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

Scharf im dumpf

Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944)
Scharf im dumpf
signed with monogram and dated '29' (lower left); signed with monogram and dated again, numbered, titled and inscribed '1929 No 482 "Scharf in Dumpf" 49 x 49' (on the reverse)
oil on board in the artist's frame
19¼ x 19¼ in. (49 x 49 cm.)
Painted in December 1929
Estate of the artist.
Nina Kandinsky, Paris (by descent from the above). Galerie Maeght, Paris (by 1953).
Private collection, Europe.
By descent from the above to the present owner.
The Artist's Handlist, vol. IV, no. 482.
W. Grohmann, Wassily Kandinsky: Life and Work, New York, 1958, p. 338, no. 482 (illustrated, p. 377, fig. 334).
H.K. Roethel and J.K. Benjamin, Kandinsky: Catalogue Raisonné of the Oil-Paintings, 1916-1944, London, 1984, vol. II, p. 847, no. 926 (illustrated).
Paris, Galerie Maeght, Kandinsky, October-November 1953, no. 19 (incorrectly titled).
Paris, Galerie Maeght, Kandinsky: Bauhaus de Dessau, 1927-1933, November 1965, no. 22 (illustrated).
New York, Marlborough-Gerson Gallery Inc., Kandinsky: The Bauhaus Years, April-May 1966, no. 31 (illustrated).
Saint-Paul-de-Vence, Fondation Maeght, Kandinsky centenaire, 1866-1944, July-September 1966, no. 59.
Baden-Baden, Staatliche Kunsthalle, Wassily Kandinsky: Gemaälde, 1900-1944, July-September 1970, no. 92 (illustrated).
Zürich, Galerie Maeght, Kandinsky, 1972, no. 21 (illustrated).
Lugano, Museo Cantonale d'Arte, Kandinsky nelle collezioni svizzere, June-October 1995, p. 209, no. 50 (illustrated in color).

Lot Essay

Kandinsky painted Scharf im dumpf ("Sharp in Blunt") in 1929, during the seventh year of his tenure as a "Master"--or more formally, since 1926, a "professor"--of painting at the Bauhaus, which moved in 1925 from its original quarters in Weimar to a new site in Dessau. In mid-June 1926, Kandinsky took up residence in one of the newly built teacher's double-houses, which he shared with his colleague and close friend Paul Klee. The lively exchange of ideas in the Dessau Bauhaus, crossing over the lines of various disciplines in the fine and applied arts, galvanized teachers and students alike, and the classroom experience stimulated Kandinsky to produce some of his most illuminating and influential theoretical writings while enriching his painting.

Seeking to create and practice a "science of art" that would reveal the compositional laws and expressive potential inherent in abstract forms, Kandinsky systematically laid out an exploratory process in his book Punkt und Linie zu Fläche (Point and Line to Plane), published under Bauhaus auspices in Munich in 1926. From basic geometric elements Kandinsky created an astonishingly inventive body of work, from contemplative paintings that are relatively simple and minimal in their composition, to dazzling works of layered complexity, all evoking a broad range of subtle emotional states and diverse thematic references, which he completely transfigured into his abstract pictorial language.

"During the last years in Dessau, from 1929 to 1932," Will Grohmann has written, "Kandinsky constantly gained in assurance and lightness of touch. A joy of living is perceptibly felt in his work. In certain paintings there is even a kind of philosophical humor... Not only are his means very flexible, he transforms them endlessly... What distinguishes the paintings prior to 1933 is first of all the spirituality with which the mathematical and 'Constructivist' elements are treated, the unprecedented empathic response to forms derived from mathematical physics, and their adaptation to the realm of pictorial invention" (op. cit., pp. 210-211).

The title of the present painting, Scharf im dumpf, suggests the contrasting nature of the different elements Kandinsky employed in this composition: he has set pointed and hard-edged linear forms within a nebulously atmospheric environment, which the German word dumpf may more subtly connote as being stifling, torpid or oppressive. Kandinsky's titles often use such descriptive terms, internal or emotional in nature, to characterize the abstract formal elements in a composition and infer a fundamental conflict or dialectic which lies at the heart of his conception. There are frequently, moreover, references to external reality which Kandinsky embodies in his geometric, ostensibly pure abstract forms. A massive, black three-peaked mountain dominates Sharpf im dumpf, reminiscent of the rugged landscapes that Kandinsky painted in the Bavarian Alps near Murnau during 1908-1909, which supplied motifs he subsequently distilled into symbolic pictorial signifiers during his pioneering run-up to abstraction in the years preceding the First World War.

A nocturnal aspect pervades Scharf im dumpf: a sky filled with dust or smoke, such as Kandinsky suggests with his smudgy brushwork, would cause the reddish full moon seen at upper right. This scene is not without ominous, even apocalyptic implications--"the moon became as blood" (The Revelation of St. John; 6:12)--again returning to a major theme in Kandinsky's earliest abstract paintings. The square and rectangular shapes in this painting probably represent a human presence or consciousness, as hopeful flashes of light that stand out in the darkness. Set at different elevations on the mountain side, these shapes mark stations which trace the progress of a spiritual journey of ascent, culminating at the tip of the tallest peak in a triangular star, which serves as an illuminating beacon for the benefit of those who inhabit the world below.

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