Anyone who has seen the unrefined figurative works of Mark Rothko can easily understand why he later turned to his abstract Color Field works. Because of examples like this, there is always a suspicion that abstract art is merely the last refuge of the technically inept. Wassily Kandinsky — often seen as the first true abstract artist — however, proves this to be a misconception.
With 60 paintings from Munich’s Lenbachhaus museum, half by Kandinsky and most of the rest by associates from the Blue Rider group, “Kandinsky and the Blue Rider” at the Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum looks at the artist’s early career. In the process, it reveals that he was a fast learner, an excellent figurative artist and probably just a little too wrapped up in himself.
But why did this talented artist take the abstract route? The answer seems to lie partly in his character. In the show’s first section “1901-1907: A Time of Phalanx, a Time of Travel,” a picture of a ruthless, strong-willed individual who often disregarded the society around him, starts to emerge.
One of the most interesting facts about Kandinsky is that he came to painting rather late in life, but then made remarkably quick progress. In 1896, at age 30, he decided to turn his back on a successful academic career, leave his wife behind in Russia and settle in Munich, Germany, to study art. If this had occurred a few years later in his life, it might have been described as a mid-life crisis.
In Munich, the confidence and high-powered intellect that he brought from his former occupation saw him quickly make the transition from art student to leader. In 1901 he helped found Phalanx, a group of artists with an anti-conservative bent, and although he was only five years into his own career, he also became the artistic director of the group’s school.
Kandinsky’s paintings from this period seem to fall into two types. On the one hand there are heavy re-workings of plein-air impressionism that don’t really satisfy, such as “Kochel — Lake with Boat” (1902). In these works, there is a feeling of painting by numbers, of paying too much attention to the sights around him and doing what was expected by others. In sharp contrast to this, he also painted purely imaginary works such as “The Bride” (1903) that evoked a subjective, romanticized, mythical Russia.
The difference between these two artistic strains seems to suggest that Kandinsky was at his best when he turned from the outer muse to the inner one, from society and reality to imagination and idiosyncrasy.
This tension between the individual and the wider world was also echoed in his private life. Around this time he started an extramarital affair with one of his students, Gabriele Munter. You can see her in “Kallmunz — Gabriele Munter Painting II” (1903) and in the sensitive “Portrait of Gabriele Munter” (1905). Conforming to the moral dictates of the time, Munter wished to hold back their relationship until Kandinsky could divorce his wife. This, however, led him to constantly pressure her — until she gave in. Kandinsky’s internal drives were more important than external moral censure.
To be together more easily, the couple took to traveling around Europe, as shown by several of the works on display. A cheaper way to escape the tut-tutting of Munich society was discovered in the picturesque village of Murnau, South of Munich, where they could stay together easily, often with other artist friends.
The second part of the exhibition focuses on this period, from 1908 to 1910, and the art that was created in Murnau. These are among Kandinsky’s best paintings. The lyrical sense that he had previously shown in his purely imaginative works is combined with a keen appreciation of his surroundings in works such as “Railroad at Murnau” (1909). This shows a steam train against a sunny Alpine background, capturing both the visual drama and the psychological impact that the sight must have had on the painter — a fruitful melding of his inner and outer muses.
In narratives of Kandinsky, the sojourn at Murnau is usually presented as an important transitional stage on the road to what is regarded as his main historical achievement, namely the development of a fully fledged abstract style. But this period could be seen, instead, as the culmination of his art.
His later work was dominated by over-elaborate theories that few others appreciated and became increasingly esoteric and arid, the hallmarks of an artist who had tuned out all other voices and listened only to his own. Such self-absorption was also reflected in his private life. When the Blue Rider group broke up in 1914 on the outbreak of World War I, Kandinsky was forced to return to Russia. He left Munter, whom he had once promised to marry and never saw her again.
“Kandinsky and the Blue Rider from the Lenbachhaus, Munich” at the Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum, Tokyo runs till Feb. 6; admission ¥1,400; open 10 a.m.-8 p.m. (Wed., Thu., Fri. till 6 p.m.), closed Mon. For more information, visit mimt.jp