The grandly polyphonic Rigide et courbé, with its unfurling of a thrilling repertoire of intimate and epic motifs, reflects the profound impact Kandinsky’s new French surroundings had exerted on his painting. “The move to Paris totally altered my ‘palette,’” Kandinsky wrote to Galka Scheyer on 19 May 1935. “Work is going wonderfully well here. The Paris light is very important to me, although it stopped me from working for two months when I first arrived, because it had such a shattering effect on me. The difference in light to central Germany is enormous--here it can be simultaneously bright and gentle. There are gray, overcast days, too, with no rain, which is rare in Germany. The light on these gray days is incredibly rich, with a varied range of color and an endless degree of tones. Such a quality of light reminds me of the light conditions in and around Moscow. So I feel ‘at home’ in this light” (quoted in J. Hahl-Kock, Kandinsky, New York, 1993, p. 356).
“The non-European, Russian or Asiatic splendor of the colors in the Paris paintings is the most striking thing about them,” Will Grohmann wrote. “It is not the individual color, but their total effect that conveys something of the spirit of Moscow as Kandinsky described it, something of the spirit of the East” (op. cit., 1958, pp. 227-228).
Rigide et courbé (“Rigid and Curved”) are the fundamental opposing pictorial elements Kandinsky employed in his conception of this symphonic composition, and indeed he titled it as such upon completion of the canvas in December 1935. In the article “Toile vide, etc.,” which Kandinsky published in Christian Zervos’s magazine Cahiers d’Art, he may have revealed what had been the profound, internal necessity that moved him to create this very picture:
“The straight line, straight and narrow surface: hard resolute, holding its own regardless, apparently ‘going of its own accord’–like destiny already lived. That way and no other.
Bent, ‘free,’ vibrant, evading, ‘elastic,’ seemingly ‘indeterminate’–like the fate that awaits us...Some hardness and some softness. Combinations of both–infinite possibilities.
Each line says, ‘Here I am!’ It stands its ground, shows its elegant face–‘Listen! Listen to my secret!’ ‘Listen!’ ‘Listen!’ Small messages that gather in concert until the great ‘Yes’... Most wonderful of all is this: to add up all these voices together with many others in a single painting–the whole painting becomes a single ‘HERE I AM!’”
(“Toile vide, etc,” Cahiers d’Art, nos. 5-6, Paris, 1935; in K.C. Lindsay and P. Vergo, eds., Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art, New York, 1994, pp. 780-781)
Kandinsky painted Rigide et courbé on the second anniversary of his arrival in Paris. Police and Nazi storm troopers raided and closed the Berlin Bauhaus in April 1933. The school’s staff, having no choice, voted in July to terminate their venture for good. After spending the summer in Paris and on holiday by the Mediterranean, Kandinsky and his wife Nina decided to re-locate from Berlin to the French capital. Marcel Duchamp found for them a three-room, sixth floor flat in a new building at 135, boulevard de la Seine (today the boulevard Général Koenig), overlooking the river, in the Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine. The Kandinskys took up residence in their new home during the final days of December. The artist resumed painting in February 1934.
The repeated experience of departure and migration remained deeply embedded in Kandinsky’s memory, and at significant junctures of transition sparked his creative impulse. During the course of his lifetime he had been, successively, a citizen of three nations. Having grown up in Czarist Russia, he established himself as an artist in Wilhelmine Germany, but had to return to his homeland at the outbreak of the First World War, where he subsequently endured the turmoil of the Revolution and the privations of the early Soviet era, to which he lost his only child, a young son. Kandinsky returned to Germany at the end of 1921. Following the Bauhaus from Weimar to Dessau, he became a German citizen in 1928, and remained with the school through its final days in Berlin, where he witnessed the ascendancy of Hitler’s Third Reich in 1933. Kandinsky and his wife acquired French citizenship in July 1939, only weeks before Germany invaded Poland, igniting the Second World War.
The contending notions in Rigide et courbé of constrained shapes on one side—“destiny already lived’”—and the thrusting wave of supple, organic forms that press outward against the other–“the fate that awaits us”--suggest a veiled narrative of escape, release, and the freedom to begin anew, just as Kandinsky had recently experienced this drastic, but hopeful change of circumstances in his own life. In the last painting he completed in Berlin, Entwicklung in Braun (“Development in Brown,” August 1933; Roethel and Benjamin, no. 1031), the artist conjured—in dark rectangular forms—the Nazi thugs as they closed in to stifle the progressive, creative educational program he and his colleagues had established at the Bauhaus. The bundled stick-like forms on left side of Rigide et courbé take on a shape similar to the ancient Roman fasces, a symbol of absolutist power. On the right side of the composition, by way of formal and thematic contrast, Kandinsky appears to have taken inspiration from the ancient tale of the Rape of Europa, as recounted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, one of the most frequently treated of all myths in European art during the 17th and 18th centuries, meaningful once again in light of contemporary events.
In Ovid’s telling, Jove, supreme among the Olympian gods, is attracted to Europa, the daughter of King Agenor of Phoenician Tyre, and assumes the shape of a handsome white bull to mingle with Agenor’s herd. Europa pets the bull, and once she climbs on its back, Jove absconds with her into the sea and swims to Crete, where he fathers the royal Minoan line. Lynn H. Nicholas alludes to this story in the title of her book The Rape of Europa, 1994, in which she detailed the Nazi regime’s pillaging of priceless European artworks in public and private collections, including the property of many Jews, prior to and during the Second War. Indeed, Max Beckmann’s watercolor Raub der Europa, 1933, suggests the forced abduction of a helpless girl (Beckmann, Hohr, and Gollein, no. 62).
The inspiration to treat the Europa myth may have stemmed from Kandinsky’s recollection of one of the most famous of early modernist Russian paintings, Valentin Serov’s The Rape of Europa, 1910. The composition of Rigide et courbé echoes the surging motion in Serov’s painting, and most clearly the use the bull’s horns as a key motif. Various forms in Kandinsky’s painting recall the leaping dolphins in the Serov canvas, to which the artist added a seahorse at lower right. Kandinsky’s placement of the exclamation point near the lower edge is a nod in the direction of his best friend and erstwhile Bauhaus colleague Paul Klee, who often employed such signs in his pictures.
The Europa myth is prologue to the stories of the Minotaur, the offspring of a bull and a Minoan queen, who is the man-beast in Picasso’s La Minotauromachie, also executed in 1935, before Kandinsky began Rigide et courbé. The latter, however, would not have first seen Picasso’s etching until it was published in Cahiers d’Art, 1935, nos. 7-10, which appeared in February 1936.
Serov in his painting evokes an epiphany of sensual awakening and erotic fantasy; Kandinsky employs the full power of his painterly vocabulary to reflect on the themes of migration and adventure inherent in the Europa story, which he himself had recently experienced first-hand. In choosing to depict this scene, Baroque painters often considered the precedent of the late medieval French text Ovide Moralisé, which interpreted the Roman poet’s pagan stories as Christian allegories: Europa signifies the soul having found salvation in Christ (the white bull) and then proceeding on its journey to heaven. Rembrandt’s version of this theme, painted in 1632 (J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles) is seen as the flight of the soul from the realm of earthly passions to a state of divine enlightenment.
Kandinsky may have considered similar implications in terms he had long been pondering, set forth in his landmark text On the Spiritual in Art, 1912. Instead of giving in to “the long reign of materialism...an evil, purposeless game” (in ibid., p. 128), one must seek, Kandinsky urged, a spiritual dimension in modern living. Europa’s journey on the back of a god, involuntary as it was, led her nonetheless to a sacred place, and an exciting new destiny.
“Besides the terrible worldwide economic crisis, there exists today an even more terrible crisis: that of the spirit,” Kandinsky wrote in 1936. “The cause of this crisis is the propagandizing of the most rigid materialist ideas. One of the most dangerous results of this propaganda is the increasing loss of interest in the manifestations of the spirit. Thus the increasing loss of interest in art... A human being guaranteed his necessities but deprived of spiritual culture is nothing more than a machine to direct. Nonetheless, beneath this horrible surface exists a spiritual movement still faintly visible, but which will bring an end to the crisis and the decadence. One of the forces preparatory to this ‘resurrection’ is free art” (“Reply to the journal Aceta de Arte,” Tenerife; in ibid., p. 792).
A new sense of liberation is indeed evident in Kandinsky’s larger paintings “from 1935 to 1938, a sort of golden age within his Paris period,” as Christian Derouet described them (exh. cat., op. cit., 1985, p. 28). The artist no longer relied so exclusively on purely geometric forms, as he had in his Bauhaus paintings between 1921 and 1933. Kandinsky turned instead to a wider variety of formal possibilities, many more noticeably irregular and organic than any he had employed for more than a decade, in shapes which became smaller in size and more plentiful on the canvas. “It was the amorphous,” according to Derouet, “the unexpected that now tempted him” (ibid., p. 34).
Amid the kinetic unfolding of multi-layered translucent forms, broad undulating bands of color bearing mysterious runic script and hieroglyphic symbols, Rigide et courbé also incorporates such pointed allusions as the serpent and squid motifs seen in ancient Minoan art. The complex superimposition and overlapping of forms, overlaid with numerous signs, required a carefully deliberative method. Kandinsky drew two pencil studies for Rigide et courbé (Sketchbook 35, pp. 9r and 10v; illustrated in V.E. Barnett, op., cit., 2007, p. 292), which mark the beginning of the calculated and painstaking process in which Kandinsky conceived and executed this and other large compositions during the Paris period.
Kandinsky further suggested a marine aspect in Rigide et courbé by thickly infusing large areas on the canvas with sand, even molding this granular substance into shapes that comprise entire sections in the composition, a technique the artist employed extensively only in his Paris paintings of 1934-1935. He had seen examples of André Masson’s pioneering 1927 series of peintures de sable in surrealist magazines, and knew of Georges Braque’s application of sand to enhance the physical sensation of matière in his recent still-life canvases. Kandinsky’s use of sand—strictly controlled, unlike Masson’s preference for automatic, accidental effects—suggests that he may have known the practice of mandala sand-painting in Tibet, and perhaps the ritual “dry-painting” found in other cultures.
“The works of the Paris years have been described as expressing a superior synthesis,” Will Grohmann wrote. “In Kandinsky’s language, this would mean that they reflect a union of head and heart, of compositional technique and intuition, but also branching out toward other sensory experiences, particularly toward music [note the prominent, twin comma-like bass clefs near the center in Rigide et courbé], and even a symbiotic relationship with scientific thinking” (op. cit., 1958, p. 227).
Science had indeed become a significant source of imagery in Kandinsky’s Paris paintings, which he derived from published scholarly research and encyclopedias, giving rise to the most remarkable component in the appearance of his late works. “The new motifs the artist introduced in 1934...derive from the world of biology—especially zoology and embryology,” Vivian Barnett has written. “There is a remarkable incidence in his painting of amoebas, embryos, larvae and marine invertebrates, as well as leaf forms and punctuation marks,” which Kandinsky subjected to “his fanciful and imaginative stylization.” Barnett has surveyed and analyzed the sources of such imagery in the Paris period, indicating those publications which the artist is known to have owned or likely consulted (exh. cat., op. cit., 1985, pp. 62-87). In the present painting and other works Kandinsky may have derived ideas from photographs of deep sea life and enlarged images of plankton he found in issues of the marine journal Die Koralle, 1931.
Painted in the final decade of his life, Rigide et courbé is Kandinsky’s wise affirmation of the journey–whether by choice, or through force of circumstances–as the invitation to a new land, a place of unforeseen possibilities. The story of Europa moreover becomes an allegory for artmaking. She is the artist; the powerful, irresistible bull is the primal impetus and all the many sources for his art, for Kandinsky, his abstract art. “In every truly new work of art a new world is created that has never existed,” the artist wrote in 1938. “Thus every true work of art is a new discovery; next to the already known worlds, a new, previously unknown one is uncovered. Therefore, every genuine work says, ‘Here I am!'...Next to the ‘real’ world abstract art puts a new world that in its externals has nothing to do with ‘reality.’ Internally, however, it is subject to the general laws of the ‘cosmic world.’ Thus a new ‘world of art’ is placed next to the ‘world of nature,’ a world that is just as real, a concrete one. Personally, then, I prefer to term so-called ‘abstract’ art concrete art” (in K.C. Lindsay and P. Vergo, eds., op. cit., 1994, p. 832).