Book Reviews: Kandinsky Watercolors -- Kandinsky Watercolors Catologue Raisonne (Vol. 1, 1900-1921 and Vol. 2, 1922-1944) Edited by Vivian Endicott Barnett

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Vivian Endicott Barnett. Kandinsky Watercolors Catalogue Raisonne. Vol. 1, 1900-1921. 555 pp.; 80 color ills., 650 b/w Vol. 2, 1922-1944. 610 pp.; 168 color ills., 815 b/w Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992-94. $540.00 for both

The publication date of this journal, December 1994, coincides with the fiftieth anniversary of Kandinsky's death. It is thus appropriate to celebrate the publication of the third installment in the projected catalogues raisonne of his entire oeuvre. Following the publication of the catalogue of graphic works in 1970 and of the paintings in two volumes in 1982 and 1984, we now welcome the two volumes of watercolors edited by Vivian Endicott Barnett and published by Cornell University Press in 1992 and 1994. Presumably the catalogue of drawings will follow. Can the master's likeness in marble or bronze be in the offing? But the latter is hardly likely, for, as Kandinsky somewhat dourly predicted, such an irony would signal the final arrival of the masses at an understanding of his work and, as current controversies suggest, such is far from the case.(1)

Any catalogue raisonne is cause for celebration, representing as it must years of detective work and untold expense in order to display for the delectation of scholar and collector alike the riches of a great artist. Certainly in this lavish double volume with its 1,368 items, Barnett has given us much to celebrate. In terms of sheer hard work and persistence, the result is more than commendable given the constraints under which she had to work, both inherited and imposed.

Vasily Kandinsky, once anathema to many of his contemporaries, is now considered indisputably a major innovator in the art of the twentieth century. Yet both because of and in spite of his genius, he remains among the least understood of modern artists. Unlike the work of the earthy, accessible Pablo Picasso, Kandinsky's more cerebral art remained less approachable until the 1970s. The triad of Kandinsky exhibitions initiated by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum under the directorship of Thomas Messer during the 1980s, however, launched a deluge of new research.(2) Not surprisingly, the formalist balloon had burst; the once unsullied martyr of "abstraction" was suddenly revealed to have existed within the contexts of the turn-of-the-century fad of Theosophy, of Jugendstil and Art Nouveau, of Symbolism. He was shown to have been subjected to the art politics of Russia's avant-garde and the Bauhaus, a victim of both Marxist and Nazi politics, an emigrant to the psychological traumas of Surrealism and the aesthetic wars of Paris in the 1930s. Now new information has begun to filter out of Russia where the first Soviet retrospective of Kandinsky's work was staged in 1989, followed by further revealing publications. And the end is not in sight. A new study by this author, presaged by essays published in 1986 and 1987 respectively, will add yet another perspective with its focus on Kandinsky's ethnographic experience and knowledge.(3)

What the catalogues raisonne contribute to this somewhat chaotic yet vastly stimulating situation is a steadying keel. Barnett's new volumes remind us once again of the sheer beauty created by Kandinsky at his best and lead us again to wonder at his achievement. In the end his consummate mastery of technique combined with an overarching intellect and the sensibilities of a natural poet-musician-painter cannot fail to impress even the most skeptical.

Barnett's credentials for editing the catalogue of Kandinsky's watercolors are unquestioned. Her expertise began with her first foray as author of the essay "Kandinsky Watercolors" in the exhibition catalogue of a selection of watercolors from the Guggenheim's collection in 1980.(4) In that preliminary study she dealt for the first time in detail with Kandinsky's mastery of the technique, describing in general terms his exploration of a vast variety of combinations of media (tempera, gouache, watercolor with, at times, oil, India ink, and pencil). …