During November 1927 Kandinsky painted fifteen watercolors, a remarkable achievement--by way of comparison, he painted twenty-five during the entire year of 1925, and eighteen in 1926, the year of his sixtieth birthday. Even more extraordinary is the fact that many of these works are among the most elaborate he had done to date while teaching at the Bauhaus, both in the sheer profusion of forms and the complexity of their configuration on the sheet. In Rosa-Rot "Rose-Red", one of the most striking compositions in this group, Kandinsky has invented an exceptionally intricate spatial environment based on the sequencing and overlaying of large screen-like forms, contrasted with a host of smaller visual elements which interact within themselves as self-contained systems or with others as connected networks.
It is impossible to point to any one event that may have triggered this sudden production of exemplary works, but it should be noted that in 1927 the program and faculty of the Dessau Bauhaus, then its second year of operation, was at the height of its form, and the influence of the school was being felt throughout Europe and in America. The roster of teachers included Josef Albers, Marcel Breuer, Lionel Feininger, Johannes Itten, László Moholy-Nagy and Oskar Schlemmer, under the directorship of the architect Walter Gropius. The lively exchange of ideas in the Dessau Bauhaus, running across the lines of various disciplines in the fine and applied arts, stimulated teachers and students alike, and the varieties of classroom experience greatly enriched Kandinsky's painting.
The emphasis on architecture and technological design in the Dessau Bauhaus curriculum encouraged Kandinsky during the latter half of the 1920s to experiment more broadly with geometric imagery, with specific attention to the broader possibilities of structuring pictorial space. The work of Paul Klee was especially important to Kandinsky during this period. Since 1926 the two artists and their wives had been sharing one of the new "Master's" double-houses that Gropius designed, leading to, as it was intended, increased personal as well as professional contact. Kandinsky admired Klee's improvisational approach to form and materials, the great variety of his subjects, and his ability to connect with the spiritual dimension in art through his astonishing flights of imagination and fantasy.
Kandinsky was still battling the opponents of abstraction, especially in France, where a new classicism had endorsed a return to the object and figure as the proper subjects of the artist. To replace the missing object, to move beyond the conventional means of reproducing nature and external visual reality, Kandinsky sought to establish a science of art based on the analysis of visual form and the distillation of reality into abstract forms, and to reveal the compositional principles that could derived from them. Artists, he believed, must make use of the untapped expressive potential in this line of research. Kandinsky systematically laid out an exploratory process in his book Punkt und Linie zur Fläche (Point and Line to Plane), which the Bauhaus published in 1926. Klee had undertaken a similar task in his own Bauhaus text, the Pedagogical Sketchbook, which came out in 1925. The creation of line from points, and planes from lines generated energy, rhythm and movement, and provided the basis for a new pictorial reality. Kandinsky noted that these aspects of composition were rooted in perceptual psychology, and he demonstrated, in turn, how they pointed the way to the spiritual dimension in art. Kandinsky wrote in his essay Abstracke Kunst, published in 1925, "When these external criteria [the elements of the composition] are augmented by inner criteria, which we may take as our principal basis for judging the formal element, those same works of abstract art respond to the effect of warmth and come to life" (quoted in K.C. Lindsay and P. Vergo, Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art, New York, 1994, p. 513).
Rosa-Rot fulfills the promise of this theoretical approach to composition--this work does indeed "come to life." The analytical process is everywhere transparent and observable: one can follow Kandinsky as he progresses from basic one-on-one geometrical relationships to a larger structural network, and finally to a grand synthesis of forms that embraces multiple and opposing energies, tensions and forces on a grandly orchestrated scale. Kandinsky taught a course on analytical drawing based on these very principles, and in May 1927 he initiated a class in free painting, to enable his students to take the means to its end, the creation of fully realized, integral compositions.
Earlier in November, perhaps only a few days before he began Rosa-Rot, Kandinsky painted a watercolor whose title--Gelflecht von Oben ("Network from Above"; Barnett, no.798; fig. 1)--suggests one of the artist's fundamental themes during this period, one which seems relevant to our digital age, and on which he elaborated in Rosa-Rot. Following this idea, the unitary form replicates and spins out into the many, or conversely, this phenomenon may be viewed as the multiplicity of forms being subsumed into the singular. Kandinsky may have taken inspiration for the node and connector elements common to both Gelflecht and Rosa-Rot from a tinkertoy set, a child's construction kit invented in 1914 in America and still made today.
The flat component forms in Gelflecht von Oben stand out from a monochrome black ground. In Rosa-Rot, however, Kandinsky has introduced an ambiguous spatial complication with the insertion into the composition of two broad, rose-colored panels. They foster the illusion of an added planar dimension: at first glance the rose panels may seem to rest upon the dark ground behind it, while screening off large parts of it. However, if one focuses instead upon the darker vertical sections, these bands appear to surmount and transect the rose sections. By gradating the tonal values within the darkened areas, Kandinsky lent further nuance to this elaborate spatial scheme. Rosa-Rot is an expansive structure built on the competing forces of motion and rest, parallel and contrapuntal construction, and the interaction of contrasts of all kinds. A suggestion of disorder is manifest in the starburst form at upper center with a bleeding red smudge at its core. The supreme and perfect form of the circle nevertheless governs and stabilizes all of these contentious elements. Kandinsky wrote: "The circle is the synthesis of the greatest contrasts. It combines in one balanced form the concentric and the eccentric movements. Between the three primary forms (triangle, square and circle) it is the clearest indication of the fourth dimension" (quoted in W. Grohmann, Wassily Kandinsky: Life and Work, New York, 1958, p. 188).
Kandinsky's staff ID card at the Bauhaus, Dessau, 1926. Bibliotheque Kandinsky, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.
(Fig. 1) Wassily Kandinsky, Gelflecht von Oben, November 1927. Sold, Christie's New York, 11 May 1989, lot 143.