Wassily Kandinsky (essay date 1899)
SOURCE: "Secession," in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 23, No. 4, Summer, 1997, p. 729.
[In the following translation of an 1899 review, Kandinsky assesses the work shown at the 1899 Munich Secession's international exhibit.]
Kandinsky's review of the 1899 Munich Secession's international exhibition is his first major art essay.1 It appeared in Novosti dnia (News of the Day), 4 November 1899, a prominent Moscow daily newspaper covering local, national, and international events, with occasional features on literature and art. Its discovery revises the status given to Kandinsky's 1901 article "Critique of Critics,"2 which has been credited by Western scholars as his first essay on art.3 "Secession"'s publication thus gives us some of the earliest indications of Kandinsky's views on art, when he was a student in Munich. It was written only weeks before the approaching new century at a time when Kandinsky witnessed profound changes in art whose impact would be felt for years to come.
In "Secession," Kandinsky recognized art's affinity with the momentum of the changing age and the promise it would bring for greater innovation and expertise. The essay was a response to debates within Russia's art community on the value of such progress to Russian culture and society. "Secession" follows a series of articles written in 1898 and 1899—among others, Igor Grabar's "Decline or Renaissance?" and Sergei Diaghilev's "Complicated Questions"4—that challenged Russian realism's dominance and resistance to artistic change. These authors sought legitimacy for "decadent" Western European art, such as impressionism, postimpressionism, and symbolism, as an arbiter of progress for contemporary art in Russia. Western European art, in all its innovation and potential as a salvation for Russia's stagnant art climate, offered Russian artists a means of expressing their individuality freely; they thus defied the dated and repressive policies promoted by the Russian realists and the tsarist art academy. Kandinsky's review of the Munich Secession exhibition provided him with a means of broadening the Russian public's awareness of a pervasive international phenomenon. Artists throughout Europe were progressing towards individual expression as an acceptable form of artistic behavior. Popular support for this movement gave it a level of credibility difficult for even its most ardent Russian opponents to challenge.
Kandinsky was already painting at the time he wrote his review and was attuned to the changes in techniques and materials impacting Europe's art world so deeply. In painting, artists' rediscovery of tempera provided them with the technical means of treating color differently. Tempera's properties as a stable, quick-drying pigment, whose colors produced a bright and intense richness, were conducive to the creation of paintings in which artists could assert themselves through color as an expression of their individuality. The significance of this development in painting was paralleled by the Arts and Crafts Movement, which had elevated goods from their merely functional value to a higher art form, as a source of spiritual enrichment. Beauty became a commodity available not only to the cultured elite but to the masses. Sold in the form of household items designed by artists, their sense of color, line, and materials brought the industry an aesthetic sensibility that had been heretofore unseen.
Kandinsky's message of progress and artistic reform and its power as an indicator of what art would become in the future century was tempered three years later, however, in his 1902 review of the Munich Secession and Artists' Association (Kunstlergenossenschaft) exhibitions, entitled "Correspondence from Munich."5 As the new age failed to bring with it a consistent path of achievement, Kandinsky was unable to offer his Russian public the level of encouragement he had so willingly expressed in his earlier review. The work of many artists in both shows fell short of his expectations as artists' evolution towards mastering the synthesis of individual expression with technique and style either did not materialize in its own right or succumbed to faddish trends.
In one of my first accounts of Munich's art exhibits I spoke, by the way, of that strange and still-yielding impression, which turned up among spectators in the exhibition halls devoted to Scottish painting. I spoke of the tiresomeness and monotony of that foggy veil which covered these artists' paintings: fog in the morning, afternoon, evening, and night, with sun and in overcast weather; fog, appearing in landscape, genre, portrait, a beautiful fog, giving that fairy-tale and peculiarly poetic impression, but with too often recurring persistence as if by order of law, until exhausted. Arising now and then on its own but most of the time drifting over from Scotland, this foggy mood was cultivated in the painting of countries all over the world.
And it is just now, perhaps, that a reaction is beginning: pure and intense light, purity and brightness of colors are beginning to burn here and there with intense patches among many others, immersed as usual in a dull haze of paintings. I am not presuming to confirm with assurance that time will disintegrate these weakened colors sooner or later. But another tendency is already clearly emerging. In places, the bright sun shines, which is of a specific character; the mood of dusk that not too long ago took first place among motifs is now beginning to be interpreted differently—the purity and intensity of colors stare out shyly even in overcast weather. Munich's exhibit of innovators in art, this year's "Secession," will give a rough picture of these two trends in contemporary painting.
Whistler's brilliant words on the harmony of dusk flew all over the world with astonishing speed. It was also often reiterated by them that true beauty springs up with the death of day. "When the evening mist," said that great artist,
clothes the riverside with poetry, as with a veil, and the poor buildings lose themselves in the dim sky, and the tall chimneys become campanili, and the warehouses are palaces in the night, and the whole city hangs in the heavens, and fairy-land is before us—then the wayfarer hastens home; the working man and the cultured one, the wise man and the one of pleasure, cease to understand, as they have ceased to see, and Nature, who, for once, has sung in tune, sings her exquisite song to the artist alone, her son and her master—her son in that he loves her, her master, in that he knows her.6
The matter has come to the point where some of the most exceptional artists have begun to look at the sun through the dusky prism. They go to extremes trying to soften tones and turn the sun's spot into an apparition. The famous Scotsman Brangwyn, whose influence spread all over Europe in its turn and found avid supporters in Munich, acts in this fashion. This year a decorative panel was presented to these supporters at the "Secession": a few nude male figures playing classical pipes in a mist-filled sunny glade amidst trees with translucent shadows. As usual, it is an extremely pretty and interesting piece. The young and talented Angello Jank of Munich exhibited several pieces, which bore extremely close resemblance in tones to those of the Scotsman. His knights are very beautiful in the gloomy evening hours. The well-known Englishman Greiffenhagen submitted Annunciation, in which, as always, he combined the same foggy color treatment with the composition of the true offshoots of the English Pre-Raphaelites. The Municher Pipho reflected the same colors in his own work as if in a mirror. The forefather of all of Munich's school and on the whole of most of Germany's landscapists, Dill, again submitted several ultrafoggy pictures. The prominent French artist Carriere exhibited fog in the form of a portrait. From Russia fog was sent by Levitan (Silence).
And here, in the midst of this international assembly of fogs, patches of the new light caught on fire in some places. While this new light is not very obvious, nor stands on its own, it is still anxiously and timidly forging a path. Among the forefathers of this trend we welcome with steadfast fondness Claude Monet and alongside him the great Bocklin who, almost at the same time, could both paint colorless tones of oleographic pigments and create colorisi masterpieces. The tempera and oil paintings of other artists follow them, following the path of purity of tones and intensity of coloring. Of those who seek to resolve this problem with oil paints, there is not one who could sustain the purity of intense colors throughout the piece. Professor of the Munich Academy L. Herterich, in his Ulrich von Hutten, combined intense and pure tones on the armor with muddy and boring colors in a huge painting of a crucifixion and the head of a knight. Hierl-Deronco's huge painted canvas—Garden of Love—a row of female figures in a landscape—gave the most tasteless combination of intense strokes of color with the blackness and mud of...
(The entire section is 3810 words.)