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Kandinsky Re-Visited

Article excerpt

Annegret Hoberg, ed. Wassily Kandinsky and Gabriele Munter: Letters and Reminiscences, 1902-1914. Munich: Prestel-Verlag, 1994. 160 pp.; 49 color ills., 37 b/w. $25.00

Jelena Hahl-Koch. Kandinsky. New York: Rizzoli, 1993. 431 pp.; 220 color ills., 200 b/w. $150.00

Peg Weiss. Kandinsky and Old Russia: The Artist as Ethnographer and Shaman. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995. 291 pp.; 52 color ills., 151 b/w. 150.00

Magdalena Dabrowski. Kandinsky: Compositions. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1995. 128 pp.; 37 color ills., 75 b/w. $40.00

Exhibition schedule: Museum of Modern Art, New York, January 25-April 25, 1995; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, June 1-September 3, 1995

Vivian Endicott Barnett and Helmut Friedel, eds. Vasily Kandinsky, A Colorful Life: The Collection of the Lenbachhaus, Munich. Cologne: DuMont Buchverlag; New York: Abrams, 1995. 664 pp.; 618 color ills., 105 b/w. $95.00

Abstraction continues to occupy the minds of museum curators and interest in the pioneers of abstract art is flourishing. The 1996 exhibition Abstraction in the Twentieth Century at the Guggenheim and 1995 Occultismus and Avantgarde at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt are only the most recent examples of this continuing interest. Since the 1986 Los Angeles County Museum exhibition The Spiritual in Art, catalogues and books focusing on the pioneering figures of Malevich, Mondrian, Kandinsky, and, to a lesser extent, Kupka have proliferated. In the past three years alone, five books have been added to the voluminous literature on the pioneering abstractionist Wassily Kandinsky. The question is, have these recent studies advanced our understanding of critical issues involving abstraction in general and Kandinsky in particular?

Annegret Hoberg, a curator at the Stadtische Galerie in the Lenbachhaus, Munich (the primary repository of the works and letters of Kandinsky and his pre-World War I companion Gabriele Manter), provides a tantalizing introduction to one issue that has been much debated. To what degree did Munter contribute to the development of abstraction? Until the complete correspondence is published, this edition of carefully selected excerpts from their massive number of letters, supplemented with illustrations of their works as well as documentary photographs, will serve as a good starting point for investigations into the personal dynamics of the two artists as they strove to win recognition for their experimental paintings.

Hoberg supplements the exchanges written during trips to their respective families and friends with excerpts from Munter's chronicle of 1911 and from her reminiscences. Arranged into five chronological sections from the beginning of their friendship in 1902 until their separation in 1914, selections from letterssuch as those written during Kandinsky's trip to Russia in the fall of 1910 and Munter's visit to the Rhineland in the summer of 1911-provide a clear map of their contacts with artists and patrons in Russia and Germany and brief glimpses into their methods of working. The last grouping of letters, from Kandinsky's 1913 trip to Russia, presents a stark picture (amid all the accounts of meetings with artists such as Larionov and Gonchorova) of a relationship in decline. One needn't subscribe to a psychoanalytic approach to be aware of the connection between the deterioration of their relationship and Munter's frequent illnesses.

Art historians interested in issues of gender will find much to involve them, even in this abbreviated edition. However, clearer identification of patrons and artists mentioned in the letters and more exact references to the sources of material quoted in the preface and introduction would have made the edition easier to use. Although the excerpted letters do not provide many clues to the intellectual context of abstraction, Hoberg's judicious selection conveys an evenhanded picture of the dynamics of a failed romance and adds to the growing literature on artist couples. …