Museum Penza, Penza (allocated by the above in 1920)
Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
Wilhelm Hack, Cologne (acquired from the above in 1974)
Thence by descent to the present owner
Odessa, Museum of the Society of Fine Arts, Spring Exhibition of Paintings, April 1914
Moscow, The Year 1915, April 1915, no. 42
Verona, Galleria d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Palazzo Forti, Da Van Gogh a Schiele: L’Europa espressionista 1880-1918, 1989, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
Verona, Galleria d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Palazzo Forti, Vasilij Kandiskij, 1993, no. 22, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
Will Grohmann, Wassily Kandinsky: Life and Work, London, 1959, no. 178, listed p. 333
Der Spiegel, no. 36, 1974, illustrated p. 123
Erika Hanfstaengl, Wassily Kandinsky, Zeichungen und Aquarelle im Lenbachhaus München, Munich, 1974, mentioned p. 175
Donald E. Gordon, Modern Art Exhibitions 1900-1916, Munich, 1974, vol. II, listed no. 68, p. 781 & no. 42, p. 870
Hans K. Roethel & Jean K. Benjamin, Kandinsky, Catalogue Raisonné of the Oil-Paintings, London, 1982, vol. I, no. 470, illustrated p. 467
Vivian Endicott Barnett, Kandinsky Watercolours. Catalogue Raisonné, London, 1992, vol. I, mentioned pp. 314-315
Vivian Endicott Barnett & Helmut Friedel, Vasily Kandinsky: A Colorful Life, New York, 1996, mentioned pp. 367 & 642
Valery Turchin, Kandinsky in Russia, Moscow, 2005, listed p. 437
Kandinsky. The Path to Abstraction (exhibition catalogue), Tate Modern, London, 2006, illustrated in colour p. 37
Only very rarely does a single year make its mark so completely on the collective consciousness of a culture, and none so vividly as 1913. The year 1913 is particularly important within the history of modern art, marked by events and works that fundamentally changed the way art was conceived and understood. Across Europe and America artists of every sort set down new ideas and formulas for artistic expression, and in turn some of them made their defining contributions to modern culture.
In New York the Armory Show introduced the American public to the European avant-garde (fig. 1), with Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2 making its debut. Pablo Picasso continued to reinvent Cubism with his use of papier collé to establish the foundations of Synthetic Cubism; Umberto Boccioni created his Futurist masterpiece Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, and in Munich Wassily Kandinsky set about creating the most celebrated series of abstract paintings in the history of early 20th century art. No other single year in the artist’s career can be said to have produced so many masterpieces or such a coherent and magisterial body of work. Bild mit weissen Linien, executed on a grand scale and in dazzling colours, is one of the most important paintings by Kandinsky from this crucial year.
The major works of 1913 share a monumental quality, both in scale and ambition, that Kandinsky had not attempted to achieve before, and which he would never truly attain again. It was a year of prodigious achievement and prolific creation. There was a great outpouring of studies in ink, watercolour and oil for the primary works of the year such as Komposition VI and VII (figs. 5 & 6) and other major oils such as Bild mit weissen Linien which attest to the meticulous approach Kandinsky took to preparing each unique composition.
The Path to Abstraction
From an early stage in his artistic career, Kandinsky was aware that his pursuit of his own form of expression was leading him toward an entirely new visual idiom. In a letter to his lover and fellow painter Gabriele Münter written on 2nd April 1904 Kandinsky wrote: ‘Without exaggerating, I can say that, should I succeed in this task, I will be showing [a] new, beautiful path for painting susceptible to infinite development. I am on a new track, which some masters, just here and there, suspected, and which will be recognised, sooner or later’. As predicted, in the years that followed Kandinsky travelled further towards abstraction than any painter previously, and in 1913 finally achieved it in a uniquely pure, lyrical form.
Kandinsky's first major breakthrough was his discovery that colour, when disassociated from representational concerns, could become the principal subject of a painting. Taking his cue from musical composition, Kandinsky determined that every colour corresponded with a particular emotion or ‘sound’. For example, in his first major theoretical text On the Spiritual in Art, published in 1911, Kandinsky likened different shades of green to stringed instruments which matched his synaesthetic experience of colour, for example: mid-green sounded like the quiet, mid-range tones of a violin, whilst yellow-green was perceived to be the higher notes of the violin, in contrast to blue-green as a muted alto-violin. As Will Grohmann writes, ‘Colour becomes increasingly crucial... [yellow, white, carmine, pink, light blue and blue-green] transport the subject to the sphere of dream and legend. This was the direction of development. The painter distributes and links the colours, combines them and differentiates them as if they were beings of a specific character and special significance. As in music, the materials now come to the form, and in this respect Kandinsky stands between Mussorgsky and Scriabin. The language of colour - just as in those composers - calls for depth, for fantasy’ (W. Grohmann, op. cit., p. 61).
This revelation was due in part to the journey the artist took to Paris in 1906 and his acquaintance with Fauve paintings by Derain, Delaunay and Vlaminck, as well as his appreciation of Cézanne’s brushwork in his late works. Though, as Hans Roethel writes: ‘when Kandinsky returned to Munich, ideologically and practically, the ground was well prepared for abstract painting and yet it needed a final spark to come into being’ (H. K. Roethel & J. K. Benjamin, Kandinsky, London 1979, p. 25). In his Reminiscences Kandinsky recalled the precise moment at which the ‘spark’ was ignited:
'Once, while in Munich I underwent an unexpectedly bewitching experience in my studio. Twilight was falling; I had just come home with my box of paints under my arm after painting a study from nature. I was still dreamily absorbed in the work I had been doing when, suddenly, my eyes fell upon an indescribably beautiful picture that was saturated with an inner glow. I was startled momentarily, then quickly went up to this enigmatic painting in which I could see nothing but shapes and colours and the content of which was incomprehensible to me. The answer to the riddle came immediately: it was one of my own paintings leaning on its side against the wall. The next day, by daylight, I tried to recapture the impression the picture had given me the evening before. I succeeded only half way. Even when looking at the picture sideways I could still make out the objects and that fine thin coat of transparent colour, created by last night's twilight, was missing. Now I knew for certain that the subject matter was detrimental to my paintings. A frightening gap of responsibility now opened up before me and an abundance of various questions arose. And the most important of them was: what was to replace the missing object?' (W. Kandinsky, quoted in ibid., p. 25).
Through constant experimentation and extensive preparatory work Kandinsky’s artistic means developed from an essentially figurative Fauve style to pure abstraction. By 1910 he had found the language he sought, with sweeping lines, beautiful iridescent patches of colour and kaleidoscopic compositions. Figurative elements still feature, abstracted to their farthest point, but still recognisable, and often alluded to in the titles that the artist gave to the works. Among the most advanced pictures of those years were those entitled ‘Improvisations’ or ‘Compositions’ and numbered sequentially, which is a clear allusion to their symphonic qualities.
However the source of inspiration for the main motifs Kandinsky used in his works were all based in the same romantic vision of ‘Old Russia’ and folk stories that bewitched him from the beginning of his career. Landscapes were either drawn from his immediate surroundings such as the bucolic countryside around Murnau and Munich or for his major compositions concocted out of romanticised, lyrical scenarios featuring onion domed citadels presiding over mountains, lakes and streams which are inhabited by horses and people. Two preparatory watercolour studies Kandinsky produced (figs. 8 & 9) reveal how he took the most recognisable motifs of the tall-towered city in the upper left and the two horses in the immediate foreground with the three-arched red bridge in the centre and energised them with colour and line in the final work. These motifs are clearly visible in all the main works completed in 1913 and are a key part of his most celebrated works including Komposition VI (fig. 5), Komposition VII (fig. 6) and Kleine Freuden (fig. 3).
Kandinsky in Russia
In the first half of the decade, while resident in Bavaria, Kandinsky exhibited his works far and wide throughout Europe, America and his native Russia, gaining an impressive international following. However in December 1914 Kandinsky felt compelled to return to Russia after nearly twenty years of living in Germany. The war in Europe threatened his way of life, and as a Russian citizen he had to leave the country that he had adopted as his homeland. Prior to his own emigration, in January 1914 Kandinsky selected a few important oils from 1913 to be exhibited at the Galerie Ernst Arnold’s Die Neue Malerei show, which included the present work, Bild mit weissem Rand, Bild mit grünem Mitte, Improvisation 34 (fig. 4) and Komposition VI (fig. 5) – all of which are now in museum collections. Settled in Moscow, he barely painted, concentrating on producing watercolours and establishing himself in the city’s artistic circle.
In 1914 Kandinsky was invited to participate in the Spring collective exhibition at Odessa, and the choice of works from 1913 he sent is telling – each seems to perfectly represent one of the four key types of painting he produced that year – a more literal view of Dunaberg near Murnau (The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg), the lyrical, highly abstract Improvisation 34 (fig. 4, National Museum of Fine Arts of the Republic of Tatarstan, Kazan), the present work and the monumental Komposition VII (fig. 6, The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow). This group was subsequently exhibited in Moscow at a landmark show entitled The Year 1915, and over time each painting found a permanent home in a Russian museum.
Over the next four years, the artist witnessed the Revolution and the rise of Communism as an essentially apolitical being, whose art remained ostensibly unaffected by the social situation. However, he swiftly became a member of the Department of Visual Arts in the People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment (NARKOMPROS) and a founding member of the Institute of Artistic Culture (INKHUK). In 1919 as part of the programme to disseminate avant-garde art through the new Russia, hundreds of artworks were selected or purchased by the Museum of Painterly Culture by the museum’s committee, comprised entirely of artists, including Alexander Rodchenko, Vladimir Tatlin and Kandinsky. Bild mit weissen Linien was purchased by the State and allocated initially to the museum in Penza, an industrial city south-east of Moscow.
Through schemes such as the Museum of Pictorial Culture and other cultural programmes, Kandinsky’s art made a profound impact on the on the artists of the Russian avant-garde. Sometimes charged with a lack of interest in the younger generation’s work, he was nonetheless seen an inspirational figure by younger artists, in particular the Constructivists who appreciated his dedication to abstraction. Writing in 1920 the critic Konstantin Umansky was highly supportive of Kandinsky, and stated unequivocally: ‘The entire Russian art scene can be traced back to Kandinsky. If anyone deserves a nick name, Kandinsky does; he should be called the “Russian Messiah”, his work has cleared a way for the victory of absolute art, although contemporary abstract art is now moving in a different direction. […] Kandinsky’s art found its logical conclusion in Suprematism’ (quoted in Jelena Hahl-Koch, Kandinsky, Brussels, 1993, p. 243).
It was not only in Suprematism that the influence of Kandinsky’s Munich period paintings can be felt. At no other time is his abstraction so lyrical, dynamic or expressive, and its lineage is clearly distinguished in the art of the Abstract Expressionists working in post-war America. Though technically innovative and ideologically different, the Abstract Expressionists, such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, were indebted to Kandinsky and his pioneering art for taking the first steps on the path to abstraction in 1913.
Kandinsky’s legacy stretched far beyond those of the Abstract Expressionists and continues to influence artistic production today, though grounded in a proliferation of symbolic and romantic ideals which were born out of his own era, the raw energy of his work and prescient modernism transcends its original context.
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