Sunday, November 05, 2006

Art Review : Kandinsky - The Path to Abstraction (Tate Modern 18/08/06)

It is one thing to be able to enjoy an abstract work of art on its own terms - an appreciation of the interrelationship of colour, line and form which comes together to make the aesthetic whole. It is another thing entirely to be able to peel away the layers of complexity in order to understand both the theoretical and representational basis of the work - these are two separate views: perhaps those of the Art Critic and the Art Historian?

From the point of view of Art Criticism this exhibition was revelatory in two ways - firstly, and this is entirely a matter of personal taste, Kandinsky's early gouaches of scenes from Russian folklore were an eye-opener, displaying a draughtsmanship both skilled and unique. Secondly, the richness of colour and form of the Compositions and Improvisations in the period 1912-1916 was remarkable - vast explosions of colour and shape which constantly morphs before the viewer. Kandinsky was synaesthetic, visualising sounds as patches of colour. The exhibition explores the relationship between colour, music and form in the works of the Blaue Reiter period and his relationship with Schoenberg. Later works became more austere in their use of colour, and more circumscribed in form as geographical shapes increasingly predominated, losing that early vitality.

From an Art Historical perspective, the dominant theme is, as the exhibition' subtitle suggests, the path from Representationalism to Abstraction. Kandinsky was always motivated by colour - his earliest influence was Monet's Haystacks, through which he started to break down the relationship between representation, colour and form.

Once settled in Murnau in Germany, Kandinsky's dominant influences were the Fauves and Matisse, with the relationship between bold patches of colour dominating his work. As he deconstructed the representational images within his work, certain key motifs - Leitmotifs, literally, as Kandinsky was a lover of Wagner's music - emerged which recur repeatedly throughout his more abstract work.

Kandinsky had studied law in Russia with Sergei Bulgakov, joint founder in 1905 with Nikolai Berdeyev the journal Novye Puti (New Paths) which advocated a distinctly Russian approach to art, music, literature, law and which rejected materialism. This "Russian Resurrection" attracted many intellectuals, including the likes of Diaghilev and Malevich. After becoming an artist and moving to Germany, Kandinsky's art included many motifs from old Russian fairytales, songs and stories. The exhibition picks up this point and develops it both in the gallery and in the excellent catalogue. Even in his most abstract works, motifs developed years earlier can be discovered - the Blaue Reiter, for instance, is based on an icon of St George, and the horseman slaying the dragon appears in many of his works.

It is through understanding the role of colour, music and iconography in Kandinsky's work that we can open a new set of doors on our appreciation of his art. Kandinsky was a complex, intellectual figure and this intelligent, thoughtful exhibition significantly enhances our understanding of what drove him on his road to abstraction, and our appreciation of the startling images he made along the way.

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