Saturday, October 4, 2014

Kandinsky in Milwaukee

And Kandinsky in Milwaukee in the Twenty-First Century

Jerry Cullum

Curator Brady Roberts concludes the catalogue of the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Kandinsky retrospective with an essay on “Kandinsky in the 21st Century,” in which he provides an insightful survey of those few contemporary artists who acknowledge a vital interest in Kandinsky, and explores some of the reasons for contemporary skepticism about Kandinsky’s accomplishments.


Julie Mehretu, Matthew Ritchie, and Carroll Dunham are among the artists who have taken an interest in Kandinsky’s belief in a synthesis of art, science, and culture in the anthropological sense of the word (i.e., the overall conceptual assumptions underlying what sociology calls “society”). None of them have imitated Kandinsky’s visual approaches (there is an entire body of American painting from the 1930s and 1940s that openly draws its inspiration from Kandinsky’s composition and palette, but that is a separate, obscurely historic topic).

What irrefutably separates these artists from Kandinsky is the level of optimism that accompanied his quest for a scientific basis for art. When he wrote in Concerning the Spiritual in Art that “When we remember that spiritual experience is quickening, that positive science, the firmest basis of human thought, is tottering, that dissolution of matter is imminent, we have hope that the hour of pure composition is not far away,” he meant that everything in the sciences tended towards the destruction of the bases on which the nineteenth century formed its arrogant certitudes: physics was discovering the basis in immaterial-seeming energy of a material world that was itself only an instance of fugitive moments of forms of energies consolidating (we might remember here that Kandinsky’s Russian Orthodox faith was based on the notion that matter itself is sustained by the “divine energies”); in the investigations of the new psychology, the mind was proving to be full of immaterial-seeming energies that belied the assumption that its underpinnings were open to the simple deductions of logical reasoning; and the cultural basis of world civilizations, plural, was turning out to be open to an investigation that assumed the value of European accomplishments but did not thereby devalue the discoveries of cultures that Europe found alien. Surely, given these developments undercutting belief in a unilateral progress towards an affirmation of a materialist rationality as the highest accomplishment of human evolution, the expectation of a Great Utopia was not intrinsically unreasonable.


None of these lines of thought turned out as expected. The underpinnings of culture turned out to be undecideable; is culture an arbitrary construct, or is it intrinsically itself constructed by a biologically grounded individual psychology that leads human beings to make the same mistakes over and over again, no matter how hard they try to impose a logical order on a collective behavior that is grounded in instincts instilled by genetic structure? Is there any way of deciding whether mathematics is the inbuilt order of the entire material universe, or itself only a complicated human construct that gives us useful clues as to how to manipulate the universe’s structure, thus giving rise to technology? Is there such a fundamental disjuncture between the underlying structure of nature and the underlying structure of culture that there is no underlying unity between the two, or does nature trump culture every time, even if culture is transforming nature at such an unparalleled rate that culture can’t quite predict what nature is going to do to it?

In other words, the culturally created artifice of civilization, and the biological basis of human behavior, and the processes of the natural world have all turned out to be more unpredictably related than seemed to be the case in the early twentieth century. That there is an underlying unifying order seems indisputable; the dispute is over the question of what that unifying order is, and whether human beings are fundamentally incapable of knowing it even when they think they know all there is to know about it. Are we a self-deceptive species that is very, very good at thinking that the positive effects of imaginary solutions to real problems demonstrate that the solutions themselves must be real?

That’s the kind of thing that artists in search of a Gesamtkunstwerk grapple with these days, and none of these questions instill a sense of confidence in the possibility of final solutions beyond the grim types of alteration of the course of history with which those words are now inextricably associated. We can change the world, but the extent to which we can explain it remains in doubt.

Hence artists like Mehretu and Ritchie and Dunham deal in paradox, parody, and outright fiction. Their maps include representations of all the spaces that fall off the map.

It is worth contemplating the more or less concurrent appearance of two books that relate human culture to its unconscious assumptions about nature (this abrupt digression is going to come back to “Kandinsky in the 21st Century” in the next paragraph): Yi-fu Tuan’s Romantic Geography: In Search of the Sublime Landscape and Alastair Bonnett’s book on anomalously defined spaces—but what is that book called, anyway? It seems to have begun life in the United Kingdom as Off the Map: Lost Spaces, Invisible Cities, Forgotten Islands, Feral Places, and What They Tell Us About the World, and morphed en route to the United States of America into a textually identical book called Unruly Spaces: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies. The transmutation of the title itself indicates the cultural differences and prior expectations that underpin human understanding of something as solid as the ground beneath their feet (and/or the large quantity of water that surrounds it).

Kandinsky’s approach to art assumed that the symbols of culture could be further refined into mathematical and geometric relationships united to the emotions by the colors through which these relationships were presented on a picture plane. Art in the twentieth century began as representation of landscape and its relationship to human society and the emotions surrounding that society; it had the capacity to become a visual tool for understanding the depths of those relationships by discarding the representation of their surfaces.

I have long since departed completely from Brady Roberts’ concise essay, which goes more or less directly from a discussion of the artists who acknowledge Kandinsky’s influence to all those artists who consider Kandinsky hopelessly quaint, but consider supremely relevant Marcel Duchamp’s cynical embrace of the primacy of concepts and the superiority of ideas over “retinal art.”

Well, maybe Duchamp exalts the concept over the evidence appearing on the retina. The truly strange thing is that Duchamp actually returns us to the material world; he gives us not ideas but things and the fictions we impose upon them. (William Carlos Williams’ maxim “no ideas but in things” was being systematically misunderstood by poets in roughly the same decades that everyone, including Duchamp, was confused about what Duchamp’s work really implied. Today we have Object Oriented Ontology to get us all muddled up about Things once again, as though Francis Ponge’s poems had never existed, or Alain Robbe-Grillet’s novels, for that matter—but let’s stick with Duchamp and Kandinsky, shall we?)

Turn a urinal or a bottle rack around and they become gorgeously abstract sculptures instead of utilitarian objects. Put a punning title on a realistic sculpture of a window and you have the marriage of language with the physical world that has existed since Adam mythically named the animals. Put a peephole in a door that shows you a deeply symbolic but literally disturbing diorama, and you have a piece of representational art that has even more cultural history encoded in it than the most redolent of nineteenth-century history paintings. Everything in Duchamp returns us to the retinal; he just asks the questions about the retinal that Matisse didn’t want us to ask, preferring that art be regarded as a comfortable armchair. The eye is part of the mind, and vice versa. We see because we think because we see.

We are back to Kandinsky’s conceptual gropings after a Total Work of Art. The only difference is that we are more resigned to the possibility that there is no totality; and it is worth asking whether we have given up on the possibility a little too soon.

How we frame a question typically predetermines the answer; the problem is framing it at all, to begin with, and leaving the frame open enough to admit the possibility that the most adequate answer presupposes a frame we didn’t suspect.

I shall not burden this essay’s readers with my probably irrelevant allegory based on the dysfunctional aspects of the landscaped space leading into Santiago Calatrava’s amazing addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum, and another one based on the question of whether Kandinsky will look different when approached via the architecture of a former Federal Post Office built in the era of the stripped-classical transmutation of Art Deco. Probably not; the rigorous neutrality of gallery spaces in most of these differently conceived museums is designed to magick away all the spectacular differences of architectural volume that visitors have just experienced in the process of getting to those bland variations on the white cube.

Galleries painted in the rainbow tones of Munich’s Lenbachhaus, now—such spaces raise questions about context of which Kandinsky would doubtless have approved. He might even have designed a questionnaire to make us aware of the differences. But in fact those spaces (in the institution that co-organized the 2009 Kandinsky retrospective) are only meant to evoke the historical epoch in which the paintings installed in them were created. That they shock us into a different mode of awareness is largely a fortunate accident.

Kandinsky is still the artist who thought about the meaning of fortunate accidents and pondered ways of making us aware of the meaning of them.

And that is what his legacy to the 21st century ought to be, regardless of what his legacy may be at present.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Kandinsky in Nashville

This is an almost absurdly personal approach to a retrospective exhibition of Wassily Kandinsky that I would recommend to anyone who is able to make the trip to what for many is an out of the way destination, even if it has apparently been declared this year’s “It” city for up-and-coming cultural scenes in the U.S.A.

The exhibition combines a hundred or so significant works and important related objects from the Pompidou Center with a smaller number of significant context-setting pieces from American museums, and more than holds its own against the 2009 retrospective staged by the Lenbachhaus, the Pompidou Center and the Guggenheim.

The catalogue and the audio guide (even the audio guide, for once!) provide a usefully condensed timeline of Kandinsky’s passionate multidisciplinary investigations and his repeated run-ins with the historical traumas of the twentieth century as well as with its spiritual and intellectual challenges. Skimming over this information, I realized that a substantial number of topics for which I have accumulated bibliographic sources are in fact central to Kandinsky’s development as a human being and quite likely as a painter as well.

This essay is teasingly vague on several topics and ludicrously specific on others—especially a phrase that was too good not to quote—because it has been written off the top of my head, partly because it would take too long to locate my copies of the relevant books and partly because I don’t remember where to find some key essays—for example, the analysis of how an experimental method of teaching small children about shapes and colors may have influenced the invention of abstract painting.

At twenty-five hundred words it is roughly at the maximum attention span of the majority of likely readers, even without further amplification of its highly condensed allusions.

Jerry Cullum, October 1, 2014

Rethinking Kandinsky: On the occasion of “Kandinsky: A Retrospective,” organized by the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Centre Georges Pompidou, exhibited in Milwaukee June 5 - September 1 2014 and also exhibited at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville (September 26, 2014 - January 4, 2015)

“Kandinsky: Russian and Bauhaus Years” was the subject of the first exhibition review I ever wrote, for the May/June 1984 issue of Art Papers. More accurately, I wrote an art historical essay about neglected aspects of Kandinsky’s Russian and Bauhaus years, including a question about what impact his friendship with the composer Thomas de Hartmann had on him.

I still don’t know the answer to that question, and am not sure if anyone does. The answer could have much to do with his turn to a paradoxical blend of geometric exactitude and seductively painterly ways of rendering the hard-edged geometry. It might, however, not.

That, however, is a fairly esoteric concern, in all senses of the words. It is difficult enough to make sense of the three major phases of Kandinsky’s artistic life, within which the collaboration and ongoing friendship with Thomas de Hartmann is a significant footnote, but nevertheless a footnote.

I would like to try to make a little more sense of the paintings and prints, of which almost a hundred are included in the Milwaukee-Nashville retrospective, than I tried to make in that long-ago piece of intellectual history. I am, however, going to remain heavily focused on why Kandinsky would have felt impelled to paint what he did, rather than on what he painted, which is of course the primary focus of the exhibition.

Kandinsky in Munich

Or, actually, Kandinsky in Russia and then in Munich. Peg Weiss was right a generation ago when she wrote that not enough attention had been paid to what motivated and influenced Kandinsky in the pivotal pre-Munich years 1886-1896. What motivates Kandinsky to abandon a decade of successful studies in law, turn down the offer of a lecturership in Dorpat (Tartu, Estonia, then part of Russia), and take off for Munich to study painting?

We probably need to know more about Kandinsky’s years pre-law, 1866-1886...these are the years in Russia at large when hard-core materialism challenges Orthodox faith (with monastic spiritual fathers, startzy. trying to adapt old practices to present-day realities, in moves ranging from reform of monastic institutions to revival of forms of psychophysical meditation); cf. Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Liberal reform is stopped in its tracks by the radicals’ assassination of Alexander II and the determination of his successor to undo his father’s political program and to subject the minority peoples of the Empire to ruthless russification. It is impossible for Russian intellectuals to remain unaware that Germany’s very different push towards industrial growth and intellectual respectability has given birth to philosophical and artistic movements of which neither Tsar nor Kaiser would approve, but which seemed harbingers of a new and almost unimaginable age of post-materialist spiritual ferment.

So however it happened, off goes Kandinsky in quest of ways of embodying a new spiritual era and translating it into paint. And he soon finds himself collaborating with composers and libretto writers on multidisciplinary art works in addition to innovative landscapes and portraits, having joined his life in the meantime with a Theosophy-inclined painter named Gabriele M√ľnter, whose works from Milwaukee’s permanent collection are included in this contextualizing retrospective.

Back in the mid-1980s, Peg Weiss pooh-poohed Sixten Ringbom’s hypothesis in The Sounding Cosmos that H. P. Blavatsky’s Theosophical pictures of aura-like “thought forms” were influences on Kandinsky’s development of abstraction. Abstraction was in the air, in ways we have learned more about in recent years; experimental childhood education employed basic geometric shapes in distinct primary colors, and Jugendstil evolved on the Continent in the wake of such earlier speculations as John Ruskin’s links between the curvatures of Gothic architecture and the specific shapes formed by the leaves of water plants. Nature and culture appeared to be inextricably intertwined or entangled; but nobody quite knew why, or how.

By 1896 it seemed important to investigate the question, not just in what seemed to be a fatally flawed European culture, but in every culture on a suddenly surprising earth—where discontented scions of Europe had encountered religions and rituals that seemed to embody not benighted ignorance but a species of wisdom never suspected by their blinkered local cultures. The marriage of European analytical practice and non-European intuitive syntheses seemed to be the key to the resolution of the persistent and crippling cultural incertitude of the nineteenth century.

What appeared certain to the spiritual revolutionaries who advocated a fundamentally new art was that the simple-minded mechanistic materialism of the nineteenth century simply did not take into account many of the organic variables of life and art alike. The German Romantics and their successors had tried to (to quote Tamsin Shaw’s critique of Darrin M. McMahon’s Divine Fury: A History of Genius, in the October 9, 2014 New York Review of Books) “clarify the relationship between mind and world.” The original speculations of transcendental idealism had not held up against the assaults of hardheadedly reductionist rationalism; the new generation was looking for evidence of just how color, sound, and form might be related to one another and to concealed interconnections between the human spirit and the world in which the spirit operated.

Kandinsky, sharing in the hope that a “total work of art” (Gesamtkunstwerk) might be based on knowledge of how those relationships operated, went on to hope that the deep interconnections between independently developed cultures might also be revealed by intelligent juxtapositions of photographs in books and magazines. “We will put,” he proposed in 1911 to his friend Franz Marc, “...a Chinese work next to a Rousseau, a popular image next to a Picasso and many other things of the same kind!” This became 1912’s single-issue project The Blue Rider Almanac, represented in this retrospective by Kandinsky’s saint-infused study for its cover. (St. George’s horse and lance became a leitmotiv for Kandinsky...a fact that might lead us into an extended meditation on the many cross-cultural identities of St. George, whose myths and meanings change substantially in their geographic diffusion from England to the Eastern Mediterranean and the farther reaches of the Caucasus Mountains. But again, we don’t know how much Kandinsky knew, and when if at all he knew it.) At this point, he produces his first completely abstract painting. He also publishes his book On the Spiritual in Art, productively reflecting the ambiguity between “mind” and “spirit” in the German philosophy of Geist, which conflates a range of meanings that English vocabulary and thought keeps rigorously separate.

Kandinsky: Russian and Bauhaus Years

All of this multinational, cross-cultural ferment in Munich and elsewhere comes to an abrupt and unanticipated halt in 1914, when friends are forced to leave for home at best and sign up for service in competing armies at worst. Franz Marc, represented in this retrospective by a large, memorable 1911 painting of horses, goes from psychological speculations on the meanings of colors and informed studies of the world’s antiquities in German ethnographic museum to death on the battlefront in 1916. Kandinsky returns to Russia in that year after an extended residence in Switzerland, meets and marries the young woman who remained his wife until his death in 1944, and continues to alternate between a loosely curving, semi-geometric abstraction and a lushly expressionistic rendering of figure and landscape.

Russian artists in this same time frame have been busy devising a different relationship between geometry and the human condition. Liubov Popova travels in Russian Central Asia looking at mosaic tiles and architecture at the same time that Kandinsky develops his original interest in the all-over wall decoration of Russian peasant houses, and her contemporaries develop a form of geometric reduction intended to displace traditional painting once and for all. Malevich’s Black Square in 1915’s “0,10” exhibition hangs in the place traditionally reserved for the family religious icons.

Kandinsky collides with the Constructivists when the Revolution happens, and finds himself proposing modes of artistic education and research that eventually conclude in a 1921 proposal for a Department of Physio-psychology and Fine Arts at the newly founded Russian Academy of Artistic Sciences. Still suspected of unacceptably Romantic views about matter and spirit, he happily accepts Walter Gropius’ invitation to visit Berlin at Christmas 1921, and by June 1922 has moved to Weimar to teach at the newly founded Bauhaus.

This is where Kandinsky’s Gesamtkunstwerk collaborations in Munich with Thomas de Hartmann and friendship with Alexander de Salzmann raise interesting and probably unanswerable questions. The same year that Kandinsky returned to Russia, de Hartmann and de Salzmann met and became disciples of George Gurdjieff, whose claims to possess the multidisciplinary teachings of Central Asian spiritual traditions offered what seemed to be definitive answers to the questions that had bedeviled both Kandinsky and de Hartmann during their Munich years. Literally following Gurdjieff through a chaotically revolutionary Russia and secessionist Caucasus to Constantinople and on to France, de Hartmann became Gurdjieff’s collaborator on a series of piano compositions based on what Gurdjieff claimed were Central Asian liturgical melodies that formed the basis of “objective music,” just as the rigorously mathematical relationships of sacred geometry formed an “objective art.”

Kandinsky encounters a different version of geometry and notions of “glass cathedrals” at the Bauhaus, in an atmosphere that seems poised midway between the Gesamtkunstwerk of his prewar years and the marriage between fine and applied arts he found in the Constructivist art of the Russian Revolution. Though they are not included in this retrospective, in 1921 Kandinsky produced some remarkable geometric designs for porcelain cups and saucers that look like harbingers of his Bauhaus-era paintings. His Constructivist colleagues were producing even more useful objects with a starker form of geometry, whereas Kandinsky’s color scheme and combination of shapes sometimes seems playful to the point of presaging the biomorphic paintings of his Paris years, then over a decade in the future.

And yet, and yet.... On White II comes as a shock regardless of how closely you study the preceding years’ paintings. Later paintings, most notably Yellow Red Blue, which combine an intense painterliness with hard-edged geometric forms, mark a departure so unexpected that one looks for explanations that mostly aren’t there.

Compared with the fluidity of the large-scale wall murals from 1922 that are replicated in a gallery space that appears in this retrospective, these Bauhaus paintings of 1922 (the date of the preliminary study that appears in this show) and 1925 appear to operate by different rules altogether. These are the years in which de Hartmann was most enraptured by the Gurdjieff Work to which he remained loyal even after his departure from discipleship in 1929. But there is apparently not a shred of evidence that Kandinsky knew anything about the Work, and by the time he had renewed a face to face friendship with de Hartmann and was living in the same city as Gurdjieff, in the 1930s and early 1940s, he had moved on to a biomorphic style of abstraction that seems to owe more to illustrations of creatures seen through microscopes than to the precise angles of mystical mathematics.

So my hypothesis in the 1984 essay may well have been total nonsense. But I wonder.

Kandinsky in Paris

What is certain is that by the time in 1933 that Kandinsky abandons the newly proclaimed Nazi Germany for Paris, he has lost any interest in dramatic personal transformations; he turns down offers to emigrate to the United States and to Japan, and repeats his disinclination to pull up roots when it seems more consequential, after the German occupation of Paris in 1940. In spite of having had all his paintings removed from German museums as “degenerate art” three years earlier, he continues not only to paint, but to stage officially forbidden solo exhibitions in the back rooms of his Paris gallery. The occupation is headed by admirers of French culture and connoisseurs of art, and despite the brutal extermination of Resistance networks, the lower echelons of occupation enforcers seem to have practiced silent tolerance of nonpolitical cultural aberrations—Hitler, after all, was on record as having said something to the effect of “Let the French be as decadent as they want to be. It will keep them from ever again winning a war against us!”

The retrospective exhibition gives us three of his final paintings and his two final watercolors (produced in 1944 after he had given up easel painting a year earlier in the face of old age and persistent shortages of materials). The paintings evince a combination of seriousness and lightheartedness, but the watercolors are filled with a sense of outright play that bespeaks a combination of acceptance with curious exploration. Kandinsky appears to have achieved the level of internal balance that Reciprocal Accord of 1942 is still in the process of keeping in tension.

Thinking of the many spiritual as well as scientific disciplines with which he might well have remained in dialogue throughout his lifetime, I still wonder.