New York

“Kandinsky In Munich 1896–1914”

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum | New York

“Kandinsky in Munich 1896–1914” Large museum exhibitions, particularly retrospectives of any kind, have a habit of confounding the organizers’ intentions. We are told to believe one thing, bludgeoned with evidence and explanatory text, but very often something else presents itself and, in demanding attention, destroys the official thesis. Among shows held in recent years one can think of Andy Warhol’s portraits at the Whitney Museum, the Mark Rothko and Arshile Gorky exhibitions at the Guggenheim, and, most spectacularly, the Pablo Picasso show at the Museum of Modern Art. The latter backfired to such an extent that, despite the overly determined hanging, Cubism was made to look boring (which it probably is if confined to the work of one man), while the last paintings looked willfully neglected by a curator who seemed to find them embarrassing. We came away wanting to know more of those and much less of Cubism—which was surely not William Rubin’s intention.

A similar shift of emphasis happens in this exhibition. It is meant to prove once and for all Wassily Kandinsky’s preeminence among the Expressionist/Abstractionist painters in prewar Germany, and it certainly does show him to have played a central role in the artistic life of Munich. But it also inadvertently raises the uncomfortable question of failure. Kandinsky’s work remains an important historical marker, but it very clearly fails to rise to greatness. It is to the credit of the organizers of the exhibition that we come away with some idea of how this came to be.

The show attempts to place Kandinsky in a milieu, and the milieu is a decidedly precious one. We are shown examples of the work of his teachers and of his peers, fin de siècle academia and Jugendstil artifice. We are shown examples of contemporary architecture and interior design. We are shown a great deal of graphic design. In short, we are given a comprehensive view of the Munich esthetic of the time. To fill out the picture further, we are also given a brief social history in one of the catalogue essays. And throughout we are shown Kandinsky in the thick of it, participating in every esthetic wrinkle of the period.

His energy and ambition are clear from the very beginning. Almost as soon as he arrived in Munich he was organizing classes, interest groups, exhibitions, and publications, quickly establishing himself and those who moved with him as the best of a new generation. And he was a good student too, quickly learning what he could from Post-Impressionism, Jugendstil, and Bavarian folk art, forging his own synthesis—a synthesis which from early on was obviously moving towards an extremely mannered abstraction, a very personalized, dandified version of the abstraction already evident in Jugendstil furnishings and housewares.

So what is all this about failure? Quite simply it’s that the actual paintings, even the accredited masterpieces, give little more than small pleasures. There are finely painted areas, areas lively with color and line; but it is all so careful and so small, despite its occasionally apocalyptic pretensions. For the fact is that Kandinsky, along with most of the artists in Munich at the time, was an escapist. His work is ridden with nostalgia and sentimentality. Aside from a few early works which find him painting the world in front of him, the bulk of his paintings here are of an idealized past, whether an idyll of knights and ladies in Russia, or of happy peasants in Bavaria. He wants to celebrate an imaginary age of chivalry, and so to forget the pressures and contradictions of that first, overheated decade of the century. Kandinsky failed as an artist because he was always in flight, yet lacked the courage or perseverance to go all the way: he left Russia, but never really made it to Paris (until later, when it was safe). From the evidence of this exhibition the capital city of the mad King Ludwig was a suitable refuge, a suitable place for the artist to dream, while his contemporaries in Moscow and Paris attempted to deal with real life and made real art.

Thomas Lawson