Getting back to where it began


The career of Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1919), as it unfolds in a new retrospective at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, is like watching art history run backward. Its culmination — the glowing colors and dynamic abstraction he made his own — introduced a whole new visual vocabulary to Western art.

So what reactionary critic, then, issued the stern caution that, “If we begin at once to break the bonds which bind us to nature and devote ourselves exclusively to the combination of pure color and abstract form, we shall produce works which are mere decoration, suited to neckties or carpets”?

No critic, but, with biting irony, Kandinsky himself — no doubt with uncomprehending critics in mind. Truth is, the artist spent his life striving to express natural beauty and complex truths. “Beauty of Form and Color is no sufficient aim by itself,” concludes the passage quoted above.

Yet we’ve unquestioningly embraced the very definition of his art that Kandinsky rejects, prizing him as an “abstract” artist and neglecting the expressive power of his work. In doing so, we have indeed demoted him to the level of “mere decoration” — Kandinsky carpets there may not yet be, but the giftshops of more than one national modern-art museum flog neckties patterned with his works.

Luckily this MOMAT exhibition gathers pieces from 13 regional art collections in Russia and Armenia, and takes us back to the beginning of the career of this artistic late-bloomer, who first picked up a brush at age 29, inspired by the works of Claude Monet. In doing so, it reveals an incredible process, tracing how complex representational figures dissolve into clean, abstract forms.

It’s art history unfolding in reverse. The display begins with “Odessa — Port 1” (1898), a neat, conventional work depicting tall ships at rest. The harbor water in this canvas has a blueish, Impressionist shimmer, but there is little warning of the transition to full-blown Fauvism that follows in a 1908-09 group, four lovely depictions of the city of Murnau, Gauginesque in their loose form and vivid color.

After Murnau, the recognizable world slips gradually away. The title of 1909’s “Crinolines” suggests that its society-lady subjects are already of less interest than their hooped, curved skirts. By the 1909-11 “Improvisation” series, the discernible form of a dog or a boat is the only hint of the subject matter. With “Improvisation 11” (1911), a brown and chalk-colored canvas splashed with red and green and scored with cursive black lines resembling human and animal forms, we seem to be at the threshold of Lascaux, the site of the cave paintings where representational art began.

Kandinsky’s life, too, was one of cyclical return. Born in Russia, he emigrated to Germany to pursue his dreams of becoming an artist. Expelled following the outbreak of war in 1914, he returned to a Russia in politi cal foment.

There, the artist rapidly found favor with the revolutionary authorities, and stimulation, too, in the cultural milieu of the Russian avant garde. With Kandinsky fe^ted as a “progressive” artist, why, then, are his works of 1917 so gray and dour? They make a somber room at MOMAT; their titles — “Overcast,” “Twilight,” “Grey Oval” — speak volumes about their creator’s mental state.

For all his warm reception in his motherland, Kandinsky was ill at ease. He described his move back to Moscow in 1914 like being “forced to wake up from a dream.” Russia’s revolutionaries misunderstood the artist just as we do today — mistaking abstraction for the absence of representation. For all that the canvases he produced superficially resembled the Soviet artistic ideal, Kandinsky’s profoundly spiritual inspiration was utterly unlike the cultural model of the revolutionary age.

That model — the utter depersonalization of art — was crisply formulated by Kazimir Malevich who, along with Piet Mondrian, was an exponent of geometric abstraction: “The artist can be a creator only when the forms of his pictures have nothing in common with nature,” he wrote. How far this sterile vision was from Kandinsky’s art, not a stroke of which did not spill over from nature seen, remembered or imagined.

Disturbed, the artist took temporary flight from abstraction right back into the arms of Impressionism, in the form of a small series of seasonal river scenes that clearly invoke Monet, his first inspiration. Indeed, so out-of-place is this handful of works that scholars are still divided over the 1917 dating — concurrent with the gray abstracts — with some preferring to put the group at the start of the artist’s career, around 1907.

Kandinsky remained in Moscow for a further three years before returning to Germany in 1921, at the invitation of the celebrated Weimar Bauhaus. Those were his final years in Russia — when the Third Reich labeled his art “degenerate” and demanded his removal from the Bauhaus, he sought refuge in Paris — and there made an uneasy peace with a political and ideological system of which he was nonetheless never really apart. The angularity that some have associated with Soviet industrialization creeps into his works, as seen in 1919’s “Painting with Points.” So, too, appears the checkerboard motif so common in his works on paper, seen here in “On White I.”

And yet his natural exuberance never vanishes entirely. One of this exhibition’s most joyous works is the penultimate canvas, “Two Ovals” — a riot of light and color, a menagerie of shape and form. Every element teases the eye. Abstract art has never seemed more concrete.