Ever-helpful Google put a nice design over its home page recently- it was Wassily Kandinsky’s birthday. If he was still with us, he would be 148.
Mostly this blog is about writing, and while Kandinsky did write, and beautifully in his way, it is his painting that we love. I first saw a real Kandinsky, as opposed to a print or a picture in a book, in the Zurich art gallery in 1984, and it floored me. It was from his last period, when he made squiggles and blots and interesting shapes and somehow managed to fit them into a harmonious whole – he saw much of his art as a visual representation of music – and I loved it. They’d squashed it into a wee alcove as part of a section on the anarchist (or so-called anarchist) Dada movement. I don’t know if Kandinsky was ever a part of this protest movement that flourished in Zurich during the First World War (he was in Russia at the time); he later taught at the Bauhaus in Berlin, the progressive German art/architecture school shut down by the Nazis, along with his mate from the pre-war Munich period, the Swiss wunderkind Paul Klee.
That trip to Europe from New Zealand where I live, which began in Zurich in 1984, changed my ideas about art a lot – looking in galleries and museums I resolved on returning to New Zealand to concentrate on displaying original art works in future in my home and move away from prints of the greats. Kandinsky’s single abstract in the Zurich kunsthaus sent me in that direction, and it is a good direction to go in. Today my home throbs with the living work of many artists – “originals”. They may not be perfect and indeed aren’t. So far nothing has happened in my life to enable me to buy a Picasso, a Braque, a Klee or a Kandinsky. But there is something about engaging with an original artwork, whether it be a painting, sculpture, original print, weaving, photo, or lithograph, that sets it apart from a mass-produced copy, even when the copy is of an acknowledged masterpiece and the reproduction high-quality. My relationship with these original works is individual, as unique and unrepeatable as the works themselves, and the sense of harmony and love that I draw from having these in my home in place of reproductions is something I wish for you, dear reader. There is nothing like it. I promise.
There is however more where Kandinsky is concerned. I didn’t see any other of his works on that trip; it was not until I cycled the Danube in 2000 that I ran into a super collection of his breakthrough paintings in Munich. These are from his so-called “Blaue Reiter” (Blue Rider) period and they are as unlike his later work as his earlier. These were in a special gallery called Lenbachhaus, essentially created around the collection itself, as the former home of a lover of Kandinsky’s who had bequeathed her collection to the public, including works by her and Klee.
Some of Kandinsky’s pre-Blaue Reiter work was there too, and it also did change my life. It was terrible. Kandinsky’s attempts to paint quasi realist and impressionist art were pretty hopeless; in the “typical” sense of how we appreciate art, in terms of drawing and representing figures and so on, Kandinsky couldn’t paint, at least then. Suddenly he threw all that aside, and began producing a stunning range of almost non-representational canvases of terrific power, not yet abstract as they would later be, and far from his most famous squiggles, but well past anything the impressionists ever did. Whatever the truth about his technique, what changed for Kandinsky changed in his mind, and the entire human race, including all those who will never see anything by him, original or reproduction, is in his debt.
Of course we can’t all be like Kandinsky, and suddenly metamorphose from Sunday painter to genius with colour and abstract compositions. But we can learn a great deal from his example. He freed himself in his head and kept going…
As a writer, I am only too conscious of my own limitations. Some of my stuff is ok; I get a frisson of pleasure when I turn out a well-crafted phrase, or dialogue, or paragraph of description, and when somehow this fits into a coherent whole, it is even better. But so far anyway I have not had the genius breathed into me that would allow me to suddenly go from hack thriller author to amazo-wildman of literature that Kandinsky seems to have had as an artist in Munich in the years before 1914.
I would definitely like to. The so-called experimental writers don’t appeal to me much, unless we count Celine, who was not really experimental but expressive in a new way. Lately, reading Thomas Bernhard, a Celinist with his own voice, I can see how perhaps this is possible for me. Writing is not painting. It has its own rules and they are extremely complex: language as speech and then written expression is the most complicated thing we humans do, or so I say. The infinite variety of expression that is the result shows this. But we can obey the rules by flouting them, as Celine and Bernhard show and as Kandinsky in art proved.
There is more to this that may locate a decisive break in human culture in Munich via Kandinsky, Klee and – Adolf Hitler. Like Kandinsky, Hitler had some talent as a painter, but not much. I have seen a number of Hitler’s watercolours, in Florence in 1984. They were not bad – just not very good. Perhaps they were even better than Kandinsky’s from the same rough period apart from a very suggestive inability to render people. The future mad dictator just couldn’t do it: his very nicely turned out opera house featured awkward stick figures in the foreground. But while Hitler fired his resentment at being rejected by art school into a passion for mass murder, Kandinsky just headed into a completely new way.
Hitler washed up in Munich before the war, apparently to avoid the Austro-Hungarian draft, but keen as to help shed an ocean of blood. There is a photo of him in the crowd in the city on the announcement of war in 1914, his face eager, delighted, euphoric…he went on to get an Iron Cross. Kandinsky had to flee via Switzerland to avoid,internment, leaving his canvases behind.
After the war and the Bolshevik Revolution, Kandinsky returned to Germany and ended up in France after the Nazis came to power, dying in Paris in 1944. He left more canvases behind in Moscow, seized by a bemused revolutionary government that willingly traded his work for favours with western capitalists. Klee joined Kandinsky at the Bauhaus and also died during the war, in his native Switzerland after a protracted illness.
Apart from his terrific art – apparently to be subject of a show in Britain soon, and how I would like to go! – is Kandinsky’s focus and desire. He just loved to paint, and brought pleasure to millions. Thanks, Wassily.