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Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944)
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Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944)

Schichten

Details
Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944)
Schichten
signed with monogram and dated '32' (lower left)
oil on panel
19¾ x 15 5/8 in. (50 x 39 cm.)
Painted in February 1932
Provenance
Jeanne Bucher, Paris.
Van der Clip, Paris.
Nierendorf Gallery, New York.
Hildegarde J. Prytek, New York.
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York (acquired from the above); sale, Sotheby's, London, 30 June 1964, lot 44.
Nathan Cummings, Chicago and New York (acquired at the above sale).
Acquired from the above by the present owner.
Literature
The Artist's Handlist IV, no. 569.
W. Grohmann, Wassily Kandinsky: Leben und Werk, Cologne, 1958, p. 339, no. 569.
F. Whitford, Kandinsky, London, 1967, p. 36 (illustrated in color, pl. 33).
P. Overy, Kandinsky: The Language of the Eye, New York, 1969, pp. 83, 108, 120 and 151 (illustrated in color, pl. 53).
H.K. Roethel and J.K. Benjamin, Kandinsky, Catalouge Raisonné of the Oil-Paintings, Ithaca, 1984, vol. II, p. 914, no. 1014 (illustrated).
R.R. Bretell, An Impressionist Legacy, The Collection of Sara Lee Corporation, New York, 1986, pp. 119-120 (illustrated in color, p. 61).
Exhibited
Paris, Galerie Cahiers d'Art, May 1934.
Bern, Kunsthalle, Wassily Kandinsky, Französische Meister der Gegenwart, February-March 1937, no. 49.
New York, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, Tenth Anniversary Exhibition, May-October 1949.
Minneapolis, Institute of Arts, Paintings from the Cummings Collection, January-March 1965.
Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, and New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Selections from the Nathan Cummings Collection, June 1970-September 1971, no. 30 (illustrated, p. 44).
The Art Institute of Chicago, Major Works from the Collection of Nathan Cummings, October-December 1973, no. 64 (illustrated, p. 73).
Atlanta, High Museum of Art; Houston, Museum of Fine Arts, and Fine Arts Gallery of San Diego, Bauhaus Color, January-September 1976 (illustrated in color, p. 23).
New York, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Kandinsky: Russian and Bauhaus Years, December 1983-February 1984, no. 309 (illustrated, p. 340).
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Lot Essay

Kandinsky began teaching at the Weimar Bauhaus in 1922, and remained with the school following its relocation to Dessau in 1925. According to Kandinsky's handlist of his works, the artist painted Schichten ("Layers") in February 1932, only months before the Dessau city council, which was controlled by National Socialist party members, voted to close the Bauhaus, effective 1 October. By the end of the year Kandinsky moved to Berlin, to join the new Bauhaus there, which operated as a private organization, although this school was also forced to close by the following summer, as the Nazis consolidated their power nation-wide in the aftermath of Adolf Hitler's ascendancy to the chancellorship. Kandinsky painted his last picture in Germany in August 1933, and then left Berlin to reside in Paris.

In its overlapping and colliding rectangular, triangular and circular shapes, each simple in itself, but capable of generating surprising variety when combined in different ways, Schichten hints at the complexities of living and working in this new and increasingly hostile political environment. There remains, nevertheless, an overriding harmony of design in this composition, which has been reinforced by its subdued rosy tonality. Clark V. Poling has written that "The creation of an imagery of restraint and calm was a meaningful response to the conditions in Germany during 1932 and 1933" (in Kandinsky: Russian and Bauhaus Years, 1915-1933, exh. cat., The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1983, p. 82). Frank Whitford has pointed out that Schichten "has a richness and beauty all the more remarkable because it has been achieved with such limited colours and means" (op. cit., pp. 36-37). Paul Overy described the manner in which Kandinsky achieved this unity, "Layers looks as if a layer of surface colour is veiled by a translucent film colour...(hence the title of the painting)...Kandinsky uses a relatively uniform, grainy effect over which he floats transparent skins of colour. The result is a deliciously tantalizing ambiguity. The uniform, grainy texture tends to make the picture seem all on one plane, whereas the transparent skins of colour give the illusion of a shallow, indeterminate depth that continually teases the eyes" (op. cit., pp. 83 and 108).

Some aspects of this composition appear to have been inspired by the Mediterranean cruise that Kandinsky and his wife Nina took in the summer of 1931, in which they visited Egypt, Palestine, Turkey, Greece and Italy. The influence of abstract Islamic design motifs is detectable in Schichten, in its parts as well its overall, tightly integrated effect. Indeed, following Kandinsky's return from his holiday, crescent shapes occur in a number of his pictures (see Roethel and Benjamin, nos. 1007, 1010-1013, 1018, 1023, 1030, and 1031).

Using such varied sources and his inventive diversity of means, Kandinsky continued to demonstrate the viability of abstract painting at a time when it was still frequently derided by other artists and disliked by most of the public, and indeed, when it seemed in danger of being extinguished by the blunt force of reality itself. In his essay "Reflexions sur l'art abstrait," published in Christian Zervos Cahiers d'Art in 1931, Kandinsky sought to affirm the role of abstract painting in modern life:

Some of our current 'abstract' paintings are, in the best sense of the word endowed with artistic life: they possess the throbbing of life, its radiance, and they exert an influence on man's inner life via the eye. In a purely pictorial manner. Likewise, among the innumerable paintings of today that have objects, only a few are endowed with artistic life in the best sense of the word...

Nowadays, in painting a point sometimes expresses more than a human face. A vertical associated with a horizontal produces an almost dramatic sound. The contact between the acute angle of a triangle and a circle has no less effect than that of God's finger touching Adam's in Michelangelo.
(translated in K.C. Lindsay and P. Vergo, eds., Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art, New York, 1994, pp. 756 and 759).
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