THE TRIUMPH OF COLOR: IMPORTANT WORKS FROM A PRIVATE EUROPEAN COLLECTION
Zum Thema Jüngstes Gericht (On the Theme of the Last Judgment) is undeniably similar in its powerful and eloquent expression to Kandinsky’s masterpiece Composition VII which resides in the permanent collection of the Tretiakov Gallery in Moscow. These ground-breaking works represent Kandinsky’s achievement of the almost totally abstract idiom which he conceived at this time. The present work exemplifies Kandinsky’s quest of abstraction and achieves and balance between color and form to display a joyous assembly of primary colors applied in fluid brushstrokes and sweeping forms. Works from this crucial period still have specific figurative elements which possessed symbolic qualities for the artist, such as the folkloric representation of a lake with boats or the horse and rider, and almost all include the sharply defined motif of a mountain. These early near-abstract works are vital to understanding Kandinsky’s concept of abstraction which would influence the development of painting throughout the twentieth-century.
During the years just before Zum Thema Jüngstes Gericht (On the Theme of the Last Judgment) was painted, Kandinsky’s ideas concerning abstract art began to crystallize. The German manuscript of On the Spiritual in Art was completed on October 18, 1910, although it was not published until the end of the following year. The development of his thinking and the possibility of an entirely abstract art was ultimately linked with his interest in a wide range of religious and philosophical inquiries and the imagery that had been utilized in the past to give expression to such themes. After abandoning the Russian folk imagery of his earlier work, he turned to the universal roots of Christian myths and, strongly influenced by the primitive directness of Bavarian glass paintings on similar themes, painted series of works that surround The Last Judgment. According to Magdalena Dabrowski, the real spiritual and symbolic meaning of these paintings arises out of “Kandinsky’s immersion in the religious and spiritual ideas of his background: these incorporated the fundamental concepts of Symbolism, especially in its Russian version, and were tinged strongly with mysticism and strengthened by the theosophical tenets of Rudolph Steiner and his pronouncements on the cleansing power of the Apocalypse and the ensuing spiritual rebirth. The Last Judgement ends an epoch with a cataclysmic event, and so carried the potential for the reconstructing of a new spiritual realm, the New Jerusalem” (Kandinsky Compositions (exhibition catalogue), The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1995, p. 36). Dabrowski goes on to argue that Kandinsky “… strove to evolve imagery evocative of the ideas and themes of the Deluge, the Last Judgment and the Resurrection—fitting subjects for finding the universal language that would imply the changes of focus from the external and representational to the internal, spiritual, and abstract” (ibid., p. 45).
The brilliantly colored canvases from Kandinsky’s Munich period present an ecstatic beauty that is rarely expressed in painting. In Zum Thema Jüngstes Gericht (On the Theme of the Last Judgment), Kandinsky floods the surface of his canvas with opaque and translucent colors. Amorphous forms appear to explode, overlap and evaporate beyond the boundaries of the picture plane, alluding to the constant flux of energy and entropy at play in the universe. The goal of Kandinsky’s art of this period, in the painter’s own words, was “to awaken as yet nameless feelings of a finer nature.” It is with these grand canvases, pulsating with color, that the artist attempted to create a new aesthetic experience for the twentieth century.
As is the case for the present work, most of the paintings that Kandinsky completed during this important period of his career made highly abstracted references to the material world. The titles of these works, while somewhat descriptive like Sketch for the Deluge or Autumn, generally denote the spirit of the picture rather than assign a narrative to it. The title of the present work refers to the apocalyptic Christian belief in the Last Judgement and the promise, after complete destruction, of eternal life.
The theme of The Last Judgement had fascinated Kandinsky for years, appearing in a 1912 composition of oil on glass (Roethel & Benjamin no. 447) and a large canvas of 1910 (Roethel & Benjamin no. 361). Moreover, the numerous studies for the masterpiece Composition VII of 1913 have, through detailed art historical analysis, been shown to contain these themes in the guise of Elijah and triumphantly trumpeting angles tangentially held within the surface of the artist’s increasingly abstract and fluid compositions.
The transformative realization manifested in Kandinsky’s art during these years coincided with his involvement with the artistic group known as Der Blaue Reiter. Founded by Kandinsky and Franz Marc in 1911, this group of painters, which also included Alexej von Jawlensky and Gabriele Münter, emphasized the importance of abstraction and the primacy of color as a means of expression in art. The paintings that Kandinsky and his fellow artists completed with Der Blaue Reiter in Munich between 1911 and 1913 called for the renunciation of the representational and the adoption of a purely expressive aesthetic. Although some of his initial work, including his cover for Der Blaue Reiter Almanac, incorporated vestiges of the iconography of his native Russia, Kandinsky’s compositions became increasingly abstract and mystical in nature as the group developed. His devotion to the mystical or spiritual underpinnings of his art set him apart from his colleagues within Der Blaue Reiter, eventually leading to the group’s demise. By the time the present work was completed, Kandinsky’s paintings were heavily reliant upon the impact of color.
Kandinsky’s palette had long been influenced by the vibrant folk art of Russia and Bavaria, but as he developed his aesthetic in Munich, the reasoning behind his color choices was based more on philosophy than on nostalgia. The color theory that Kandinsky developed in the 1910s was an all-encompassing philosophy that proposed a link between emotional well-being and different tones and hues of the color spectrum. Expanding on the teaching of the nineteenth century chemist and color-theorist Michel Eugène Chevreul, Kandinsky explained the impact of color on the senses with his own quasi-scientific justifications. Color, he believed, was the elicitor of emotion and even physical reactions. In his treatise Concerning the Spiritual in Art he discussed the synesthetic effect of color. He described how the eye’s response to color can elicit sensations from other parts of the body, claiming that different shades of red, for example, “can enliven the heart,” while blue “can lead to temporary paralysis.” Kandinsky’s passion for and his belief in the power of color would become one of the defining principles of his entire life’s work.
Perhaps the only concept for Kandinsky equal to specific colors’ effects on the spiritual state is the musical resonance of a work of art on the human mind. At the time he completed this work, the artist was very much affected by the music of the Austro-Hungarian composer Arnold Schönberg, whose concert Kandinsky had attended in Munich in 1911. Kandinsky channeled his enthusiasm for music into his painting, rendering on canvas a range of visual harmonies and dissonances not unlike those heard in an avant-garde symphony. Many of his works such as Impression III (Concert) have titles that are similar to those of musical compositions; Kandinsky intended to make connections between the art forms in as many ways as possible. For him, painting, like music, offered a transcendent experience that moved its audience with sensations of profound beauty. He would frequently use musical and visual qualifiers interchangeably in his descriptions of his art, enabling him to express the powerful, multi-sensual experience that he attempted to convey in his paintings. “Yellow is disquieting to the spectator,” Kandinsky writes, “pricking him, revealing the nature of the power expressed in this color, which has an effect on our sensibilities at once impudent and importunate. This property of yellow affects us like the shrill sound of a trumpet played louder and louder, or the sound of a high pitched fanfare. Black has an inner sound of an external silence without future, without hope. Black is externally the most toneless color, against which all other colors sound stronger and more precise” (W. Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, 1912, reprinted in C. Harrison & R. Wood, Art in Theory, 1900-1990, An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Oxford, 1993, p. 94).
The present work has exceptional early provenance. The first owner of Zum Thema Jüngstes Gericht (On the Theme of the Last Judgment) was Gabriele Münter, the German expressionist painter who was Kandinsky's pupil and lover. Münter met Kandinsky while studying with members of the Phalanx art association in Munich and joined the artist in the summer of 1902 on a painting expedition in the Alps. Münter later credited Kandinsky as having the most profound impact on her art stating, “At first I experienced great difficulty with my brushwork—I mean with what the French call la touche de pinceau. So Kandinsky taught me how to achieve the effects that I wanted with a palette knife... My main difficulty was I could not paint fast enough. My pictures are all moments of life- I mean instantaneous visual experiences, generally noted very rapidly and spontaneously. When I begin to paint, it's like leaping suddenly into deep waters, and I never know beforehand whether I will be able to swim. Well, it was Kandinsky who taught me the technique of swimming. I mean that he has taught me to work fast enough, and with enough self-assurance, to be able to achieve this kind of rapid and spontaneous recording of moments of life” (quoted in R. Heller, Gabriele Münter: The Years of Expressionism 1903-20, New York, 1997, p. 168).
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