Vasily Kandinsky’s sunny abstract painting Improvisation 27 (Garden of Love II) came to New York 100 years ago, as part of the Armory Show of 1913. It was the first time Americans had seen a Kandinsky, and it piqued the interest of the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, who bought it for $500. Kandinsky’s work also caught the eye of the collector Arthur Jerome Eddy, who subsequently purchased a wide selection of the artist’s work. It was Eddy who then persuaded his friend Edwin R. Campbell to commission four panels by Kandinsky for the entrance hall to his new apartment at 635 Park Avenue.

Despite Stieglitz’s apprehensions about the “stupidity” of American viewers, the United States has done well by Kandinsky. In fact, American collectors of the Russian-born artist are a focus of both the current show and an essay by Vivian Endocott Barnett in the accompanying catalogue, “Kandinsky Collectors in America, 1913–1930.” This comes as no surprise, since a more recent American collector, whose Composition V forms a commanding centerpiece of the show, is the president of the Neue Galerie himself, Ronald Lauder.

Lauder chose well; his Composition V (1913), with its somber plums, grays, and browns, walled around by a looping band of black, occupies a crucial moment in Kandinsky’s turn toward abstraction. The picture’s hidden iconography was inspired by the Biblical story of the Last Judgment. An orchestral elaboration of abstract rhythms, it encodes at its edges horns and onion-domed towers. The same towers occupy the center of Picture with Archer (1909), which typifies the imagery of the Blaue Reiter circle in Munich, with its leaping horse and color-soaked brushy trees. Other fine examples by Kandinsky’s colleagues—Franz Marc, Marianne von Weref-kin, August Macke, and Paul Klee—reveal their shared lyrical sense of landscape and symbol. In the years leading up to 1913, Kandinsky explored the language of nonobjective form and rhythmic color in Composition IV through VII. Much is made in the exhibition catalogue of Kandinsky’s affinity for music (“Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings”), but, though it is alluded to, more might be made of the theosophical underpinnings of Kandinsky’s art.

As Hilton Kramer writes in The Triumph of Modernism (2006), it was mystical speculations such as the ones put forth in Annie Besant and C. W. Leadbetter’s Thought-Forms that showed Kandinsky a way out of the representation of observable objects. The correspondences Kandinsky draws, in On the Spiritual in Art (1912), between color and feeling, for example, owe a debt to this theosophical work. Perhaps what Kandinsky’s affective language of color (drawn from Leadbetter and Besant) shares with abstract painterly technique and the music of Schönberg—which “leads us into a new realm, where musical experiences are no longer acoustic but purely spiritual”—is the notion of rhythm, which, taken broadly, informs artistic composition across the plastic, performing, and literary arts. Harvey Gross describes this rhythmic principle in Sound and Form in Lyric Poetry (1964): “Rhythm is neither outside of a poem’s meaning nor an ornament to it. Rhythmic structures are expressive forms, cognitive elements, communicating those experiences which rhythmic consciousness can alone communicate.” This arcane notion of a “rhythmic consciousness,” adumbrated by Kandinsky in his writings on a new spiritualism in art, is the organizing principle behind the four panels for Campbell—a modernist masterpiece of pure rhythm and the high point of the exhibition.

Whereas Mondrian, also of a theosophical bent, made a spiritual necessity of straight lines and primary colors, Kandinsky preferred more sensual, energetic curves. When later he was invited to teach at the Bauhaus in Weimar by Walter Gropius, Kandinsky took up the straight line, but the spiritual impulse had lost some of its urgency. As Kramer puts it, “Within a decade after 1913, he would . . . abandon the Expressionist component [in his work]. . . . The straight line would never become for him, as it did for Mondrian, either a sign of his spiritual mission or an exclusive component of his aesthetic.”

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 32 Number 6, on page 44
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