In his handlist Kandinsky annotated Schwarz und Violett ("Black and Violet") as having been painted in April 1923. Embedded in this month and year is a very telling fact, from which the story of this impressive painting readily unfolds: Kandinsky would soon complete the first full year of his tenure as a teaching Master at the Weimar Bauhaus.
Schwarz und Violett is therefore among the first important paintings that Kandinsky created in response to a remarkable convergence of events, such as an artist of even his caliber and industry might experience only once or twice in his career, in which he actively and adroitly connected the fortuitous circumstances of time--the post-First World War revival of the arts and a growing interest in new abstract pictorial forms during the early1920s; place--the Bauhaus, the most progressive and influential "think-tank" and practical school dedicated to the advancement of the fine and applied arts at that time; and the inspiring company of extraordinary colleagues--Kandinsky taught and painted alongside a host of notable artists and architects, such as Albers, Bayer, Breuer, Feininger, Gropius, Itten, Klee, Moholy-Nagy, Muche, Schlemmer, and Schreyer. Kandinsky's close friendship with Klee while both men were teaching at the Bauhaus was one of the most extraordinary peer relationships in all 20th century European art. This amazing confluence of factors had a profound effect on Kandinsky; it catalyzed his work at a crucial juncture in his career, and helped him to bring his art to the next critical stage in its development. And here, by way of demonstration and proof, is one such striking result: the present Schwarz und Violett.
* * *
When Germany declared war on Russia in 1914, Kandinsky suddenly became an enemy alien in the country where he had chosen to make his life and career as an artist, and was forced to make his way back to his native land. From his vantage point in Moscow he followed the tumultuous events that resulted in the demise of the Tsarist regime, the short life of Kerensky's Provisional Government, and ultimately the cataclysmic throes of the Bolshevik October Revolution in 1917. Kandinsky returned to Germany in 1921, with his wife Nina (née Andreevskaia, whom he married in 1917) and a few pieces of luggage. He was then fifty-five years old, but had lost none of the messianic zeal with which he trumpeted his pre-war advocacy of a spiritual transformation in art and society. Indeed, he viewed the apocalyptic events he had witnessed in Russia as clear signs this historical moment was indisputably at hand.
During the years leading up to the Great War, Kandinsky had envisioned and created--almost single-handedly--a new kind of art, intuitive, drawn from the imagination, no longer governed by external reality but "determined by internal necessity," by which he had empowered himself to forge the new consciousness of a more profoundly meaningful and rewarding spiritual reality. "The great epoch of the Spiritual which is already beginning," Kandinsky wrote in his 1910-1911 text Content and Form. "In every realm of the spirit, values are reviewed as if in preparation for one of the greatest battles against materialism... And this is happening also in one of the greatest realms of the spirit, that of pre-eternal and eternal art" (in K.C. Lindsay and P. Vergo, eds., Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art, New York, 1994, p. 88).
Now, back in Germany little more than a decade later, Kandinsky updated his prognosis for the new era that was convulsively taking shape: "We are born under the sign of synthesis," he wrote. "The realms of those phenomena we term art...which yesterday were clearly divided from one another, have today fused into one realm, and the boundaries separating it from other human realms are disappearing... The irreconcilable is reconciled. Two opposing paths lead to one goal--analysis, synthesis. Analysis + synthesis = the Great Synthesis. In this way, the art that is termed 'new' comes about...Thus the Epoch of the Great Spiritual has begun" ("Foreword to the Catalogue of the First International Art Exhibition, Düsseldorf," May 1922; in ibid., p. 479).
"We, the abstractionists of today," Kandinsky predicted, "will be regarded as the "pioneers" of absolute art, who had the good fortune, through clairvoyance, to live perhaps centuries ahead of our time." He counted himself as a "man of the future, who is met with only singly today, but who is to be encountered with increasing frequency, is distinguished by his inner freedom, the long-striven for ability to see beyond" ("A New Naturalism?" 1922; in ibid., p. 481).
* * *
Kandinsky had left behind in Russia a vital creative scene and an emerging art educational system that might potentially have been conducive to the great spiritual transformation he had in mind. There he participated in important group exhibitions of avant-garde art, where he mixed with both suprematists and constructivists, including Altman, David and Vladimir Burliuk (the former of the two brothers had his studio next door to Kandinsky), Kliun, Malevich, Pevsner, Popova, Rodchenko, Rozanova, Stepanova, Udaltsova, and others. Under Lunacharsky, the Soviet Commissar of Enlightenment, Kandinsky became a member of the state Department of Visual Arts (IZO). He was appointed head of a Moscow studio in the system of innovative schools known as Svomas (Free State Art Studios) and was granted a professorship at Moscow University. He worked with a state fund directed by Rodchenko which oversaw the acquisition of new Russisan art and its distribution to newly instituted museums.
The one-party state in Russia would soon limit and eventually undermine the creative freedoms the arts commissars initially allowed during the early post-revolutionary period. Kandinsky could sense these setbacks were coming. There was no getting around the fact, moreover, that conditions in Russia in the aftermath of the October Revolution were unbearably harsh. There were extreme shortages in housing, fuel and food, and many perished as a result, a toll to which the continuing warfare between Red and White factions added further victims.
These hardships all came home to Kandinsky and Nina in the most personally devastating way, when their only child, their beloved son Vsevolod ("Volodia") fell ill in the spring of 1920. On 11 June, only a few months before his third birthday, the little boy died from gastroenteritis, a condition probably brought on by malnutrition, a common condition in those desperately hungry years. No one at the Bauhaus, not even the artist's closest associates, later knew of this tragic loss until after the school had closed. "This unknown fact would have shed some light on a great puzzle," Nicholas Fox Weber has explained. "Nearly everyone was struck by what an unlikely pair Kandinsky and Nina were [he was 27 years her senior]. What the observers did not realize was that the couple's shared loss, kept between them, was a linchpin of their marriage... In 1921, shortly before New Year's, Wassily and Nina Kandinsky, determined to leave their tragedy behind, moved to Berlin" (The Bauhaus Group: Six Masters of Modernism, New Haven, 2009, pp. 218 and 219).
* * *
Conditions in Berlin amounted to only a small improvement over those in Moscow. The city had suffered through its own period of political upheaval during the November Revolution of 1918-1919, when the communist Spartacist League battled the army and ultra-rightist paramilitary groups in their futile bid to take control of the new German republic. Having left behind all his Russian production behind when he departed the Soviet Union, Kandinsky was banking on the stock of pre-war paintings he had entrusted to the Berlin dealer Herwarth Walden. He learned that nearly everything had been sold, but with inflation already running rampant his actual proceeds now amounted to very little. It was not until 1926 that he was able to reclaim twenty-six crates of works stored in Munich and Murnau.
The expressionist mien of the artists of Die Brücke was still pre-eminent in Berlin, although lately the anti-art antics of Dadaism had become the rage. Kandinsky had no sympathetic connection with other artists in the city. With Berlin having lost its pre-war appeal for him, Kandinsky sounded out his friend Klee, who was teaching at the Bauhaus, about the prospect of finding employment at the institute, with whose aims and program he was largely in accord. Weimar moreover appeared to be as peaceful and congenial a setting as he could hope for in Germany at that time in order to get on with his work. The architect Gropius, director of the Bauhaus, offered Kandinsky a position on the institute's staff in March 1922. The artist gladly accepted, and in June he and Nina arrived in Weimar to assume his duties, which were to direct the courses in mural painting and introductory analytical drawing.
* * *
The interdisciplinary program at the Bauhaus brought out Kandinsky's superb qualities as a teacher; he took advantage of his classes to develop and expound his theories of color and form. From his notes he assembled his second book, Point and Line to Plane, subtitled A Contribution to the Analysis of Pictorial Elements, which he regarded as the logical development of the ideas he first presented in On the Spiritual in Art, 1912. In his new treatise, which the Bauhaus published in 1926, Kandinsky demonstrated the compositional laws inherent in those abstract forms which arose from the artist's "inner necessity," which he believed must replace conventional objects taken from "external" nature. His grand design was to create "a science" of this new art.
The prevailing aesthetic ethos at the Bauhaus had been, up until this time, expressionist in outlook. Indeed, one major reason Gropius had engaged Kandinsky as a teacher was that he wanted to bring to the school alternative creative ideas from elsewhere in Europe. From Russia, this meant a new movement that had caught Gropius' eye as an architect: the group of artists that followed the concept of constructivism, Rodchenko and Tatlin chief among them, who sought to forge a new synergy between the artist, his work and society. The first major exhibition in Germany of post-Revolutionary Russian art at the Van Dieman gallery, Berlin, in the fall of 1922 confirmed the significance and likely influence of this group, whose principles, Gropius believed, were similar to Bauhaus aims. The constructivists aimed at the creation of form derived from the most fundamental elements of the medium itself, which in painting meant line, plane, and color. They sought absolute freedom from natural forms and to throw off the psychological burden of expressionist subjectivity. Theirs was a genuinely proletarian approach, taking art out of the solitary ivory tower, and into the co-operative factory workshop.
Mondrian, Van Doesburg and the artists of the Dutch De Stijl group had already developed ideas along similar lines by which they had achieved radical results, which Mondrian called "neo-plasticism" and Van Doesburg termed "elementarism." Kandinsky's arrival at the Bauhaus was most timely in light of these contemporary developments. The addition to the Bauhaus faculty of Moholy-Nagy during the spring of 1923 further bolstered those few who advocated constructivist ideas at the institute; Gropius could correctly foresee that it was only through this approach that the Bauhaus could ultimately realize its professed goal, as he wrote, "the unification of all training in art and design" toward the eventual goal of creating "the collective work of art--the Building--in which no barriers exist between the structural and decorative arts" ("The Theory and Organization of the Bauhaus," 1923; in C. Harrison and P. Wood, Art in Theory, Malden, Mass., 2003, p. 311).
* * *
Wherever abstract art--the urge to create absolute painting--was developing in Europe during the late 'teens and 1920s, the artists turned to geometry as a universal language. Kandinsky had begun to mingle geometric elements with organically derived forms in 1920, while he was still living in Russia. The first painting that Kandinsky completed in Weimar, in June 1922, was one he had begun in Berlin during January of that year, still in his late Russian manner (Roethel and Benjamin, no. 684; fig. 1). He painted three more canvases before the end of 1922 (nos. 685-687).
Then, "in a series of major works executed from February through July 1923," Clark V. Poling has written, "he consolidated the geometric tendencies that had been developing in his art from 1919 and brought to the fore the schematic construction and other theoretical principles he emphasized in his teaching at the school" (Kandinsky: Russian and Bauhaus Years, 1915-1933, exh. cat., The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1983, p. 49). Kandinsky executed twelve important pictures, including Schwarz und Violett (nos. 688-700; no. 691--fig. 2; no. 694--fig. 3; no.700--fig. 4; no. 696--fig. 5), as a pictorially varied group, each more geometrically driven than the one before, which culminated in the magisterial Composition VIII (no. 701; fig. 6), the painting "Kandinsky regarded," as Will Grohmann has related to us, "as the high point of his postwar achievement. In this work geometry becomes number, but number transformed into magic" (op. cit., 1958, p. 188).
The artist's titles for these works usually denote a key form or dominant color; in paintings of later 1923 and thereafter the titles may occasionally evoke a sensation or state of mind. Kandinsky steadfastly avoided giving any indication that might imply subject or meaning; he did want such suggestions to detract from the abstract qualities in his work. "Nevertheless," as Grohmann has pointed out, "it may be assumed that spontaneously arising forms originated in an unconscious, in which image and idea were linked" (ibid., p. 192). A picture such as Schwarz und Violett, so thoroughly imbued with the powerful presence of a great artist, should certainly bear allusions, however recondite, to his life and times. Even if his imagery was now being rendered as coded ciphers in the strictest geometric terms, given close attention and a sympathetic imagination, the nature of these portents may, at least in part, be revealed.
The title Schwarz und Violett draws attention to an opposition between the complex of semi- and full circle forms concentrically clustered about the bulbous black shape at left, and the more sharply constructed forms that surmount the pale purple plane at right, tilted in the constructivist manner of contemporary Russian painting, to give the sensation of eccentric movement toward the right edge of the composition. The latter suggests two sail boats making their way across calm waters, away from the ominous black cloud of an approaching storm (or perhaps the darkening world during a solar eclipse), which has already overtaken the third craft at lower left, on whose mast hangs a flag bearing the colors of the former Tsarist regime (today again the flag of the Russian Federation). All these elements suggest a pictorial parable recounting the departure of Kandinsky and his wife from revolutionary Russia. Might one associate lamented little "Volodia" with the boat left behind? Perhaps, but there is sense here of neither gloom nor mourning; quite the contrary, a celebratory air of optimism arises from the pastel tonalities of this composition, in the arching colors of the rainbow pierced by a burst of the sun's rays from behind the dark cloud, and we may read into the regular bar and grid patterns on the right side an evocation of the harmonious vision which was the theory and promise of the Bauhaus program for the future.
In 1924 Kandinsky wrote to his friend Grohmann, observing that "in 1921 my cool period began, from which I now emerge." Grohmann stated in his Kandinsky monograph "the term applies best to 1923, and to Composition VIII" (both citations, ibid., p. 179; fig. 6). In late 1925 Kandinsky discussed with Grohmann the idea that, the cool geometry of his forms notwithstanding, there was a strong impulse toward Romanticism in his paintings of this period. "It is no part of my program to paint with tears or to make people cry, and I really don't care for sweets, but Romanticism goes far, far, very far beyond tears... Why should there not be a New Romanticism? The meaning, the content of art is Romanticism" (ibid., pp. 179 and 180). Kandinsky considered the lyrical thread that had run through his art, and which lay at the heart of his recent geometric compositions as well: "The circle, which I have been using so often of late, is nothing if not romantic. Actually, the coming Romanticism is profound and beautiful...it is meaningful, joy-giving, it is a block of ice with a burning flame inside. If people perceive only the ice and not the flame, that is just too bad. But a few are beginning to grasp this" (ibid.).
* * *
Of the fourteen innovative paintings which Kandinsky completed in Weimar between January and July 1923, including Composition VIII (Benjamin and Roethel, nos. 684-701; fig. 6) seven are in museum collections, five (including the present Schwarz und Violett) are in distinguished private collections; one may have been destroyed during the Second World War, while the location of another is currently unknown.
Kandinsky's Russian passport photograph, 1921. Musée national d'art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. BARCODE : 28859529
(fig. 1) Wassily Kandinsky, Weisses Kreuz, Berlin and Weimar, January-June 1922. The Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice. BARCODE: 28859543
(fig. 2) Wassily Kandinsky, Diagonale, Weimar, February 1923. Landesgalerie, Hanover. BARCODE: 28859567
(fig. 3) Wassily Kandinsky, Aus Weiss II, Weimar, February-April 1923. Musée national d'art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. BARCODE : 28859536
(fig. 4) Wassily Kandinsky, Im schwarzen Viereck, Weimar, June 1923. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. BARCODE: 28859550
(fig. 5) Wassily Kandinsky, Durchgehender Strich, Weimar, March 1923. Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf. BARCODE: 28859574
(fig. 6) Wassily Kandinsky, Komposition VIII, Weimar, July 1923. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. BARCODE: 28859581