Created in the autumn of 1935, Noir bigarré is a superb example of the inherent elegance and dynamism of Wassily Kandinsky’s paintings during the final years of his career, as he continued to push the boundaries of his art to new levels of complexity and innovation. At this time the artist was living with his wife Nina in Paris, having escaped the turbulent political situation in Germany towards the end of 1933. Despite an overall continuity of creative purpose throughout this period, the Parisian years are remarkable for the new artistic vocabulary which began to emerge in Kandinsky’s paintings at this time, as amorphous, embryonic and biomorphic forms, inspired by the artist’s interest in biology and theories of creation, now sat alongside the sharp geometric configurations and shapes of his Bauhaus compositions. In Noir bigarré, Kandinsky achieves a delicate balance between the two idioms, creating unexpected spatial and illusory effects through the play of form and colour.
Kandinsky’s move to Paris had been the direct result of the rapidly deteriorating political situation in Germany during the early 1930s. Following Hitler’s rise to power, avant-garde artists, and particularly those associated with the progressive teaching at the Bauhaus, swiftly became targets for the regime. In April 1933, police and Nazi officials raided and closed the Berlin Bauhaus, leaving the school’s staff with no choice but to terminate their venture for good. After spending the summer in Paris and on holiday by the Mediterranean, Kandinsky and his wife decided to re-locate from Berlin to the French capital. With the assistance of Marcel Duchamp, they found a modest three-room, sixth floor flat to rent in a new building at 135 boulevard de la Seine (today the boulevard Général Koenig) in the Parisian suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine, overlooking the river. The Kandinskys took up residence shortly after the building was finished early in the new year, filling the space with the small collection of belongings and artworks they had brought with them from Berlin.
In spite of the difficulties facing him, and the chaos and conflict looming on the horizon, Kandinsky’s eagerness to work was undiminished, and he returned to painting in February 1934, devoting himself with renewed vigour to his art. He converted the apartment’s living room into a studio, revelling in the large windows which filled the space with light. Looking westwards over the Seine, he could watch the ever-changing spectacle of the clouds as they danced across the open sky, while smoke from the factory chimneys on the opposite bank drifted slowly upwards, disappearing into the atmosphere. Describing the vista in a letter to Josef Albers written shortly after the move, Kandinsky discussed the endless beauty of this view: ‘From the windows of the three rooms in a row, we look down on the Seine flowing beside the boulevard (‘down’ because we live on the sixth floor), then there’s an undeveloped island, then the Seine again and after that the hills start, which slowly disappear over the horizon. Over that a huge sky. In the evening, the hills look like the night sky with all the lights on’ (quoted in Kandinsky, exh. cat., New York, 2009, p. 44).
It was in this modest, but productive environment that Noir bigarré emerged. The canvas is filled with an intriguing mixture of carefully delineated geometric lines and shapes alongside a series of capricious, free-floating organic forms, which appear to draw their inspiration from minute organisms. These novel forms took their lead from the illustrations of amoebas, embryos and microscopic biology that Kandinsky had discovered in contemporary text books, encyclopaedias, and scientific periodicals, such as Ernst Haeckel’s Kunstformen der Natur (Art forms in Nature) and Karl Blossfeldt’s famous photo collection Urformen der Natur (Prototypes in Nature). While Kandinsky’s fascination for these images can be traced back to the mid-1920s, when he had reproduced illustrations of ‘vegetal forms swimming by means of “flagella”’ in his 1926 treatise Point and Line to Plane (Punkt und Linie zur Fläche) and used examples of scientific photography in his teaching at the Bauhaus, it was not until his arrival in Paris that they began to infiltrate his compositions with such purpose and intent.
Kandinsky’s interest in the organic and the microscopic had flourished during a short summer holiday along the Normandy Coast with his wife in 1934, where the artist marvelled at the intense, shifting colours of the landscape and the miniscule life-forms that populated the shoreline. Writing to Will Grohmann about the trip, he explained: ‘I have stored up many impressions, and hope to work well. Especially beautiful is the high and low tide. During low tide, the ocean retreats around 400-450 metres, and you can walk along the floor of the ocean, where, you can observe the lives of tiny, almost microscopic animals in little puddles and in the moist sand… I also opened up a little shell and a long, soft, thin horn emerged… The threatening horn says to me: “Don’t eat me – learn from me!” Which I am in fact doing’ (quoted in M. Baumgartner, A. Hoberg, and C. Hopfengart, eds., Klee & Kandinsky: Neighbours, Friends, Rivals, exh. cat., Munich & London, 2015, p. 289). Kandinsky continued to draw on the ‘impressions’ he made during this trip throughout the rest of his career, introducing increasingly stylized iterations of amoebas, underwater animals, invertebrates and diatoms into complex networks and patterns in his compositions, their unusual, otherworldly forms offering him a richly varied set of new visual references to work from.
In his paintings of 1935-36, including Noir bigarré, Kandinsky developed and refined these new forms, marrying them with geometric elements and compositional styles that hark back to his Bauhaus period. For example, a small, triangular grouping of overlapping and intersecting lines in the upper right quadrant of the present canvas recall the striking photographs of radio towers taken by Kandinsky’s Bauhaus colleague Lázló Moholy-Nagy, one of which the artist had used as an illustration in Point and Line to Plane. Similarly, clusters of perfectly formed circles were among Kandinsky’s favourite leitmotifs through the 1920s. Here, the artist arranges an array of circles into distinct sets across the canvas, tying them together by size and colour in evenly spaced sequences, suggesting a common purpose and sense of unity within a simple yet carefully regulated pattern. However, it is the central trio of biomorphic, embryonic forms which make the most dramatic mark within the composition, their fluid lines and sinuous, lilting curves lending them a greater sense of freedom, movement and life when compared to the other elements which float, unanchored in the deep black space.
Kandinsky’s abstractions had always been portraits of life and nature as experienced through the spirit, the emotions and the senses, rather than just the eyes and the brain. As he explained in an interview with Karl Nierendorf in 1937, the paintings he was now making were an attempt to provide a picture of nature on a fundamental, cosmic level: ‘Abstract painting leaves behind the “skin” of nature,’ he said, ‘but not its laws. Let me use the “big words”, cosmic laws. Art can only be great if it relates directly to cosmic laws and is subordinated to them. One senses these laws unconsciously if one approaches nature not outwardly, but – inwardly. One must be able not merely to see nature but to experience it. […] If an artist has both an outwards and an inward eye for nature, she rewards him with “inspiration”’ (in K. C. Lindsay and P. Vergo, eds., Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art, New York, 1994, p. 807). In Noir bigarré, the artist explores the invisible, yet palpable tensions between these different forms, the frisson of energy between each element, as they are held in a strange state of equilibrium and connection. In this way, the painting seems to speak not only of the extraordinary fecundity of life, but of an entire cosmos or microcosmos fuelled by forces of bourgeoning growth and evolution, held together in a delicate state of harmony.
Perhaps the most intriguing element of Kandinsky’s Parisian compositions, however, lies in their highly nuanced examination of colour, as the artist embraced more pastel, or ‘mixed’ tones, from delicate lilacs to subtle mint greens, and soft pinks, imbuing his canvases with a new lightness and delicacy. Kandinsky credited this shift in his approach to colour to his experiences in Paris, and particularly the unique quality of light he discovered in the city: ‘Paris with its marvellous (strong-weak) light relaxed my “palette” to such a degree – emerging now were different colours, different forms, quite new, some of which I am using again having used them years earlier’ (letter to Alfred H. Barr, 16 July 1936, quoted in Baumgartner et. al., op. cit., p. 288). Noir bigarré is filled with a vivid array of such tones, from deep blues, rose pinks, and bright purples to more delicate notes of pale green, yellow, and peach, both cool and warm colours achieving equal luminosity against the dark ground.
Within this cacophony of colour, intriguing juxtapositions of contrasting hues and tonalities emerge, with multiple shades appearing alongside one another in a single form, to alter our perception of their relationships to one another and the picture plane. For example, within the mauve circle in the upper right corner of the composition, the artist adds a diffused speckling of a more intense hue of bright pink to the centre, enhancing the tenor of the purple tones while also lending the shape a greater sense of three dimensionality. Similarly, the pale pink orb below gradually fades from a rich rose hue at its edge to almost white at its centre, while other shapes contain a myriad of contrasting and complementary shades within a single form. As the artist explained, these small modulations of tone could completely transform a work of art in an instant: ‘A tiny little change of a single colour – almost invisible – suddenly lends the work a boundless perfection’ (quoted in Kandinsky, exh. cat., New York, 2009, p. 89).
Grounding his forms against a subtly variegated black background, Kandinsky allows the power of these colourful elements to increase, glowing at varying tenors against the deep void. This causes them to assume diverse positions in the illusory space, depending on their brightness, chromatic temperature, size and position in relation to the other areas of colour. This effect is further accentuated by the addition of an amorphous, cloud of white paint which wraps itself around the edge of the composition in an undulating, meandering line, creating a border that appears simultaneously solid and ethereal, like a thick cloud slowly dissipating to reveal a hidden world. The artist was fascinated by the interrelationships among colours and forms, and the ways in which the shape, size and placement of varying hues within a composition could affect the reading of normative spatial effects. In Noir bigarré, as the eye focuses on each of the forms, the space within the composition seems to shift, with some elements appearing to slowly recede and others moving towards the front of the picture plane. In Point and Line to Plane, Kandinsky described this phenomenon as the ‘annihilation’ of the picture plane, in which the space ‘is pulled in both directions like an accordion’ (in Lindsay & Vergo, op. cit., p. 648). By introducing this visual device, Kandinsky emphasizes the immeasurable and dynamic character of pictorial space, while also encouraging an awareness of the viewer’s own dynamic perceptual process in viewing the painting.
Tracing the early exhibition history of Noir bigarré, it is clear that Kandinsky held the composition in high esteem, and believed it to be among his most successful recent achievements. It was first publicly exhibited at the artist’s inaugural show at the Galerie Jeanne Bucher in Montparnasse, ‘Kandinsky. Toiles récentes. Aquarelles. Graphiques de 1910-1935.’ which ran from 3-19 December 1936. The artist had been introduced to Bucher in 1932 by Christian Zervos, and the two became close friends. Bucher was an important champion and supporter of Kandinsky’s art during the late 1930s and through the difficult years of the war – between 1939 and 1944 she staged three further solo-exhibitions of his work, including one in 1942 during the German occupation, when such abstract art was considered dissident by the regime. Noir bigarré was subsequently included in a major retrospective of Kandinsky’s work at the Kunsthalle in Bern in 1937, which brought together over seventy paintings from across the artist’s career in what would prove to be the last large-scale exhibition staged during his lifetime.
The painting stayed in the artist’s personal collection until his death, at which point it passed into the possession of his widow, Nina Kandinsky. The artist had bequeathed to Nina not only the paintings and watercolours she liked best amongst his oeuvre, but also those works he felt were particularly representative of his style. Noir bigarré was acquired directly from Nina by Marguerite and Aimé Maeght in the 1950s, and remained in their legendary collection for several decades, before being purchased by the present owner.