Magazine article The Spectator

Abstract Pioneer

Magazine article The Spectator

Abstract Pioneer

Article excerpt

Part of the purpose of Norman Davies's splendid book, Europe: A History (Pimlico) is to move our sense of this continent eastwards. It is a shift which we in Britain could do with in the aesthetic as well as the historical dimension. We tend to think of ourselves, artistically, as sandwiched between Paris on the one side and New York on the other, with a highway southwards towards Italy. German art is far less well-known, while anything further east almost drops off the mental map. Hence the current exhibition at the Royal Academy is the first ever major show within these shores devoted to Vasily Kandinsky, one of the most significant painters of the 20th centurybut one who was born in Russia and who did much of his best work in Germany.

It is an exhibition which tracks the whole of Kandinsky's career, but does so on a small scale, through the medium of works on paper. As such, it both does and doesn't finally introduce this artist to the British public.

Kandinsky was a figure of huge importance, the first painter to turn seriously to abstraction. As such he is an important ancestor of Pollock, Rothko, Gorky and De Kooning. He is also, however, an eccentric, not to say cranky figure whom it is hard to assess. Brought up in monied circumstances in Tsarist Russia, he came to art late. He had already trained in law, and obtained a doctorate, when, at 29, he suddenly changed course, moved to Munich and became an art student. It was a brave decision which smacks of a crisis -- linked perhaps to the unhappiness of his first marriage.

The switch to art was all the braver since, as is shown by early work reproduced in the excellent catalogue - with an essay by Frank Whitford - he wasn't much good. In fact he carried on being not terribly outstanding until he was well over 40 - confirming the rule that great abstract painters tend to be less than brilliant figurative artists (see the juvenilia of Pollock, Rothko). Throughout his career, and especially at the beginning, there is a suggestion of the gifted amateur about Kandinsky some of his proto-abstract paintings look like inspired doodles. The earliest pieces on display at the Academy are far from adventurous -- Slavic extravaganzas in the manner of Beardsley, William Nicholson's prints, or Frank Brangwyn.

Born in 1866, Kandinsky was a rough contemporary of Seurat, Sickert and Toulouse-Lautrec. But it was not until shortly before the first world war that he got into his stride. He did so in a series of tremendously stylised landscapes which slowly became abstract -- although for a very long time figurative bits and pieces can be picked out in his paintings, a hill-top here, a horseman there (but then again the boundary between abstraction and figuration is indistinct to the point of non-existence, and completely `non-objective' art arguably impossible).

In Kandinsky paintings from this period, such as `Watercolour with Red Spot', or `Study for Painting with White Lines', the world is wobbling, melting, disintegrating. In the latter, one seems to discern a bridge and a grassy knoll whirling and floating towards the sky. But the effect is not of a horrifying Armageddon, but ecstatic, a rosy apocalypse. This is entirely in line with Kandinsky's enthusiasm for the occult in those years. …

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