The Life and Art of Wassily Kandinsky
New Milwaukee Art Museum exhibition is a rich parade of a great artist’s work.
Ever have a moment where you don’t recognize yourself, your photograph, or even your own work? This happened to Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky in 1908, with extraordinary consequences: “I was returning from my sketching deep in thought, when, on opening the studio door, I was suddenly confronted with a picture of indescribable, incandescent loveliness. Bewildered, I stopped, staring at it. The painting lacked all subject, depicted no recognizable object and was entirely composed of bright patches of color. Finally, I approached closer, and only then recognized it for what it really was — my own painting standing on its side on the easel. One thing became clear to me — that objectiveness, the depiction of objects, needed no place in my paintings and was indeed harmful to them.”
This revelation occurred during a time when the expressive possibilities of abstraction, distortion, unnatural colors, and compositions that bent all rules of nature were beginning to gain currency in painting. It was a mere 15 years after the angst-ridden contortions of Edvard Munch’s The Scream, a couple of years after the advent of Matisse’s shockingly bright, exuberant Fauvist canvases, and a year after Picasso deviously composed the notorious Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Kandinsky was right in line with a metaphorical hammer, ready to break down boundaries of received traditions. For him, it was a means of breaking through to the essential nature of art.
The major retrospective of his work which just opened at the Milwaukee Art Museum is a rich parade of the various phases of Kandinsky’s career. The exhibition includes early Impressionist and folk art-inspired pictures, explores his transition to nonobjective compositions, the lasting influence of his work with the Blue Rider (Der Blau Reiter) group and the profoundly influential Bauhaus school, and the subtle structural changes of his artistic approach over time.
While the way the colors, shapes and lines are composed on a canvas are richly interesting, for Kandinsky this was a means to something more. He sought for viewers a physical connection with painting. A prolific writer, Kandinsky described the power of visual elements to communicate in a manner like music, which is a perfectly abstract, intangible art form that, despite its invisible nature, is profoundly physical in its effects. In Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911) he wrote, “This effect would seem to be a sort of echo or resonance, as in the case of musical instruments….Such highly sensitive people are like good, much-played violins, which vibrate in all their parts and fibers at every touch of the bow.”
Among his most striking abstract paintings is Yellow-Red-Blue (1925), a rather monumental composition with two massed areas of solid shapes drifting over a cloudy background. It’s a big piece and easy to see all at once, but then is best devoured in smaller morsels. Approaching the work more closely, the texture and nuance of color becomes clear. You can feel your eyes adjusting, from looking at the surface itself to the layers of pigment beneath and that process builds a feeling of visual rhythm. Some areas of the composition are soft and voluminous, others are sharper and darker, punctuated with rigid geometric grids and adamant colors over their softer brethren. It takes time to truly see a picture like this. It doesn’t work so well with the customary glance from a few feet away that says, “Okay, I’ve seen this piece.” There is a different quality that comes from seeing rather than just looking at a painting.
While Kandinsky writes eloquently about the process of seeing and about spiritual revelation, he wanted to be more than a theoretician. He was about 30 when he took up art, leaving his post as an associate professor of law at Moscow University, giving up his doctoral thesis and heading to Munich to study painting. It was both music and painting that helped propel him in this direction. He saw an Impressionist painting from Claude Monet’s Wheat Stack series, and a performance of Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin at the Bolshoi Theatre. These moments, in their spiritual, psychological, and artistic resonance, helped set the course for a man who would become one of the 20th-century’s most influential visual creators. The results are there to be seen at this fascinating exhibition.
Animation and Association
The Haggerty Museum of Art begins summer by opening two new exhibitions with interesting perplexities. Thorne Brandt’s AGOD is a animated video installation of frenetic, psychotropic, candy-colored snippets of pop culture in various manners of crass and cute forms. The title comes from the phrase “animated GIF of the day” and while the video only takes several minutes to cycle through, the full volume of the three years’ worth of images requires a little more time to absorb.
The main gallery space has something of a “staycation” this year as it features pieces from the Haggerty’s permanent collection, but they are fantastically installed as the exhibition Scrutiny After the Glimpse. The main premise focuses on images of the human figure, and how juxtaposing art of different time periods and styles can suggests different meanings or point to new approaches in artists’ techniques.
That is pretty open ended, which is part of the delight. The galleries are arranged so Andy Warhol hangs out with Toulouse-Lautrec, an exquisite marble relief portrait sculpture is teamed with 20th-century abstraction and the ever-so-refined Jean-Léon Gérôme, and Keith Haring punctuates it all through a monumental work made just for the Haggerty Museum during its construction in 1983.
Watch for a full review of these exhibitions in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, share your thoughts and impressions in the comments section!
Thorne Brandt: AGOD and Scrutiny After the Glimpse continue through August 3 at the Haggerty Museum of Art (Marquette University Campus, 13th and Clybourn Streets).
FRIDAY, JUNE 6
5 to 10pm
It’s a big night in Bay View as 57 locations with more than 200 artists show their work. If that weren’t big enough, the evening also includes an art and craft fair, mural competition, plus the first Bay View Jazz Fest, and the Rollout Tour de Art bike ride.
Leo Saul Berk: The Uncertainty of Enclosure
2155 N. Prospect Avenue
Exhibition continues through August 17
Architecture influences art in Leo Saul Berk’s photographs, sculptures, and videos inspired by the futuristic Ford House in Aurora, Illinois, designed by Bruce Goff.
SATURDAY, JUNE 7
Art takes over with a market at Brady and Warren, plus artists sketching, painting, and making pottery at various locations up and down the street. There will also be Puppy Painting Prints at Zoom Room, which may reveal a hidden talent in your canine friend – as artist or model, it is hard to say.
The Mudhead Payoff: Charles Andresen
1500 N. Farwell Avenue
Exhibition continues through July
This solo exhibition will feature Andresen’s “throw paintings” which explore various forms of unconventional technique, partly inspired by the automatistic practices of the Surrealists.
Handler by John Riepenhoff
The Ski Club
3172 North Bremen
Opening reception 3 to 6pm
Green Gallery’s John Riepenhoff is featured with his own work, alongside artists Madeleine Schweitzer, American Fantasy Classics, Nicholas Kinsella, Braden Baer, Elise Hanson, Kirsten Schmid, Charles Andresen, and Oliver Sydello.