This slim, beautifully illustrated but idiosyncratically organised little volume in Prestel’s Living_Art series provides a stimulating and tantalising overview to a key painter of the twentieth century. Six short chapters, filled with illustrations, outline the impact of Kandinsky’s work – both theoretical and physical – on the development of western art post-1900 while at the same time the major moments of his life story are told in the context of his artistic journey. This is not a perfect book: at times I was distracted by the non-linear unveiling of his history (but if you open the end flaps of the book you will find an historical and personal timeline in the front and a synopsis of his artistic development at the back) and was constantly flipping backwards and forwards to find the paintings described in the text. However, it did encourage me to re-evaluate an artist who I had previously dismissed as of no relevance to me.
In its slightly elliptical but graphically informative way this book opened up to me at least three different aspects of Kandinsky. Firstly, the formative nature of his relationship with his pupil, Gabriele Münter (and her own work was a revelation). She had a painterly vision that profoundly inspired the growth of his own theory and practice. Secondly, the fascinating transformation of his work to ever more refined levels of abstraction. Over quite a rapid period of time landscapes became a blend of forms and textures evoking the essence of the scene before growing into philosophical constructs of colour, line and shape. Thirdly, there is the artistry of the paintings themselves. They are not random explosions of expression but carefully planned marriages of elements which, while often highly non-representational, equally often contained traces of organic forms. I think it is that residual soul of nature which gives me an entry point into his work, makes me feel warm towards it and not alienated from his technical visual language. It is not like the direct referencing and re-forming of natural bodies that you find in Sutherland. Perhaps it has a little more akin to the micro-cellular amorphousness of Miró, but without his surrealist anarchy. The result is that there are the ghosts of representational devices implanted within the paintings which allow the mind to feel that they are possible to comprehend while at the same time they are not so defined as to bind the work to any simplistic description. The theories of colour, shape and line which Kandinsky taught at the Bauhaus provide the structural underpinning for his meticulously planned paintings – an evolving dance of elements can be found in the many sketches and preliminary drawings he produced for each work.
I’m not sure that I would agree with the claim this book makes that Kandinsky was the father of abstract painting, there seems to me to be too many other artists developing parallel, conflicting and related bodies of work at the same time. But he is one of its most influential and talented co-progenitors. It may be that, in a post-post modern world I’ve come too late to an appreciation of the modernism of Abstractism. But I am thankful to this book for helping me to see this movement anew, to make connections between it and the music of Kandinsky’s contemporaries, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Webern, Ives and Berg and to be given the inklings of a fresh language for exploring and expressing my own relationship with art, reality and emotion.