The Magazine

Late Mastery

The marriage of art and humanity in Kandinsky.

Jan 4, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 16 • By JAMES GARDNER
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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).