A Kandinsky at Modern Art & Design

Begräbnis, by the pioneering artist Wassily Kandinsky, at Modern Art & Design.

Kandinsky Begräbnis

In his “Rückblicke” (Reflections on the past) in the book Kandinsky 1901 – 1913, published by Der Sturm in Berlin exactly 100 years ago, Kandinsky talks of his long, laborious battle to become an artist. He took his life-altering decision in 1896 when he gave up a promising career in the legal profession and moved from Moscow to Munich. His “reflections on the past” in the book end with a love song to Moscow, his home city: “… I consider the whole of outer and inner Moscow to be the source of my artistic striving. It is my artistic tuning fork.”

In these memoirs he also mentions the strong ­impressions he assimilated during an ethnographic-juridical ­expedition to the Vologda region of Northern Russia in 1889: when he stepped into the patchily painted peasants’ cabins, it was to him like walking around in a picture.

His memories from Moscow and old Russia resonate in a range of the symbolist paintings and wood carvings with Russian motifs that Kandinsky worked on sporadically in the period 1903 – 1907. The magazine Jugend had been ­launched in Munich in 1896, and the title gave its name to an entire era of style in the run-up to World War i. ­Kandinsky, too, was influenced by Jugendstil, which he mixed with his inspiration from French neo-impressionism à la Signac in his fairy-tale Russian motifs.

During the many years he spent in Munich, he often found himself travelling with his lady friend Gabriele Münter. From May 1906 until June 1907, the couple lived in Sèvres – a ­suburb of Paris – and it was in the course of this sojourn in France that he painted his last old-Russian motifs in large works such as Das Wolgalied (Song of the Volga), Trojkas (Troikas) and the magnificent Das bunte Leben (The Motley Life). 

Begräbnis is a smaller painting from this ­period, and was most likely painted in Sèvres in spring 1907. It can be viewed as an amalgamation of German Jugendstil and French neo-impressionism, with the colours applied in ­patches, forming a mosaic-like pattern on a dark background. However, the content is authentically Russian, with the high, Kremlin-like wall in the background, the ­Byzantine church and the funeral procession in the mid-ground, and the finely dressed Russian family in the foreground, ­accompanied by a Russian Orthodox pope on his knees. To the right of the family, in the mid-ground, stands a little red figure blowing a trumpet. The colours are motley with strong contrasts that are distinctive of Kandinsky. That he valued this little painting highly is evidenced by the fact that it is reproduced in the afore-mentioned book Kandinsky 1901 – 1913.

Begräbnis is backed by an interesting story with links to Sweden. In July 1915, Gabriele Münter moved to Stockholm to be closer to Kandinsky, who had returned to Moscow ­following the outbreak of the war in August 1914. On 23 December 1915 Kandinsky arrived in Stockholm, where he remained until 16 March of the following year. On 1 February 1916, Kandinsky’s separate exhibition – organised in collaboration with Der Sturm in Berlin – opened in Gummeson’s art gallery at the address Strandvägen 17. As an annex to the catalogue, gallery owner Gummeson had a small brochure printed. It was entitled Kandinsky and written by Gösta Adrian-Nilsson (gan). Kandinsky showed his appreciation of gan’s article by sending a letter and a small etching to his admirer in Lund. During the exhibition, he wrote the important brochure Om konstnären (About the artist), which he dedicated to Gabriele Münter at her following exhibition at Gummeson’s in March 1916.

Alongside his abstract paintings and new, partially figurative work, Kandinsky included a number of old paintings and wood carvings of Russian motifs in his exhibition. In an interview in the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter on 2 February 1916, Kandinsky spoke – interestingly – about Begräbnis in particular: “As regards my leanings towards the illogical and the erratically composed, this is probably some­thing of a Russian national trait. Take a look at this early, completely realistically drawn little work! It shows a funeral. To the right is a figure blowing a trumpet. This is what I mean about the illogical … Art works with completely different means and along completely different lines to nature.”

Begräbnis remained in Sweden and has since been ­displayed at a number of exhibitions, including Kandinsky and Sweden, which was held at Malmö konsthall in autumn 1989, and subsequently moved to Moderna Museet in Stockholm. For this exhibition, the American art historian Vivian Endicott Barnett published a detailed study of Kandinsky’s exhibitions in Sweden, which started with his participation in the Baltic exhibition in Malmö in 1914 and continued with individual shows at Gummeson’s art gallery in 1916, 1922, 1932 and 1934.

 

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