Kandinsky Before Abstraction, 1901–1911

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The history of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation is intertwined with the work of Vasily Kandinsky (b. 1866, Moscow; d. 1944, Neuilly-sur-Seine, France) more so than any other artist of the twentieth century. Artist, art advisor, and the museum’s first director Hilla Rebay encouraged founder Solomon R. Guggenheim to begin collecting Kandinsky’s work in 1929 and to later meet Kandinsky at the Dessau Bauhaus in July 1930. This introduction initiated an ongoing acquisition period of Kandinsky’s art, with more than 150 works ultimately entering the museum’s collection.

Three decades prior to that fateful Dessau meeting, Kandinsky launched his artistic career. In 1895, he abandoned a legal profession to become the art director of the printing firm Kushnerev in Moscow. One year later Kandinsky left for Munich and formed associations with the city’s leading avant-garde groups, including Phalanx, Neue Künstlervereinigung München (New Artists’ Association of Munich), and Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider).

In Munich, Kandinsky quickly realized his talent for working with three classic printmaking techniques—etching, woodcut, and lithography—and began to evolve as an artist and theoretician. The woodcut in particular, which challenged artists to capture the essence of their vision or story through a reduced means of expression, provided Kandinsky with a vehicle for articulating his romantic tendencies. Recollections of Russia, such as the brightly decorated furniture and votive pictures that he had observed in the homes of the peasants, combined with romantic historicism, lyric poetry, folklore, and pure fantasy informed his early work.

Kandinsky began traveling extensively in 1904 with his partner, the German artist Gabriele Münter, making trips to Venice, Paris, Amsterdam, Tunisia, and Russia, before settling in Munich again in 1908 and translating his printmaking to landscape painting. Such graphic elements as clearly delineated forms, flattened perspective, and the black-and-white “noncolors” of his woodcuts, pervade the jewel-colored Bavarian landscapes of 1908–09. These paintings differ remarkably from his earlier exercises in Neo-Impressionist painting.

By 1913, he had already reduced his recognizable and recurrent motifs—including the horse and rider, rolling hills, towers, and trees—to broad areas of bright, radiant color that were subsidiary to the expressive qualities of line and color. These calligraphic contours and rhythmic forms reveal scarce traces of their representational origins. Kandinsky was finally able to evoke what he called the “hidden power of the palette” and move away from his pictorial beginnings, thus embarking on the road to abstraction.

Drawn from the Guggenheim’s holdings, this intimate presentation of early paintings and woodcuts is organized by Tracey Bashkoff, Senior Curator, Collections and Exhibitions, and Megan Fontanella, Associate Curator, Collections and Provenance.

Vasily Kandinsky, Landscape near Murnau with Locomotive (Landschaft bei Murnau mit Lokomotive), 1909. Oil on board, 50.5 x 65.1 cm, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 50.1295 © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris

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