Amy and I are in New York for performances of Messiah with the Masterwork Chorus (in Morristown, NJ on Dec 19 and at Carnegie Hall, Dec 23). Following our first orchestra rehearsal, we visited the Guggenheim museum to see their Kandinsky retrospective.
Following a very eventful couple of weekends of Holiday concerts in Virginia, where works very dear to me spoke with equal depth to the audiences, I have been even more preoccupied with substance and meaning. I wrote previously about Finzi’s cantata In Terra Pax, and have posted several essays about the Chorale’s Britten Project. It was Britten’s difficult and little known suite, Christ’s Nativity, that made the strongest impression—to our pleasant surprise—on the Chorale’s Holiday concerts, and it was the Finzi cantata everyone was talking about following the Cantata Chorus concert (where Haydn and Vaughan Williams might have been the expected favorites).
And if that were not enough grist for our aesthetic mill, the Messiah we are singing for Andrew Megill is anything but another Messiah. For starters, the orchestra plays with exceptional sensitivity, and though using modern instruments, sounds like a top-notch Baroque orchestra. I have known Maestro Megill for 15 years, and every time we collaborate, I learn more and experience a deeper connection to the music and its content. He is among the most expressive and musical conductors I know.
We almost skipped the Guggenheim, as saturated with art as we were, but Kandinsky (1866-1944) proved to be the perfect companion. I have long loved his expressionist abstractions, and admired his writings on art. Friends with the Viennese modernist, Arnold Schönberg, Kandinsky is one of the most musical of painters. In his most famous book, On the Spiritual in Art, he likens painting to music. His synaesthesia (associations between the senses, particularly “seeing” colors with certain music, or “hearing” music when looking at certain colors) only heightened this connection.
Kandinsky described three types of painting, each with obvious musical associations. Impressions were based on real-life images (and yet still abstract) and reveal his debt to Monet, the post-impressionists AND Viennese expressionism (some of his early works from the turn of the century look like a mix of Monet, Van Gogh & Richard Gerstl).
Improvisations are just as the term implies: fluid abstractions that dance and seem to be in perpetual motion. They are so peripatetic, in fact, they appear to be three-dimensional, as one’s perception of line and depth changes with the perspective.
The last category of musical paintings, Compositions, are more formally conceived, with structure and form organizing the abstractions into at least the semblance of order.
Indeed, all three categories inform and intersect with the others. The Improvisations give the Impression of figures—birds, fish, people—thus the line between representation and abstraction is ever blurred. And the fluid, improvisatory abstractions of the “formal” Compositions are difficult to distinguish from the “true” Improvisations.
The exhibition is sprawling and literally spirals upwards, beautifully mirroring the museum’s architecture. The first floor displays some of the more derivative early work, with the main room devoted to four improvisatory panels representative of the abstract expressionism he pioneered in the second decade of the 20th c., following the publication of the aforementioned treatise, On the Spiritual in Art.
While the heart of the retrospective is devoted to those works, one sees the progression in the development of Kandinsky’s aesthetic, as representation yields to abstraction. His palette was among the most vivid of any 20th century artist, and his influence continues to be felt. If the heart of 20th century art was the Abstract Expressionism of American artists from Pollock & Rauschenberg to the still active Cy Twombly, then Kandinsky was father to each.
His style continued to develop through each decade of his long life, and was sometimes precipitated by forced exile. Following the productive period from c. 1907-1914, World War I forced him to leave Germany. He returned in the early 1920’s, and began collaborating with the architect Walter Gropius at the Bauhaus institute in Weimar. This period saw the artist’s style take the first in a series of turns towards a sparser, cleaner approach. His friendship with Paul Klee, and his interest in science, mathematics (and geometry in particular) informed works with more space & line.
Following the forced closing of the Bauhaus, and the Nazi’s labeling of Kandinsky’s work as “Degenerate Art” (Entartete Kunst) he settled in Paris. The final decade of his prolific career showed his indebtedness to surrealism, and a continued paring down & lightening of his compositions. Miro’s playful, quasi-impressionist abstractions appear as particular influences, along with the continued interest in geometry and science. Some of these works from the 1930’s juxtapose surrealist images in works of tight order and control. Gone are the expressionist improvisations and bold splashes of primary color. The palette is softer, the canvasses ordered by surrealist figures that resemble hieroglyphic symbols. One senses the aging artist composing an epilogue to a sprawling career with a composition of the highest order, a succinct & tightly argued work that speaks for itself.
After reflecting on Kandinsky’s evolution, I was reminded of composers whose careers spanned a half-century and evolved accordingly. Stravinsky and Britten, to name but two, achieved an austerity through a similar paring down, a refining of the palette in lean, taut works. Stravinsky quipped, “less is more,” referring to the economy of means to generate entire works.
Kandinsky’s favorite shape was the most elemental, the circle. The symbolic & aesthetic circle is complete in such comprehensive retrospectives as this one. Kandinsky’s belief that abstract art harnessed transformative powers that could unite the aesthetic, emotional and spiritual realms now appears not as much utopian as simply prescient.