Rider on the Storm: Haunted by Visions of Apocalypse and the Approach of War, Kandinsky Aimed to Create a Global "Spiritual Awakening". Richard Cork on the Mystic Who Revolutionised 20th-Century Painting
Cork, Richard, New Statesman (1996)
Hailed today as a revolutionary pioneer of 20th-century painting, Wassily Kandinsky was oddly hesitant about becoming an artist. Until the age of 30, he pursued an academic career in law and economics at Moscow University. From 1896, however, the combined impact of Monet's haystack paintings and Wagner's Lohengrin forced him to change direction. He left his native Russia and began all over again, studying art in Munich and falling in love with the talented young German painter Gabriele Munter.
He is already 40 by the time we enter the enthralling Tate Modern exhibition "Kandinsky: the path to abstraction". A man in a hurry, he threw himself into a decade filled with ceaseless experimentation. Travelling through Murnau, in the southern Bavarian Alps, he discovered an elemental world, studded with farmworkers' homes and foliage blazing fiercely against the dark mountain ranges beyond.
The landscape made him feel homesick for Russia, where he had relished the brilliant colours of painted icons and folk art in ancient wooden houses. A 1906 painting called Volga Song looks back to a remote past where heavily bearded travellers embark on an epic voyage in boats carved with images of wild animals. Yet there is nothing remotely traditional about Kandinsky's handling of paint. Excited by the "wild beast" movement in France, where Matisse and Andre Derain had led the Fauvist rebellion, he simplifies the Murnau landscape before bathing it in startlingly high-key colours.
Kandinsky, envying the freedom of the composer, tried to cast off art's heavy reliance on recognisable subjects. Inspired by his new Viennese friend Arnold Schoenberg, whose bold transformation of musical theory provided a parallel to avant-garde painting of the period, Kandinsky called his most ambitious paintings Improvisation or Composition. His subject matter became equally turbulent. Kandinsky was haunted by visions of the Last Judgement, in which avenging angels blow trumpets of doom capable of shattering everything in their path. The Bavarian mountains appear to tremble, and even Murnau's once-sturdy church seems on the edge of total collapse. But he did not view this Gotterdammerung with despair. Kandinsky's deeply felt and influential book Concerning the Spiritual in Art outlines his mystical belief that the sinful would be overcome by the sacred. He was convinced that the painter could be guided by the voice of "the invisible Moses", and he looked forward with confidence to a worldwide spiritual reawakening.
A 1911 photograph shows many religious images on the walls of Kandinsky's home in Munich, but in his own art he was determined to jettison overt references of this kind. In the same year he founded, with his equally adventurous friends Franz Marc and Alexej Jawlensky, the great expressionist movement called the Blue Rider. The image of a figure on a leaping horse surges across their Kandinsky-designed manifesto, The Blue Rider Almanac. It announces a desire to be liberated from the constraints of past art and to enter an undiscovered world where line and colour play far more emancipated roles.
Beside this feeling of exhilaration, however, Kandinsky's awareness of danger grows. …