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Property from an Important American Family Collection

Ohne titel (Improvisation)

Ohne titel (Improvisation)
signed with monogram and dated '15' (lower left); dated again '31 V – 1 VI 15' (on the reverse)
watercolor and brush and India ink on paper
13 5/8 x 9 1/4 in. (34.5 x 23.5 cm.)
Painted on 31 May-1 June 1915
Sarah Reed Blodgett, Portland, Oregon (by 1950).
By descent from the above to the present owner.
V.E. Barnett, Kandinsky Watercolours: Catalogue Raisonné, 1900-1921, New York, 1992, vol. I, p. 353, no. 399 (illustrated).
Oregon, Portland Museum of Art, Collection of Sarah Reed Blodgett, April-May 1950.
Oregon, Portland Museum of Art, The Collection of Sarah Reed Blodgett of Portland, September-October 1965, no. 20.
New Orleans Museum of Art, German and Austrian Expressionism, November 1975-January 1976, p. 30, no. 26 (illustrated in color, p. 50; dated circa 1915).

Brought to you by

Vanessa Fusco
Vanessa Fusco Head of Department, Impressionist & Modern Art, New York

Lot Essay

In 1915, Wassily Kandinsky found himself adrift: the outbreak of the First World War the previous summer had come as something of a shock to the artist, ushering in a period of disruption and upheaval that would have a profound effect on his painting. In a letter to the gallerist Herwarth Walden on 2 August 1914, the day after war was declared, he wrote, “Now we have it! Isn’t it frightful? It’s as though I’m thrown out of a dream. I’ve been living inwardly in this period, assuming the complete impossibility of such events. I’ve been torn out of this illusion…” (quoted in Kandinsky: Russian and Bauhaus Years, exh. cat., The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1983, p. 13). The very next day, Kandinsky left Germany, fleeing first to Switzerland with his partner Gabriele Münter, before travelling on alone to his homeland of Russia. Basing himself in Moscow, the artist spent much of 1915 in a state of uncertainty. A lack of funds and space limited his ability to paint in oils, and instead Kandinsky channeled his energy into a group of delicately layered works on paper in watercolor and ink.
Writing to Münter from Moscow in November 1915, Kandinsky explained the ways in which these paintings fed his creativity: “I am working a lot in watercolor. It’s very precise work and I have, so to speak, to learn the silversmith’s art. They prepare me for the large paintings which are slowly taking shape in my soul. I would like to make a large painting with enormous depth and achieve an effect of great distance with subtle means which one discovers only by coming close to the canvas—an idea which I have already explored in the paintings you have seen—but now I understand it in a broader and more practical sense, which is the result of the many watercolors done recently” (quoted in V.E. Barnett, Kandinsky and Sweden, exh. cat., Moderna Museet, Stockholm, 1989, p. 31).
For the most part, the watercolors of this period continued to explore the expressionistic, abstract idiom that had marked Kandinsky’s paintings from before the war. Indeed, the subtitle of the present watercolor, Improvisation, appears to link the work directly back to the series of revolutionary semi-abstract paintings the artist had begun to paint in 1909. Describing them in his seminal text Concerning the Spiritual in Art as “chiefly unconscious, for the most part suddenly arising expressions of events of an inner character, hence impressions of ‘internal nature,’” the Improvisations were an essential development in Kandinsky’s move towards complete abstraction (“Concerning the Spiritual in Art,” in K.C. Lindsay and P. Vergo, eds., Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art, New York, 1994, p. 218). Unlike his series of Impressions, which were direct responses to the external, visible world around the artist, in the Improvisations Kandinsky relied on what he referred to as an inner necessity to shape the image, adopting a spontaneous approach to form, color and subject that was guided by his own personal response to the landscape and his materials as he worked.
Nevertheless, fragments of recognizable imagery remained amid the swirling lines of color—in Ohne titel (Improvisation) the sweeping, angular lines of ink that dart across the page appear to suggest sharp peaks and rolling hills, recalling the Alpine landscapes that had surrounded the artist’s home in Murnau, just outside of Munich, before the war. Showcasing the deftness of Kandinsky’s watercolor technique, the composition is constructed using layers of richly nuanced color, in which different tones overlap, shift, and bleed into one another in delicate but vibrant modulations that play with the translucency of the medium. Calligraphic strokes of black ink overlay the watercolor, varying in density and weight as they articulate different forms amid the clouds of color, their forms transitioning from sweeping, curvilinear lines to sharply zig-zagging movements that imbue the composition with a vivid sense of dynamism.

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