If Wassily Kandinsky had lived only as long as Raphael and Caravaggio, he wouldn't merit so much as a footnote in the history of art. Indeed, before he turned 30, his one act of artistic initiative--as far as we know--was to buy a paint box at the age of 10. Born in Moscow to an affluent family of the upper middle class, Kandinsky (1866-1944) trained in law and then in economics and then in ethnology--anything, it seems, but art.
So it must have felt like a bolt from the blue when he decided, in 1897, to take up the great cause of painting. He moved to Schwabing, the bohemian district of Munich, and signed up for instruction with the Slovenian artist Anton Azhbe. A new and uneven show at the Guggenheim celebrates his subsequent achievement over a career of almost 50 years, a career that began in the late 1890s, amid the dream fugues of late symbolism, and ended after the liberation of Paris, amid the angularity of geometric abstraction.
Unlike the landmark exhibition that the Guggenheim mounted in the early 1980s, over five years and in three installments, this exhibition does not seem to indulge any curatorial or scholarly illusions about its underlying consequence. The Guggenheim (together with the Städtische Galerie in Munich and the Centre Pompidou in Paris) has mounted this exhibition for much the same reason that orchestras play Beethoven: Simply put, that is what people want and expect from them.
Indeed, the Guggenheim itself began life, under Baroness Hilla Rebay, as the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, its primary purpose being to promulgate the art and philosophy of Wassily Kandinsky. And yet, the present display lacks the focus of the Guggenheim retrospectives of the early '80s. More or less a crowd-pleaser, it passes in quick and somewhat arbitrary review of Kandinsky's long career, paying more attention to his later years than to his beginnings. Let it also be said that, in the rough and tumble selection of paintings on display, some weaker works appear alongside masterpieces that exemplify the general strength and confidence that define his art. "Lyrical," from early in 1911, feels rather slight while, in the nearly contemporary "Impression III (Concert)," a fine spray of yellow appears to have slipped away from the artist's control.
Although it does not celebrate or make much of the fact, this exhibition roughly coincides with the centennial of Kandinsky's creation, in his Schwabing studio in 1910, of the first abstract paintings in the history of art--at least according to his account. This was the goal to which the most advanced critics had been groping for almost half a century.
"All art is constantly aspiring to the condition of music," Walter Pater famously said in 1877, by which he meant the elimination of content in the pursuit of pure form. Half a generation later, the French painter Maurice Denis--all of 19 years old at the time--defined a painting, for the first time, as "a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order."
But if Denis, like a few other artists of his day, could see the promised land of abstract art, it was Kandinsky who not only took us there, but did so with a definitive and resounding mastery that has rarely been equaled and has never been surpassed. In so doing, he flung wide open the arcana imperii of visual art, with the astounding discovery that form could exist without content. This was the pictorial equivalent of splitting the atom. By comparison, Picasso's cubistic fracturing of reality into tiny facets--despite its huge but fugitive influence--amounted to little more than a distraction.
Of course, Kandinsky did not start out as an abstract painter. If this show were less of a celebration and more of a scholarly exhibition, and if it were not reliant mainly on the extensive but fortuitous holdings of the three institutions that have mounted it, more attention would have been paid to the interesting question of the artist's early evolution. His first known efforts, like "Trysting Place" (1901), are almost academic exercises. But by the time the Guggenheim takes up the tale in 1907, Kandinsky's "Motley Life" has fully embraced the liberties of expressionism. In this painting's evocation of traditional Russian life, it is true, Kandinsky retains an illustrator's attachment to the subject depicted. What is remarkable is the sovereign authority with which he already uses paint and composes his image.
By 1909 Kandinsky, in Paris and Murnau, has rejected the child-like fabulism of "Motley Life" and, with his expressionistic simplification of forms, and his volatile sense of color, rejoins the mainstream of modern art. The traces of cubistic geometry--which had been nothing more than a flirtation in him--now melt away, and in their place is a riot of primary and secondary colors--still childlike in their force and directness--and yet so sophisticated that they embody what used to be called "the grand manner." And this, perhaps inadvertently, is the dominant theme that emerges from the Guggenheim exhibition.
Kandinsky would seem to be an odd exemplar of this grand manner, or grand style, as Sir Joshua Reynolds and Matthew Arnold called it. The term is generally ascribed to an obviously if not explicitly aristocratic context and to a classical attitude, as found in the art and poetry of Raphael and Homer, for example, rather than Michelangelo and Euripides. By contrast, Kandinsky was a committed modernist whose orgiastic exuberation of forms and colors seems more Dionysian than Apollonian. In addition, like many sensitive souls of his generation, he was moved to embrace, in the darkened chambers of Madame Blavatsky, the gnostic certainties of theosophy. For him, certain colors and forms had the power to move men, through beauty, to that state of spiritual elevation that was the guiding principle and unwavering ambition of his art.
And yet, once he attained artistic maturity, certainly by 1910, the year of his first abstractions, he revealed himself, in all the varied styles that appear at the Guggenheim, to be an absolute master. What common quality could possibly link the fabulous "Blue Rider" of 1903 (not in the show) with the unbending geometric precision of "Several Circles," from 1926, circles of many hues set against a severe nocturnal ground? And what links that fine work with the frantic anarchy of the four early abstractions of the year 1914, painted for Edwin R. Campbell and now in the Museum of Modern Art? And what, finally, unites those works with the ideograms, perfectly drawn and quite inscrutable, that make up his final, surrealist-inspired works?
In the great generality of Kandinsky's art, mastery itself becomes the message, a mastery of means to an end that suggests the attainment of the spiritual elevation that he felt to be art's highest aim. And that mastery, by the very nature of its competence, is a kind of classicism, a transcendence of all that is contingent and extraneous. In its definitiveness and consistency, it is the true 20th-century equivalent of the Grand Manner in culture.
But such mastery is far more than merely a technical accomplishment. For there was, without doubt, a real greatness to Kandinsky. Even at his most airheaded and quixotic, in his theosophical exultations in color and pure form, Kandinsky exhibits, in both his art and his life, a loftiness of aspiration and an unconquerable nobility of character that are without parallel among the motley array of geniuses, mediocrities, and outright quacks whom we have to thank for modern and postmodern art. Rather, we must cast a retrospective glance on the likes of Monet and Ingres for his equal in combining technical brilliance, amplitude, and elevated humanity.
James Gardner, the former architecture critic for the New York Sun, recently translated the Christiad of Marco Girolamo Vida (Harvard).