Visual Arts: First, but Not among Equals Kandinsky Is Considered the Founder of Abstract Art. So Why Does So Muc H of His Work Look Derivative? by Tom Lubbock
Lubbock, Tom, The Independent (London, England)
One night, Wassily Kandinsky went into his Munich studio and noticed an unfamiliar picture. It was a weird, unrecognisable image, but it seemed to him "of extraordinary beauty, glowing with an inner radiance". It was, in fact, one of his own pictures, which happened to have been placed upside down. But it was this experience that revealed to Kandinsky the power of abstract art. And soon he was doing some of the first abstract pictures there ever were.
Not quite the very first. But, like all originating moments, the "first abstract picture" is a grey area-cum -red herring. Questions of priority get lost in questions of definition. There are several candidates. It depends what you mean by abstract (or by picture). And in the nature of things, it's not even clear what was Kandinsky's own first abstract. But the turning point is about 1910-11, when brightly coloured figures-in- a-landscape become brightly coloured something elses.
The change occurs in the first room of Kandinsky: Watercolours and other Works on Paper, at the Royal Academy, a pretty comprehensive survey of the artist's career, and his first retrospective in Britain. Kandinsky was in his mid-forties. He wasn't just one of the great originals, he was one of the great late-starters. Born in Russia in 1866, he was 30 years old before - bowled over by a Monet - he abandoned a law career to go to art school in Germany. For a decade he did folksy-fairylandish images. He got a bit of Fauvism. He founded the Expressionist Blue Rider movement with Franz Marc. Then he made the big development. Why? With hindsight, we tend to take Kandinsky's (or anyone's) move to abstraction too much for granted - as if abstraction was an obviously profitable modern art option, just waiting to be taken up by some forward- looking artist. And we praise the artists who made the advance, without asking for further explanation or justification. But the step needs a bit more motivation; a bit more content. The tale of the upside-down picture was no doubt true, but hardly the whole story. The embarrassing truth is that, like quite a lot of modern art, Kandinsky's abstraction begins in mumbo-jumbo. He was a follower of Madame Blavatsky's Theosophy and Rudolph Steiner's Anthroposophy. He believed in auras and "thought-forms". He was interested in, may well have possessed, the faculty of synaesthesia, where one sense sets the others off (sounds visualised, colours felt, etc). He understood shapes and colours to have specific moods and meanings. And so, for Kandinsky, a non-representational picture wasn't an arrangement of pure forms. It was a very direct sort of soul music. Kandinsky was himself a great explainer and justifier. He expounded his idea in works such as On the Spiritual in Art, which, if they weren't major documents of modern art, would plainly qualify as crank pamphletry. Of course, this doesn't really matter - not because the theory is irrelevant to the art (it's integral), but because you can't do anything with it. I mean, a mediumistic critic might come forward to assure us that a particular Kandinsky, for example, was an excellent rendering of a particular "thought- form"; or again, a very poor one. But this judgement is beyond most viewers. Besides, a likeness isn't everything. You have to take them, as best you can, as pictures. Which is a pity. For, giving all due honour to Kandinsky as an inaugurator, I think you have to admit that the pictures are not much good, and indeed, often pretty hopeless. What's odder is that it's actually very doubtful how many of those abstractions are strictly speaking abstract. And connected to that, what's odder still is that this founder looks like an imitator. Nobody had done quite this sort of picture before, but the way the pictures fail suggests a follower- on who can't get the trick. Abstraction? Well, take the breakthrough images from 1910 to 1916 (the First World War compelled Kandinsky to return to Russia). …