The World Reshaped
Hall, James, New Statesman (1996)
The juvenilia of major modern artists can often be pretty awful, giving few pointers to their later brilliance. But there are many different kinds of awfulness. Jackson Pollock's early work is mostly dire, but it's dire in the most media-friendly of ways. His subject matter is diabolical (The Moon Woman Cuts the Circle), horny and scary (Naked Man with Knife). Early Pollock may sometimes be a pile of testosterone-fuelled bollocks, but if you've got a feature article to write, so much the better.
The juvenilia of Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), the Russian pioneer of abstract art, is awful in the least media-friendly of ways. It is decidedly wimpy. Take, for example, the blobby, neo-impressionist oil painting Russian Beauty in a Landscape (1903-04). It refers to a traditional song in which a bride sadly declares that she will hang her virgin's cap on a birch, knowing that the tree will soon be felled. Or how about the equally blobby The Arrival of the Merchants (1905), which depicts a crowd during the Middle Ages that has gathered around a merchant ship docked in a Russian port? These are the softest of soft primitivism: there's little to excite commissioning editors here.
Not surprisingly, there have always been critics who have been bemused and embarrassed by the perceived mawkishness and naffness of Kandinsky's early work. Some have even regarded the non-objective work from his great pre-first world war period, with its pulsating smorgasbords of colour and form, as equally tainted - almost as though he were the William Morris of abstraction. In 1911, when Kandinsky was living in Munich, the critic Anatoly Lunacharsky described him as "one of the worst of the worst . . . a person who is evidently in the last stages of psychic disintegration". After he had returned to revolutionary Russia, the artist El Lissitzky condemned him as an "antediluvian" anachronism at a time of "organisation, clarity and precision".
More recently and unforgivably, Kandinsky was excluded from a major survey show at MOMA, New York, "Primitivism in Modern Art" (1984), despite being the only modernist who was a trained ethnographer. Kandinsky's first major experience of folk art and culture came when he undertook a field trip to the Urals in northern Russia to study the Zyrian people. They lived in vividly painted houses and held a wide variety of religious beliefs. His report is still cited in ethnographic literature to this day. …