Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944)
Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's… Read more
Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944)

Thema: Spitz

Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944)
Thema: Spitz
signed with the monogram and dated '27' (lower left); signed with the monogram, dated, titled and numbered '"Thema: Spitz" No 381 1927' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas in the artist's original frame
31½ x 22½ in. (80 x 57 cm.)
Painted in February 1927
Galerie Maeght, Paris.
Anonymous sale, Christie's, New York, 10 November 1987, lot 45.
Anonymous sale, Christie's, New York, 9 May 2001, lot 44.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
The Artist's Handlist, vol. IV, no. 381.
W. Grohmann, Wassily Kandinsky, Life and Work, New York, 1958, no. 381, p. 336 (illustrated p. 370, fig. 249).
H.K. Roethel & J.K. Benjamin, Kandinsky, Catalogue Raisonné of the Oil Paintings, vol. II, 1916-1944, New York, 1984, no. 824, p. 767 (illustrated).
Paris, Galerie Maeght, Kandinsky: Bauhaus de Dessau, 1927-1933, November 1965, no. 2 (illustrated; catalogue reproduced in Derrière le miroir, 1965).
New York, Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, Kandinsky, The Bauhaus Years, April - May 1966, no. 20 (illustrated).
Paris, Musée d'Art moderne de la Ville de Paris, Hommage de Paris à Kandinsky: La conquête de l'abstraction, l'époque parisienne, June - July 1972, no. 10 (illustrated).
Tokyo, The Seibu Museum of Art, Wassily Kandinsky, January - February 1976, no. 18 (illustrated).
Madrid, Fundación Juan March, Kandinsky, 1923-1944, October - November 1978, no. 9 (illustrated); this exhibition later travelled to Seville, Museo de Arte Contemporaneo.
Special notice
Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's Resale Right Regulations 2006 apply to this lot, the buyer agrees to pay us an amount equal to the resale royalty provided for in those Regulations, and we undertake to the buyer to pay such amount to the artist's collection agent. VAT rate of 5% is payable on hammer price and at 20% on the buyer's premium.

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Lot Essay

Painted at the Dessau Bauhaus in February 1927, Thema: Spitz (Theme Point) is a spectacular oil painting presenting a strange almost dance-like parade of geometrically abstract form playfully expressing one of the key themes of Wassily Kandinsky's art from this period - the dynamic relationship between the circle and the triangle.

As Kandinsky explained in painstaking detail in his large treatise on pictorial form, Punkt und Linie zur Fläche (Point and Line to Plane) written in 1925 and first published in 1926, for him, the triangle and the circle are 'the two primary, most strongly contrasting plane figures' (W. Kandinsky, Punkt und Linie zu Fläche, 1926, reproduced in P. Vergo & K. Lindsay, eds., W. Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art, Boston, 1982, pp. 527-699). Thema: Spitz is one of the most elaborate and complex of a series of works pictorially centering on these two diametrically opposed geometric shapes that Kandinksy made while at the Bauhaus as part of a systematized investigation into the mysterious language of pictorial form,

'The teaching of drawing at the Bauhaus' Kandinsky pointed out, 'is an education in looking, precise observation, and the precise representation not of the external appearance of an object, but of constructive elements, the laws that govern the forces (=tensions) that can be discovered in given objects and of their logical construction' (W. Kandinsky, 'Analytisches Zeichnen', Bauhaus, 1928, in ibid., p. 729).

Similarly, a work such as Thema: Spitz is one that attempts to illustrate some of the hidden laws of composition and colour-form harmony though an overt contrasting of regularized and repeated form, with subtle and irregular shifts and highlights of an intuitively-decided colour scheme. Indeed, with an almost cinematic sense of drama and illumination reminiscent of the work of some of the pioneering abstract film-makers of the 1920s, this painting is one that seems to have raised the idea of such laws to the level of spectacle. Painted as if 'spotlit' by the strong golden yellow diagonal of the background, the painting's rhythmic and sequential progression of 'cool' semi-circles topped by contrasting rows of 'fiery' red triangles seem, in fact, almost to be performing.

For Kandinsky, painting was an art that both reflected and gave an insight into the organising force of nature. To feel the affinity between the elements and laws of the arts was for him to gain an insight into the elements and laws of nature and vice versa. Such an understanding would, he felt, ultimately pave the way for a synthesis of all arts of the spirit, and transcend all specialization in the name of culture. This is the principal reason why he taught at the Bauhaus and why he and Paul Klee taught many disciplines other than painting. 'The separate and individual laws of those two great realms, nature and art' he wrote, 'will ultimately shed light on the general laws of the world and its makeup... and reveal the independent operation of both within a higher, synthetic sequence of external and internal' (W. Kandinsky, ibid., 1926, p. 117).

Kandinsky had first embraced geometric abstraction around 1919 after coming into contact with works of fellow Russian avant-garde pioneers when he returned to his native land during the First World War. He was, however, fundamentally opposed to what later became the Constructivist principle of suppressing all feeling, emotion, intuitive logic and individualism within their work. Their abandonment of these elements, he asserted, reduced their 'calculated constructions' to mere 'mechanics'. 'Art' he insisted, 'is never produced by the head alone. We know of great paintings that came solely from the heart. In general, the ideal balance between the head (conscious moment) and the heart (unconscious moment - intuition) is a law of creation, a law as old as humanity' (W. Kandinsky, 'Art Today', in Cahiers d'Art, Paris, 1935, p. 83).

Towards this end, Kandinsky's art was always rooted in an intuitive grasp of his media, even at the height of his involvement with the seemingly cold objective and functional principles of the Bauhaus. It was of paramount importance, he insisted, to counterbalance the complex principles of construction and form that he had painstakingly formulated over several years and finally published in Punkt und Linie zur Fläche with a spontaneous and intuitive form of creation. He therefore often admitted to almost never applying the painstakingly worked-out theories of Punkt und Linie zur Fläche to the creation of his work. Intuition was what he described as the artist's''inner necessity', without which even the most perfectly constructed picture would be a 'dead canvas'.

At the heart of the apparently sober geometry and engineered mathematics of his Bauhaus abstractions, therefore, was always an innate, intuitive and, for Kandinsky, mystical reaching out towards an otherworldly, non-material, spiritual dimension. This mystical realm was one that he felt could be intimated at in pictorial form only through abstraction and the higher intelligence of intuition. He therefore painted according to a set of rules which he then broke whenever and wherever the pictorial demands of the painting required it of him. Thema: Spitz is a work that perfectly expresses this strange combination of alogical systematizing that distinguishes so much of Kandinsky's work from the Bauhaus years.

As is common throughout Kandinsky's work of this period, wherever the painting's ranks of semi-circles and triangles are shown to overlap, Kandinsky has altered the colour. These changes in colour, which lend the whole painting its subtle flickering variety and a magical, almost animated sense of life, have not been made in accordance with any consistent or logical system, but solely according to Kandinsky's personal and instinctive sense of pictorial harmony and dynamism. His aim with such an alogical systematic approach was to visually express the idea of a systemic and perhaps unknowable abstract language that nevertheless induces powerful emotions in the viewer in much the same way that music does.

Believing that 'form itself, even if completely abstract... has its own inner sound', to the point where it becomes 'a spiritual being' with its own 'spiritual perfume', Kandinsky was perpetually seeking to invoke the notion of an underlying and universal order of harmony that he believed lay at the root of all creation (W. Kandinsky, 'Malerei als reine Kunst', in Der Sturm, Berlin, 1913, reproduced in ibid., 1982, pp. 348-354). It was Romantic ambition, first pioneered in his early Murnau paintings that ran throughout his Bauhaus years and for the rest of his life. In 1925 he explained this inner driving force behind his work in a letter to Will Grohmann, writing: 'I should like people to see what is behind my painting... and not content themselves with saying that I use triangles or circles. I know that the future belongs to abstract art, and I am distressed when other abstract artists fail to go beyond questions of form... By now it should be clear that for me form is only a means to an end, and that I spend so much of my time on the theory of form because I want to capture the inner secrets of form... The meaning, the content of art is Romanticism... Please don't tell me that I give too broad a meaning to this term... In 1910, if I'm not mistaken, I painted a "Romantic landscape" that had nothing in common with earlier Romanticism. I intend to use such a title again. Up until now I have been calling my things "Lyrical triangles" (for this I was exposed to incredible abuse in the press), "Lyrical Structure" etc. The old gulf between these two concepts no longer exists; where is the boundary between Lyricism and Romanticism?... Actually the coming Romanticism is profound, beautiful... meaningful, joy-giving - it is a block of ice with a burning flame inside. If people perceive only the ice and not the flame then that is just too bad. But a few are beginning to grasp' (W. Kandinsky, 'Letter to Will Grohmann', 21 November 1925, in W. Grohmann, Kandinsky, London, 1959, p. 179). Something of the notion of ice and flame that Kandinsky describes here is equally well expressed in the cool semi-circles and warm triangles parading through the dramatic spotlight of this painting.

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