The title of this picture evokes the powerful forces at play during the era in which it was created. Kandinsky painted this work in 1939, following his relocation from Nazi-era Germany to pre-war France. After the National Socialists closed the Bauhaus in Dessau in 1932, the avant-garde art school briefly re-established itself as a private institution in Berlin by the end of the summer. Many of its left-leaning faculty could not escape the censure of the Gestapo, and the school ultimately shut down by 1933. Kandinsky’s Russian origins in particular made him a target of the Gestapo’s suspicion, and he feared for the future. “If the Nazis or Communists should come,” Kandinsky confided to his friend Galka Scheyer, “I’ll be immediately without a job.” For the time being, he struggled to support himself amidst the dwindling German economy and looked towards the United States and France for potential purchasers of his pictures. Scheyer proved to be a great resource, introducing him to the man who would become on of his greatest patrons, Solomon R. Guggenheim. Over the next decade, Guggenheim lent his financial support to Kandinsky, enabling him to leave Germany for France.
Kandinsky’s years in Paris resulted in canvases that are considered the ultimate crescendo of his artistic ideology. While his development was strongly influenced in the 1920s by his Bauhaus colleague Paul Klee, whose watercolors and oil paintings of these years demonstrate similar artistic predilections, Kandinsky’s production in Paris took a different direction. The stimuli of Surrealist Paris inspired dramatic manifestations of color and form, most notably the shift from primary colors to pastels and the incorporation of sand into his canvases. Sharp textural and color contrasts characterize these paintings, many of which evidence a distinctive “musicality.” Graphic elements such as arcs, sharp horizontal lines and punctuating circular marks are not unlike the elegant clefs, notes and bards of sheet music. Indeed, music was not far from Kandinsky’s mind when he painted his most inspired compositions. “Color is the keyboard. The eye is the hammer. The soul is the piano, with its many strings," he famously wrote in Concerning the Spiritual in Art. “The artist is the hand that purposefully sets the soul vibrating by means of this or that key” (W. Kandinsky, “Concerning the Spiritual in Art,” 1911, reprinted in C. Harrison & P. Wood, Art in Theory, 1900-1990, Oxford, 1992, p. 94).
Although Kandinsky was well aware of Surrealism—he had exhibited with the proto-surrealist Dada group in Zurich in 1916 and the Surrealists in Paris in 1933—he was never a Surrealist. Their emphasis on automatic writing and the unconscious was from his concept of “inner necessity.” Rather he became interested, as had his friends Klee and Arp, in the idea of nature and natural growth. The new motifs that were incorporated into his paintings in 1934 were biological: images particularly related to zoology and embryology. In one of his first Paris works, Monde bleu, among the rectilinear planes various biological and larval forms can be identified. The sources for many of Kandinsky’s biological forms from this period can be found in the encyclopedia Die Kultur der Gegenwart, whose volumes were in the artist’s library and marked in many instances with references to specific illustrations which in turn can be found in specific canvases from the period. Kandinsky also clipped photographs from scientific articles on deep-sea life, such as algae, sea-polyps and plankton.
The use of color, shape and biological morphology are all at play in Paul Overy’s analysis of Le Rond rouge: “One of the most intriguing works of this period is The Red Circle (1939) which is almost like a journey through the insides of one’s own body. The dark pathways which link the red circle with the other colored elements are like alimentary tracts. Within these intestinal convulsions are built up brightly-colored structural forms like ladders or pylons. The dark areas are fringed with blue which is in turn fringed with a very pale blue aura, so that the positive and negative reversal effects of light and dark forms are used to draw us into the convolutions of the paintings; changes of scale from the little ladders of bright pastel colors to the more sonorous forms and colors of the major forms involved the spectator as in a densely crowded street-scene or a panoramic landscape” (P. Overy, op. cit., pp. 176 & 185).
Despite the artist’s increased incorporation of forms from the natural world, his imagery did not become a realistic interpretation of figuration. Rather “The Paris imagery typically reflects an accommodation between the geometry of preceding years,” writes Vivian Endicott Barnett, “and a new vocabulary of organic forms. The triangles, circles and squares that were the basis of Kandinsky’s Bauhaus grammar do not completely disappear but are still alluded to in irregular, fantastic biomorphic shapes. They ultimately assume an independent pictorial life and endow the paintings and gouaches of Kandinsky’s late years with their unique character. Kandinsky’s new subject matter seems to exist in an almost natural realm of strange shapes and unusual colors, yet the distance he established between his art and the recognizable object has not diminished. Drawing upon imaginary sources that may be rooted in a fauna and flora found under the microscope, on the bottom of the sea and in other environments not ordinarily visible, Kandinsky presents tangible if fantastic fragments of reality. These fragments constitute an independent pictorial world—a world of the artist’s own making that is analogous but not identical to our own. Thus, at the end of his life Kandinsky synthesizes art and nature, idea and substance and formal sources from East and West on surfaces that have become the artist’s exemplary plane of consciousness and awareness” (V. E. Barnett, Kandinsky at the Guggenheim, New York, 1983, pp. 16-17).
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