Exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao examines the career of Vasily Kandinsky

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Exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao examines the career of Vasily Kandinsky
Vasily Kandinsky, Dominant Curve (Courbe dominante), April 1936. Oil on canvas, 129.2 × 194.3 cm. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection 45.989 © Vasily Kandinsky, VEGAP, Bilbao, 2020.

BILBAO.- The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao presents Kandinsky , a comprehensive exhibition of paintings and works on paper of artist Vasily Kandinsky (b. 1866, Moscow; d. 1944, Neuilly-sur-Seine, France) drawn primarily from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation’s rich holdings. Sponsored by the BBVA Foundation, the exhibition traces the aesthetic evolution of a pioneer of abstraction, a renowned aesthetic theorist, and one of the foremost artistic innovators of the early twentieth century. In his endeavor to free painting from its ties to the natural world, Kandinsky discovered a new subject matter based solely on the artist’s “inner necessity” that would remain his lifelong concern.

In Munich in the 1900s and early 1910s, Kandinsky began exploring the expressive possibilities of color and composition, but he was abruptly forced to leave Germany following the outbreak of World War I, in 1914. The artist eventually returned to his native Moscow, where his pictorial vocabulary began to reflect the utopian experiments of the Russian avant-garde, who emphasized geometric shapes in an effort to establish a universal aesthetic language. Kandinsky subsequently joined the faculty of the Bauhaus, a German school of art and applied design that shared his belief in art’s ability to transform self and society. Compelled to abandon Germany again when the Bauhaus closed under Nazi pressure in 1933, Kandinsky settled outside Paris, where Surrealism and the natural sciences influenced his biomorphic imagery.

More so than any other artist, Kandinsky is intertwined with the history of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, established in New York in 1937. Industrialist and museum founder Solomon R. Guggenheim began collecting Kandinsky’s work in 1929 and met him at the Dessau Bauhaus the following year. This exhibition illustrates the full arc of Kandinsky’s seminal career. Divided into four geographical sections displayed throughout three galleries, the exhibition follows Kandinsky through critical periods of his artistic development.

Beginnings: Munich
Kandinsky spent his childhood in his birthplace of Moscow and Odessa, Russia (now Ukraine), where his family encouraged an appreciation for art and music. He studied law and economics before changing course in 1895 to become a manager in the Moscow printing firm Kushnerev. One year later, after having been inspired by a French Impressionist exhibition and the opera Lohengrin by Richard Wagner, he left for Munich to pursue art. Recollections of Russia, such as the brightly decorated furniture and votive pictures from peasants’ homes, as well as romantic historicism, lyric poetry, folklore, and fantasy, informed his early work.

Kandinsky and his partner, the German artist Gabriele Münter, traveled extensively in Europe and North Africa between 1904 and 1907, before settling in Munich again in 1908. Compositional elements found in printmaking, such as clearly delineated forms and flattened perspective, pervade Kandinsky’s multicolor Bavarian landscapes of 1908–09. These paintings differ remarkably from his previous exercises in Neo-Impressionism, in which he built up works through small dabs of color.

By 1909, Kandinsky embraced an increasingly expressionistic style and shifted from portraying natural scenes toward depicting apocalyptic narratives. Recurring motifs such as the horse and rider symbolized his crusade against conventional aesthetic values and his dream of a more spiritual future through the transformative powers of art. Continuing to push against figurative norms, Kandinsky believed color, shape, and line could translate an artist’s “inner necessity” into universally accessible statements, offering a regenerative vision of the future.

While in Munich, Kandinsky alternately helmed the city’s leading avant-garde groups, including Phalanx and Neue Künstlervereinigung München (New Artists’ Association of Munich), and published several seminal treatises, such as Über das Geistige in der Kunst (On the Spiritual in Art ). In 1911 he and Franz Marc founded Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), a loose association of artists interested in the expressive potential of color and the symbolic—often spiritual—resonance of forms.

By 1913, Kandinsky’s recurrent subjects—including the horse and rider, rolling hills, towers, and trees—had become subsidiary to line and color. As his calligraphic contours and rhythmic forms revealed scarcer traces of their representational origins, Kandinsky began to advance abstraction and elicit what he called the “hidden power of the palette.”

Cosmic Realms: Russia to the Bauhaus
In 1914, after the outbreak of World War I, Kandinsky was forced to leave Germany due to his Russian nationality. He eventually settled in his native Moscow, where the avant-garde sought to establish a universal aesthetic language through geometric forms. Having ended his generative relationships with Gabriele Münter and other German associates, Kandinsky observed his Russian contemporaries’ experiments but found his artistic pursuit of spirituality did not align with their detached, production based approach.

Kandinsky returned with his wife, Nina, to Germany and in 1922 began teaching at the Bauhaus, the state-sponsored school of art and applied design founded by the architect Walter Gropius. Kandinsky discovered there an environment sympathetic to his belief in art’s ability to transform self and society. He further investigated the correspondence between colors and forms and their psychological and spiritual effects. Geometric shapes came to dominate Kandinsky’s pictorial vocabulary, and he used overlapping, flat planes. This change was due, in part, to the ongoing influence of the work he had encountered in Russia. Kandinsky continued to distance himself, however, from what he considered the “mechanistic” art of the Constructivists and the “pure” art of Suprematists, such as Kazimir Malevich, insisting that even his most abstract forms retained expressive, emotive content. For Kandinsky, the triangle embodied active and aggressive feelings; the square, peace and calm; and the circle, the spiritual and cosmic realm.

Around this time Kandinsky’s work came to the attention of collector Solomon R. Guggenheim. Guggenheim, his wife Irene, and his art advisor Hilla Rebay visited Kandinsky at his Dessau Bauhaus studio in 1930 and purchased the monumental Composition 8 (1923) and other works. Kandinsky taught at the Bauhaus until 1933, when the school was closed due to pressure from the Nazi government.

Miniscule Worlds: Paris
Kandinsky spent the last eleven years of his life in Neuilly-sur-Seine, a suburb of Paris. He came to France in December 1933 from Nazi Germany, following the close of the Berlin Bauhaus, where he had been a teacher. During this phase, Kandinsky was highly creative despite political turmoil and, later, deprivation. The artist experimented with materials—for instance, combining sand with pigment—and his formal vocabulary featured a softer palette and biomorphic forms. Although Kandinsky had collected organic specimens and scientific encyclopedias while at the Bauhaus, he only introduced related imagery into his work in 1934. His intricate compositions from this period resemble miniscule worlds of living organisms, clearly informed by his contact with Surrealism, including the art of Jean Arp and Joan Miró, and his interest in the natural sciences, particularly embryology, zoology, and botany. Kandinsky also came to favor pastel hues—pink, violet, turquoise, and gold—reminiscent of the colors of his Russian origins.

In this later period, Kandinsky synthesized elements from his early career, his time at the Bauhaus, and the practice of his contemporaries. He worked in a large-scale format and used dark backgrounds reminiscent of his expressionistic and Russian folktale canvases. He also incorporated motifs that allude to his former colleague Paul Klee and to the Surrealists active in Paris—despite Kandinsky’s resistance to associating with the latter. In Around the Circle (1940), this manifests in the intricate, vibrant composition of playful biomorphic forms. By mid-1942 wartime shortages led Kandinsky to make small-scale works on board, a stark departure from the large canvases of his earlier Paris-period paintings. He nonetheless persisted in producing inventive compositions that increasingly reflected his engagement with the sciences, drawing from journals and encyclopedias that featured biological imagery.

During World War II, German authorities confiscated the work of Kandinsky and other modernists, declaring it “degenerate,” and Stalinists in the Soviet Union closed museums, sending his paintings into storage. Kandinsky died in 1944 at age seventy-eight, nevertheless leaving behind an expansive oeuvre.

Industrialist and museum founder Solomon R. Guggenheim began collecting Kandinsky’s work in 1929, and his enthusiasm for modern art led to the opening of New York’s Museum of Non-Objective Painting, forerunner of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, in 1939. Today the Guggenheim Foundation holds over one hundred fifty pieces by this pivotal artist.

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