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Early paintings and woodcuts by Vasily Kandinsky on view at the Guggenheim Museum
Pastorale, February 1911. Oil on canvas, 105.7 x 156.5 cm. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection 45.965 © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.
NEW YORK, NY.- The Guggenheim Museum presents Kandinsky Before Abstraction, 1901–1911 in the museum’s Kandinsky Gallery on Annex Level 3. The exhibition features an intimate presentation of sixteen early paintings and woodcuts by Vasily Kandinsky (b. 1866, Moscow; d. 1944, Neuilly-sur-Seine, France), highlighting pictorial themes that preceded the artist’s known nonobjective style.

This exhibition is organized by Tracey Bashkoff, Senior Curator, Collections and Exhibitions, and Megan Fontanella, Associate Curator, Collections and Provenance.

Kandinsky launched his artistic career in 1895, abandoning a legal profession to become the art director of a printing firm in Moscow. One year later Kandinsky left for Munich, where he formed associations with the city’s leading avant-garde groups, realized his talent for working with three classic printmaking techniques (etching, lithography, and woodcut), and began to evolve as an artist and theoretician. The woodcut in particular, which requires artists to capture the essence of their vision or story through a reduced means of expression, provided Kandinsky with a vehicle for articulating his romantic tendencies. Recollections of Russia combined with romantic historicism, lyric poetry, folklore, and pure fantasy informed his early work.

He started traveling extensively in 1904, making trips to Venice, Paris, Amsterdam, Tunisia, and Russia, before settling in Munich again in 1908 and translating his printmaking to landscape painting. Such graphic elements as clearly delineated forms, flattened perspective, and the black-and-white “noncolors” of his woodcuts pervade the jewel-colored Bavarian landscapes of 1908–09. These paintings differ remarkably from his earlier exercises in Neo-Impressionist painting.

By 1913, he had already reduced his recognizable and recurrent motifs—including the horse and rider, rolling hills, towers, and trees—to broad areas of bright, radiant color that were subsidiary to the expressive qualities of line and color. These calligraphic contours and rhythmic forms reveal scarce traces of their representational origins. Kandinsky was finally able to evoke what he called the “hidden power of the palette” and move away from his pictorial beginnings, thus embarking on the road to abstraction.

The history of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation is intertwined with the work of Vasily Kandinsky (1866–1944) more than any other artist of the twentieth century. Artist, art advisor, and the museum’s first director Hilla Rebay encouraged founder Solomon R. Guggenheim to begin collecting Kandinsky’s work in 1929 and to meet Kandinsky at the Bauhaus Dessau in July 1930. This introduction initiated an ongoing acquisition period of Kandinsky’s art, with more than one hundred fifty works ultimately entering the museum’s collection, making it the largest collection of Kandinsky works in the United States and the third largest collection in the world. Since the 2004 exhibition An Inaugural Selection, the Guggenheim’s Kandinsky Gallery has primarily featured a rotating selection of focused presentations of Kandinsky’s work, arranged by theme, period, location of production, and medium.

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