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The prescience of “Kandinsky in 1914,” which opened this weekend at the Busch-Reisinger Museum, seems to have gone unnoticed. In his 1912 treatise On the Spiritual in Art, Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) wrote, “If…we consider that the spiritual revolution has taken on a new, fiery tempo, that even the most ‘established’ basis of man’s intellectual life…stands on the threshold of the dissolution of matter, then we can maintain that only a few ‘hours’ separate us from this pure composition.”
With the onset of the First World War, he added: “the first hour has already sounded.” This apocalyptic “dissolution,” which the artist foresaw in painterly terms as “explosions, patches that violently collided, despairing lines, eruptions, rumblings, burstings,” speaks as clearly to a revolution in artistic form as it does to the initial “rumblings” of international catastrophe.
The turn in his paintings from figural abstraction to expressive, purely non-objective forms around the year 1914 was not merely a formal exercise in “composition” but the visual instance of an explosion in ontological certainty, an intimation of amassing conflict.
From our own historical vantage point, so concerned as we are with issues of violence and war, it would be difficult not to hear the “sounding” of Kandinsky’s “first hour” as an ominous peal, a thunderclap, a clash of cymbals—announcing the end, if not of the world, then at least a certain way of perceiving it. Or perhaps it serves as a warning against excessive optimism.
To be sure, in 1914 Kandinsky’s adherence to theosophy lent his painting an idealism which we may now find untenable. The wildly expressionistic paintings in the current exhibition—images, in his words, of the “thundering collision of different worlds”—are bathed in the white, diaphanous light of a total spiritual order. The apparent chaos of disassociated lines, cacophanous colors, and uprooted forms are, in a similar way, organized into a careful design— a utopian map of what Kandinsky named the “new world called the work.” One is reminded here of his 1922 series of engravings, “Small Worlds,” an edition of which is available for viewing in the Busch-Reisinger Study Room.
Both of the works in the current exhibition are good examples of this titanic struggle sublated into violent unity. A four-panel ensemble commissioned for the vestibule of a private New York City apartment and on loan from New York’s Museum of Modern Art is particularly show-stopping: fugue-like, these paintings alternate between massive, roiling darkness and bursts of lapidary brilliance. At their most thrilling and their most dangerous, they reveal a world in explosive disarray, on the cusp of beatific reconstruction.
The exhibition is up from April 19 through July 13, 2003 at The Busch-Reisinger Museum. Gallery Talks: April 26 and June 8 at 2pm, June 21 and July 12 at 11:30am.
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