Magazine article The Spectator

Give Us a Clue

Magazine article The Spectator

Give Us a Clue

Article excerpt

If ever I was passing the Courtauld Institute in London with five minutes to spare, I'd chuck the woman behind the desk a fiver, jog up the 300-year-old spiral staircase and go and look at a picture by Wassily Kandinsky called 'Rapallo: Grey Day'. I know nothing about painting and I knew nothing about Kandinsky except what it said on the wall: that he was Russian and that he travelled around Europe at the turn of the last century with a female artist called Münter. If I thought anything at all, I thought that perhaps Mr Courtauld had unwisely subscribed to someone else's enthusiasm for a passing fad, but they'd kept it on display because it was so pretty.

Knowledge or no knowledge, however, looking at this picture always did the trick. No other picture has had anything like the same effect. It made me glad to be alive and thrilled by my own prospects. I can't explain it. Something to do with a similar feeling -- sexual, probably -- that used to come over me when I was adolescent and looked at nature.

Whatever the cause, to run upstairs and be moved without fail by this little picture was well worth a fiver.

I'd never heard of Kandinsky. Nor had I heard the name pronounced. When I thought about 'Rapallo: Grey Day', more often than not his name escaped me and I was left with just an authorless image, which was somehow more fitting. And then one day my friend Sharon surprised me by telling me, out of the blue, that the man she'd spent the night with, and was hoping to spend the night with again, liked Kandinsky. Who was this Kandinsky? Had I heard any of his albums?

I'd been introduced to Sharon's bloke.

Not nice. I'd say he was Sharon's penchant for what she calls a 'bad boy' taken to a dangerous extreme. You could characterise him without fear of contradiction as a violent criminal. If art meant anything at all to him, it was as a synonym for deception. The first thing he told me about himself was that he was frightened he was going to kill someone.

And yet once I'd got over the shock of sharing Kandinsky, I was pleased it was with a violent criminal. The Russian word for crime, prestuplenie, literally means 'stepping across'. Perhaps Kandinsky's art was accessible only to transgressors of one kind or another. …

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