New York

Wassily Kandinsky

My thesis is simple: that in the last decade of his life, from 1934 to 1944, Kandinsky became more of a stylist and less of a spiritualist. The original motivation for the development of abstract painting had come and gone, brilliantly effecting its purpose: the creation of a medium for the delivery of religious meaning. While many critics regard the messianic language in which the younger Kandinsky expressed his determination to create a new art as more megalomaniac hyperbole than genuinely religious, I think he faced the same problem as many visionaries at the turn of the century, introspective religious thinkers as different as Van Gogh and Jung: the necessity, with the deterioration of the old Christian means of expression and the popularization of the scientific understanding of the world, of devising a new language to articulate religious experience.

If one compares the works of Kandinsky’s last decade with his innovative “Improvisations” of 1909–14, one finds them not only less improvisational and less introspective in import than the earlier paintings, but also less pure as “visual music.” One of the first descriptions of abstract painting in English is Roger Fry’s 1913 account of his experience of one of Kandinsky’s “Improvisations” as “pure visual music,” leading him to “no longer doubt the possibility of emotional expression by such abstract visual signs.” Fry observed that “after a time the improvisations become more definite, more logical, and closely knit in structure, more surprisingly beautiful in their color oppositions, more exact in their equilibrium.” In late Kandinsky the equilibrium is visible from the start. The sense of process generated by the improvisational approach of the earlier work is replaced by a sense of stable, predetermined structure. The biomorphic forms in these late works are sedimentations of process rather than process itself; it is as though the process were petrified while in motion, in a kind of ossification of the life force. The last works are more denotative than connotative, more descriptive than generative. Indeed, the title of Kandinsky’s last painting (March 1944), Tempered Elan, is an appropriate label for his entire output during this period. While his development of pictographic and biomorphic forms shows how seminal his work was for Abstract Expressionism, these forms in fact represent the exhaustion of his original improvisional vigor.

Is Kandinsky’s development paradigmatic for the Modern artist? I think so, especially if one considers his eliding of, yet flirtation with, the figure. In his early work Kandinsky struggled to eliminate the figure, asserting the sanctity of process in the face of the figure’s increasing insignificance. The figure was collapsing as a signifier of the sacred meaning of life, was becoming bankrupt as a vehicle for religious sensibility, and process was to take up the slack. In his late work Kandinsky returned to a figure of sorts—biomorphic figuration—and in doing so returned to the Symbolist origins of Modern art in general and his own art in particular. His ambiguous figures can be understood as mutants evolving from Odilon Redon’s already mutant creatures, as monsters Louis Pasteur thought were fit to live. At the same time they function as landscape elements–the flora and fauna of a cosmic space.

Kandinsky’s “paradoxical” reassertion of life, his recapitulation of his own development in the face of the threatened destruction of Europe by the Nazis, led him to an unexpected solution to two major problems of late-19th-century art: how to convincingly give life to the fictions and fantasies of the unconscious, and how to synthesize figure and landscape in unconscious recognition of the way landscape works as an objective correlative for human emotion. Thus the return to disguised or oblique figuration was not without its positive side. Moreover, Kandinsky’s 20th-century solution to these 19th-century problems occurred in the context of the 20th-century effort to make labor a sign of creative freedom. (This social ideal was realized only in art.) His allover field—his sense of the picture as an unbounded continuum—is his major statement of this mythical freedom, yet it is worth noting that it is simultaneous with his sense of the increasing mechanization of form. His biomorphic figures, in the very process of formation, become homunculi–robotic monsters. Ambiguously organic and mechanical, they are an unholy mix of life force and instrumental reason. The greatness of Kandinsky is not only art-historical—that he “anticipated” so much of what became pro forma in Abstract Expressionism—but that out of a subjectivist, spiritualist, introspective intention he was able to persuasively articulate a profound understanding of the contradictions of the 20th-century world. He showed that authentic abstraction can be powerful realism.

Donald Kuspit