagination that sees a gallery hold the same international show twice, albeit at an interval of four decades, there are other disappointments. Firstly, this is yet another package exhibition, supplemented by the addition of a single watercolour from the AGNSW collection. The accompanying publication, retailing for $69.95, is entirely the work of the Guggenheim. It reproduces many works that aren’t in the AGNSW show and provides no comprehensive checklist of exhibits. There are no exhibition dates or acknowledgements. In brief, it’s not a catalogue at all, and the AGNSW’s carelessness is on full display.

Unlike 1982, touring exhibitions are now limited to one venue largely because state governments and tourist organisations demand exclusivity – a short-sighted strategy that loads costs onto a single gallery, making it difficult for touring shows to turn a profit.

Vasily Kandinsky, ‘Blue Mountain’ (1908-09)

For the AGNSW, which lost $3 million from this year’s budget after falling foul of the dreaded “efficiency dividend”, there is a lot riding on Kandinsky and the forthcoming Louise Bourgeois exhibition. If it’s hard to feel sorry for those who run the gallery it’s because they have blown the chance of growing audiences by holding zero exhibitions in the new building during its first full year of operation. Against the lessons of experience, the AGNSW imagined the masses would come swarming all-year-long. Instead, they’ve turned up for parties and functions after hours.

Vasily Kandinsky (1866-1944) is an iconic figure in the history of modern art, but not a guaranteed crowd-puller such as Van Gogh, Monet or Picasso. Although he has long been credited as the “inventor” of abstract art, nowadays art historians argue Kandinsky might have been beaten to the punch by the mystical Hilma af Klint (1862-1944), or even by the Victorian spirtualist, Georgiana Houghton (1814-884), the subject of a complementary exhibition at the AGNSW.

For some reason the gallery has also included a solo display of work by contemporary artist, Desmond Lazaro, within the Kandinsky show. It may be a way of padding out a compact exhibition but it’s an odd thing to do.

Lazaro is not in the race as to who invented abstract art, but Kandinsky’s claims remain strong because neither Houghton nor af Klint saw their works, self-consciously, as abstractions. The former have the quality of automatic writing, the latter are spiritual diagrams. In both cases the artworks were intended primarily as a means of communication with the world beyond.

Vasily Kandinsky, ‘Improvisation 28 (Second Version), (1912)

Kandinsky, on the other hand, was a dedicated theorist, with an analytical approach. He thought long and hard about his reasons for abandoning recognisable imagery and would write at length on the topic.

In Reminiscences (1913), the artist recounts his fascination with one of Monet’s Haystack paintings, and a performance of Wagner’s Lohengrin, which set off a synæsthetic explosion of colours in his mind. The final step came when he returned to his studio one afternoon only to find “an indescribly beautiful picture, pervaded by an inner glow.” It was a painting turned on its side, but it led to a startling realisation: “Now I could see clearly that objects harmed my pictures.”

“A terrifying abyss of all kinds of questions, a wealth of responsibilities stretched before me. And most important of all: What is to replace the missing object? The danger of ornament revealed itself clearly to me; the dead semblance of stylised forms I found merely repugnant.”

Neither af Klint or Houghton appear to have asked themselves such questions, but these are the intellectual foundations upon which abstract art was built.

Looking at this representative collection of works from from all stages of Kandinsky’s career, one sees how the nature of his painting changes in relation to where he is living, and the artists with whom he is associating. In Munich he displays a vibrant, expressionist palette heavily influenced by folk art. In Moscow his style becomes more geometric in response to his interactions with the Russian avant-garde. At the Bauhaus in Dessau, he grows close to Paul Klee, and borrows some of the intimacy of that artist’s work. Finally, in Paris, he befriends the Surrealists, and begins using free, biomorphic forms.

Vasily Kandinsky, ‘Circles on Black’ (1921)

Born in Moscow in 1866, Kandinsky’s biography was bent and twisted by the forces of history. One could view his unique blend of analytical, emotional and spiritual engagement as a means of imposing order on a turbulent journey, which saw him uprooted, time and again, from suddenly unstable environments. Each relocation was a reinvention, but in the words of his first and virtually only biographer, Will Grohmann, Kandinsky never let go of his Russian origins and “remained a foreigner” in Europe.

At the time of Kandinsky’s birth, Russia was undergoing a period of liberalisation under Alexander II, and he would grow up immersed in art, music and literature. His first areas of study were law, economics and anthropology, which saw him do fieldwork among communities in the Vologda region. When he left for Munich in 1896, determined to study painting, he was already 30 years old.

Kandinsky would remain in Munich until 1914, when the outbreak of the First World War made him an enemy alien. During those years he had gone from being a rank amateur, to a rising star, whose work had been shown all over Europe. He had left his Russian wife, Anja, and started a long-term relationship with the German painter, Gabriele Munter, with whom he would make a home in the village of Murnau, and travel extensively.

In his early paintings he is heavily indebted to folk art, but gradually evolves an expressionistic style that makes use of blocks of pure colour. Works such as Blue Mountain (1908-09), and a range of smaller landscapes, convey the essence of those years, when Kandinsky was moving excitedly from one discovery to another.

His friendships with the painter, Franz Marc and composer, Arnold Schoenberg, proved incredibly stimulating. All three would contribute to the publication, The Blue Rider Almanac, in mid-1912 – a landmark in early modernism, and a rallying point for one of the two important schools of German Expressionism, along with Der Brücke (The Bridge), which had been formed in Dresden.

Vasily Kandinsky, ‘Composition 8’ (1923)

Kandinsky had experienced his epiphany in the studio and was exploring the possibilities of abstraction in works such as Improvisation 28 (Second Version) (1912). In the same year he published his best-known text, On the Spiritual in Art, a book whose first sentence: “Every work of art is the child of its time, often it is the mother of our emotions,” has a similar cadence to the famous first sentence of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1878):  All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

When he returned to Moscow during the war, Kandinsky was plunged into a post-revolutionary ferment in which artists were determined to create a new visual culture for a new society. Kandinsky’s “spiritual” preoccupations would become suspect, obliging him to adapt himself to the materialist ideals advanced by the Constructivists. He would remain in Russia until 1921, acting as a cultural theorist and planner, while occupying a number of important official positions.

Paintings such as White Centre (1921) and Circles on Black (1921) date from this period, but they only hint at the intensity of the ideas and debates in which Kandinsky took part. One might see both works as merely decorative arrangements of shapes and lines floating in space, but within this milieu every colour and gesture was invested with meaning. A particular line – be it horizontal, vertical or diagonal – might be considered more “left” or progressive than another. In On the Spiritual in Art, Kandinsky had referred to black as “a spent funeral pyre” and white as “a cold, indestructible wall”, now he reassessed these tones in a more positive manner.

Vasily Kandinsky, ‘Capricious Forms’ (1937)

When he left Russia in late 1921, as an emissary to Germany, Kandinsky could see where the dreams of the Russian avant-garde were tending. Socialist Realism was already making inroads, although it would not become the “official” style of Soviet art until 1934.

Having been offered a post at the Bauhaus, Germany’s landmark school of modern art and design, by director, Walter Gropius, Kandinsky began the next phase of his life, as an influential teacher. The energising atmosphere of the Bauhaus, the interaction with colleagues and students, suited Kandinsky so well he might have continued well beyond the 11 years he would spend in the job. This time he was undone by the rise of the Nazis, who would dissolve the school and declare him a “degenerate” artist. To make matters worse, although he and his wife, Nina, had taken German citizenship, they were foreigners and communists in the eyes of the new regime. The next and final move, in December 1933, would be to Paris.

The show contains a range of paintings from the Bauhaus years, the most significant being Composition 8 (1923), a work Kandinsky valued highly. A dynamic arrangement of sharp lines, grids and glowing circles, it reflects the emphasis on geometry he pursued during his Russian and German sojourns, while acknowledging the mystical power of the circle, a figure that would dominate future compositions.

To the uninformed eye, it might appear that Kandinsky was the king of doodlers, an artist who allowed abstract shapes and forms to drift across his canvases as the mood took him, but there is an underlying logic to his work. To some commentators, notably the philosopher, Michel Henry, we need to understand that Kandinsky is less interested in those things that offer themselves to the eye, than the invisible resonances they stir within the viewer’s psyche. In short, he paints feelings, for which the visible forms are only vehicles.

In his final phase those forms become more fluid, as he dabbles in shamanistic symbols and shapes that resemble free-floating amoeba. This was partly because of his friendship with Surrealists such as André Breton and Joan Miró, and an ongoing interest in science, but it’s difficult to reconcile the artist of earlier years with the one who could paint a picture such as Capricious Forms (1937), or even the vaguely anthropomorphic Yellow Painting (1938).

What we see, looking back on the totality of a life spent largely in exile, is a portrait of an immensely influential artist who has frequently been misunderstood by both his detractors and admirers. Kandinsky has been praised and reviled for his spiritual ideas or his bloodless geometry, for his over-emphasis on form or his lack of form. If he might be defined or categorised at all, it can only be as a lifelong seeker after knowledge, who never settled in any one place, either geographically or intellectually. Although the history of modernism and abstraction are constantly being rewritten, he is one artist who will always play a leading role.


Art Gallery of NSW, 4 November 2023 – 10 March 2024


Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 18 November, 2023