A Glimpse of Kandinsky’s Life and Art at Shanghai’s West Bund Museum

Installation view of “Kandinsky: The Pioneer of Abstract Art” at West Bund Museum, Shanghai, 2021. Image courtesy of West Bund Museum.
Installation view of “Kandinsky: The Pioneer of Abstract Art” at West Bund Museum, Shanghai, 2021. Image courtesy of West Bund Museum.
Installation view of “Kandinsky: The Pioneer of Abstract Art” at West Bund Museum, Shanghai, 2021. Image courtesy of West Bund Museum.
Installation view of “Kandinsky: The Pioneer of Abstract Art” at West Bund Museum, Shanghai, 2021. Image courtesy of West Bund Museum.
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Asia Society Hong Kong

Europe’s rebellious 20th century avant-garde has never been more popular in China. As a major Wassily Kandinsky show opens in Shanghai, his struggles and successes in art and life speak to audiences in unexpected ways.

TEXT: Jacob Dreyer
IMAGES: Courtesy of West Bund Museum

 

With Monet at the Bund One Art Museum, Miró at the new Pudong Museum, and a major Matisse show at UCCA Beijing in 2022, the avant-garde art of Europe a century ago is proving to be a popular access point for China’s new art-loving middle class. An extraordinary new show at West Bund Museum traces how Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944) followed an idiosyncratic idea of art and spirituality through the history of his era.

 

Installation view of “Kandinsky: The Pioneer of Abstract Art” at West Bund Museum, Shanghai, 2021. Image courtesy of West Bund Museum.

 

To audiences in 2021 the slow shift towards subjectivity in painting—first with Impressionist painters such as Monet, Matisse, and Berthe Morisot, and then with the artistic movements that followed it such as the Fauvists and the Cubists—Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) school that Kandinsky founded in his youth seem harmless and attractive, almost banal. At the time of their debut, they were part of a modernist revolution across all of the arts, reflective of the rapidly modernised societies of Western Europe—one which artists responded to, sometimes reactively, other times with utopian plans for a new type of society. Kandinsky, born to a middle-class Russian family, decided to become an artist in 1896, the year that he first saw Monet’s Haystacks in an exhibition in Moscow. “That it was a haystack the catalogue informed me. I could not recognise it. This non-recognition was painful to me. I considered that the painter had no right to paint indistinctly. I dully felt that the object of the painting was missing. And I noticed with surprise and confusion that the picture not only gripped me, but impressed itself ineradicably on my memory. Painting took on a fairy-tale power and splendor,”[1] he once said, conveying to audiences today exactly how shocking the revolution in the arts was. As I walked through Kandinsky’s exhibition on the West Bund, filled with schoolchildren on tours jostling each other, I couldn’t help but wonder if their young minds were getting blown away just how Kandinsky’s was on encountering Monet so many decades earlier.

Opera was another huge inspiration for him, with Wagner’s Lohengrin, a fully encompassing spectacle that Wagner called the “Gesamtkunstwerk”, or total work of art, inspiring the young artist with a sense of what the arts could do. The grand, nationalist mythologies of Wagner inspired everybody who saw them, but left many with second thoughts about the intoxicating power of mass spectacle. Artists at the turn of the 20th century were at the centre of tumultuous debates about art, and whether it should represent reality in an objective way, or in subjective stylisations, and how artists should interact with society at large. Choosing abstraction and subjective visions, rather than straightforward representation, was an inflammatory choice for viewers like the young Kandinsky, partly because it insisted that the world could be understood only as a subjective and individual experience.

At the start of his career, Kandinsky went to Munich to explore his vocation as an artist. One of curator Angela Lampe’s most provocative claims is that Kandinsky was inspired not only by the folk arts of his native Russia, but by his collection of East Asian lithographs and prints from China and Japan, which are shown in the first room of the show. Indeed, Kandinsky was a descendant of the Manchu chieftain Gantimur, which had come into Russia during Genghis Khan’s Mongol sweep of Europe in the 12th century. Asia, and a disorderly Russian life which was everything that clean, modernist Europe was not, preoccupied Russians of Kandinsky’s generation, from poet Alexander Blok to novelist Andrei Bely. Whatever the source was—and for an artist whose work embraced subjectivity and daydreams as fully as Kandinsky, it’s hard to pin down the exact etymology—Kandinsky’s paintings experimented with a wild, colourful realm of the spirit that couldn’t be tethered down by modern European urban life, manifested in his early paintings such as Study for Painting with Troika (1911) and Untitled (1908-1909).

Once in modernised Europe, though, Kandinsky began to paint works rooted in dreams, Russian folk art, and modernist metropolitan life. The revolution in painting led by the impressionists had led to an experimental feeling in the arts; and as uprooted individuals were deprived of the collective, agrarian life that had characterised life in Europe for centuries, art infused with spirituality came to take the place of older rituals for the urbanised middle class. Kandinsky’s work became increasingly abstract, blurs of paint representing figures in motion, like the horseback rider dressed in blue that gave the name to his Munich circle, Der Blaue Reiter. In the painting of the same name, the blurred horseback rider galloping through an impressionistic landscape could be seen as the artist traveling through his times, unable to get a clear grasp on what he was passing; later on, Kandinsky’s friend Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus would resonate in a similar way, looking backwards as well as forwards at an unpredictable history in motion.

The colours, Kandinsky felt, represented spiritual urges, of the same variety that Freud was writing about in nearby Vienna, or the Rite of Spring ballet that Kandinsky’s compatriot Stravinsky debuted in Paris in the same year that Der Blaue Reiter released its manifesto. And yet, the radical energies and spiritual alienation felt by Kandinsky and his friends weren’t isolated to artists, as the outbreak of World War I in 1914 would prove. Kandinsky went home to Russia after nearly 20 years abroad. The exhibition tracks this all with a timeline of events and photographs of Kandinsky and his associates, as well as the Moscow of that time, bringing a lost historical era to life.

 

Installation view of “Kandinsky: The Pioneer of Abstract Art” at West Bund Museum, Shanghai, 2021. Image courtesy of West Bund Museum.
Installation view of “Kandinsky: The Pioneer of Abstract Art” at West Bund Museum, Shanghai, 2021. Image courtesy of West Bund Museum.
Installation view of “Kandinsky: The Pioneer of Abstract Art” at West Bund Museum, Shanghai, 2021. Image courtesy of West Bund Museum.

 

Kandinsky’s next decade was spent swirling through the Russian revolution and early Soviet government, as the borders between art and life became diaphanous to the point of vanishing. By 1922, Kandinsky returned to Germany, chastened by the revolution; his individualistic spirituality couldn’t adapt to the new Russian reality, no matter how he tried. In the radical German design school, Bauhaus, he and the European avant-garde of his time tried to design a new sort of life, a modernist one, distinct from Kandinsky’s work in the Soviet cultural world as well as the rural, agrarian past of his earlier work. Kandinsky’s abstraction, colours, lines and dots, came into its own at the Bauhaus, as he broke through to purer abstraction. Politics caught up with him again as his art was deemed “degenerate art” by the Nazis and he fled Germany for Paris in 1933, in the wake of the Nazi takeover. In Paris, Kandinsky spent his final years returning to the inspiration of his early days, practicing a spiritually infused art for art’s sake, channeling his individual preoccupations into his painting, no longer seeking to answer the big questions of politics.

Kandinsky’s career—first as an abstract painter, then as a Soviet art bureaucrat, his years involved with Bauhaus, and finally as an artist painting l’arte pour l’arte (“Art for art’s sake”)—was a diagram of the trajectory that artists went through as they charted transformative changes in how societies operated, how they represented themselves, and what degree of independence an artist could have within them. As we walk through the exhibition, we see his artistic and personal evolution unfolding in chronological order, ending with the triumph of his art, even as he was an exile from both of the countries that he spent his best years in. His art still speaks to us today—encoded in abstract forms of his own design, it leaves us room for new inspirations of our own.

 

[1] Lindsay, Kenneth C. (1982). Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art. G.K. Hall & Co. p. 363.

 

Kandinsky: The Pioneer of Abstract Art
1 May – 5 September 2021
West Bund Museum, Shanghai

 

 

 
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