Thursday, September 24, 2009


Two days I mentioned a desire to visit the Kandinsky exhibit that has just opened at the Guggenheim. It is a magnificent show that can't be fully absorbed in one viewing. But as I looked at the paintings, especially the improvisations of 1911, which move away rapidly from anything that could be called representational and rely entirely on the power of pure color, line, and shape to communicate, I recalled something Virginia Woolf had said when she actually lived through this period. As it turns out, in an essay from 1924 she wrote: "on or about December, 1910, human character changed. . . . All human relations have shifted—those between masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children. And when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature. Let us agree to place one of these changes about the year 1910." It is also important to note that at this very time Woolf was being exposed to multiple works by post-impressionist painters like Gaugin, Manet, Van Gogh, and Matisse for the first time through an exhibit that her friend Roger Fry had organized in November of 1910.

So why am I mentioning all this? I'm not quite sure myself. No, seriously, I think it's because what changed had something to do with removing the boundaries on what could be expressed artistically. Just about anything was becoming possible, which meant that the freedom to use whatever means were at one's disposal to communicate an idea or emotion were also being greatly expanded. For Kandinsky and so many other artists like him, including other painters, musicians, writers, and architects, this constituted a liberation from the shackles of the past. There were no limits. So Kandinsky's friend and colleague, Arnold Schoenberg began to experiment with atonal music that abandoned entirely the use of musical keys, and writers like Joyce and Proust were trying out stream of consciousness techniques that greatly slighted traditional narrative and gave new prominence to the raw materials of communicating. At any rate, I really did think about all this as I stared at these creations of Kandinsky that seemed to culminate in 1911. Glorious, bold colors, striking use of line, mind boggling experimentation with geometric shapes of all kinds. Hard to come up with criteria to evaluate it, not that I particularly want to. But I found much of it incredibly appealing and beautiful. All of it, of course, enhanced by being in the round of Mr. Wright's supreme architectural masterpiece.


  1. I'm sure you remember visiting the Guggenheim in the spring of 1963. We loved it then, as now, because of the unique experience of Wright's space design. Kandinsky was prominently featured in the exhibition hanging at that time. Here's a comment from the Guggenheim web site that helps explain why:
    "Kandinsky is a central figure in the history of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. His works not only represent a part of the core and essence of the collection, but also helped to inspire the creation of the building. In 1929, Solomon R. Guggenheim began collecting Kandinsky’s canvases under the advisement of artist Hilla Rebay. Ten years later, their enthusiasm for the artist’s paintings, among those of others exhibiting nonobjectivity—a style of abstraction with no ties to the observable world—led them to open the Museum of Non-Objective Painting in New York. Later, Frank Lloyd Wright was commissioned in 1943 to design what has become one of the architect’s greatest masterpieces, which opened in 1959 as the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Though Kandinsky is known for an abstraction that expressed his inner nature and Wright for his advancement of an organic architecture connected to the natural world, both advocated a spiritual, aesthetic experience of life. During the museum’s fiftieth-anniversary year, the landmark building is filled with the canvases that encouraged its inception."

  2. Terrific comment, db. Thanks so much. I do remember our visit to New York and definitely to the Guggenheim as well. However, I think it was the spring of 1961. 1963 was the second trip to Sarasota. But the main point about Kandinsky's connection to the Guggenheim is very well taken. Again, thanks.