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Kandinsky: The Path To Abstraction - Tate Modern

Feature by James Haddrell

IT MAY be hard to believe but the paintings of Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky, widely acknowledged as one of the founders of abstract art, have never before been the subject of a major exhibition in this country.

Now, bringing together a total of 74 works, many of which have never been seen in the UK, Tate Modern’s Kandinsky: The Path To Abstraction is finally putting that right.

The most famous story about Kandinsky, and the one which is surely most likely to be apocryphal spin, is the tale of the artist coming home one night and seeing an unknown painting ‘of extraordinary beauty’ standing in his studio.

Of course, as he later explained, this was one of his own paintings propped upside down, and it was this realisation that proved to him the potential impact of truly abstract work.

The slightly less well known fact about Kandinsky is that he claimed to be a synaesthete, a person whose senses are cross-wired in the brain and who, as a result, experiences multiple sensory perceptions from a single stimulus – the most relevant to Kandinsky being the ability to ‘hear’ colours or ‘see’ sounds.

While it is impossible to prove retrospectively whether Kandinsky really experienced these multi-sensory perceptions, it is true that music came to occupy an important place at the heart of his work and it’s significant that he quoted two key events, one visual and one musical, as early influences.

In 1896, aged 30, during a visit to the French Industrial and Art Exhibition in Moscow, Kandinsky saw one of Monet’s Haystacks, and in the same year he attended a performance of Wagner’s Lohengrin.

Monet’s work, he claimed, proved to him the direction in which art could be taken, and the opera apparently activated his synaesthesia in a manner which would influence his art for years. Anyone visiting the exhibition will recognise Kandinsky’s description of the opera in many of the paintings on show – “I saw all my colours in spirit before my eyes. Wild, almost crazy lines were sketched in front of me.”

Kandinsky was a well travelled and widely knowledgeable artist. In his early career as an artist he came into contact with Picasso and Matisse in Paris, with Malevich in Russia and with Klee in Germany, but one of the most settled periods of his early artistic career was spent in the small Bavarian town of Murnau.

The works from this period show a clear combination of Fauve and folk influences, with scenes of the town rendered in a brightly coloured naïve style. There is already a sense that colours are being used in a heightened way – evident, for example, in the green tinged clouds of Study for Murnau, Landscape with Church – but at this early stage the emotive effects of the colour owe more to the Post-Impressionists than to Wagner.

One of the most impressive works in the exhibition is the large scale Composition VII, but despite Kandinsky’s assertions and along with all of the pre-Bauhaus works in the exhibition, this fails to achieve true abstraction.

Around the walls you can frequently discern figures on horseback, castles and fragments of landscape. In the case of Composition VII, subtitled Deluge (which seems to ensure that you cannot interpret the work as wholly abstract, even if your first impression is one of non-figurative form and colour), a boat with rows of oars is clearly seen in the bottom left hand corner, struggling against the ‘deluge’ of line and colour amassing on the canvas.

Whether Kandinsky could not or would not abandon all figurative content, his claims of pure abstraction are proved false by the works on show, but this is not to take anything away from the quality and impact of the paintings.

One of the most impressive clearly acknowledges its figurative elements in the title – Improvisation Gorge. Painted to represent the artist’s sensation while crossing a gorge with his partner and fellow artist, Gabrielle Münter, the work shows a bridge stretching out towards us with two figures crossing, while around them the canvas erupts in a riot of colour.

Moving into the 1920s and the Bauhaus years, Kandinsky’s work becomes more geometric, and if anywhere it is here that he demonstrates true abstraction, not, as he asserted, in 1913.

The figures, the horsemen, the Old Testament themes are all removed here, but at the cost of any sense of the artist’s emotional engagement in the production of the works.

If the quasi-abstract works of the 1910s felt operatic to Kandinsky, the paintings of ten years later must have seemed more like a pure rendition of chopsticks on the piano.

The lasting impression of Kandinsky: The Path To Abstraction is of an artist whose analysis of his own place in the history of art is infused with self-aggrandising spin, whose assertion of his mastery of abstraction is fundamentally flawed, but whose works, particularly in the vibrant decade before joining the Bauhaus, capture a unique view of the world.

Looking at the work on show, the academic questions as to whether he truly found abstraction first, whether he really could hear colour, or whether it is ever possible to convert colour to music all become less important than the works themselves. It seems that Kandinsky is one of those artists who should allow his works to speak for themselves, so forget what he tells you he’s done, and go and see for yourself.

Picture Caption: Wassily Kandinsky, Improvisation Gorge, 1914 Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich

Kandinsky: The Path To Abstraction
Until October 1, 2006
Tate Modern, Bankside, London SE1 9TG
020 7887 8888; www.tate.org.uk
Sunday-Thursday 10am–6pm; Friday-Saturday 10am-10pm
Admission: £10; concessions £8

  1. I am facinated by the fact that Kandinsky could hear sound with colour. Are there any other artists who had or have this ability?

    Jain    Jul 23    #
  2. Do you know if any books or articles have been written on the subject of hearing sound with colour?

    Thankyou

    Jain    Jul 23    #
  3. The phenomenon is called synethesia and a book you could look into is: ‘The Man Who Tasted Shapes’ by Richard E. Cytowic

    Editor's note: Thank you for coming back and replying to our reader query. anna    Jul 24    #
  4. Besides Kandinsky, David Hockney is probably the most high profile synaesthete among visual artists, but it doesn’t only seem to affect those working in a visual medium. Poets Arthur Rimbaud and Charles Baudelaire, novelist Vladimir Nabakov and composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov have all claimed to share Kandinsky’s synaesthesia.

    james haddrell    Aug 7    #