A momentous time it was--in 1909, the year in which Kandinsky painted Studie zu Improvisation 3, fauvism had already fanned the fires of expressionism in Germany, Matisse had painted the first version of La danse, and Parisians were puzzling over the appearance of "petites cubes" in the paintings of Picasso and Braque. A few visionary pioneers--Kupka, Mondrian, Delaunay and Kandinsky--were setting out, tentatively at first, each on his own path, towards abstract, non-objective painting. the chronology of events and ideas during the years leading up to the beginning of the First World War in 1914 left a legacy that still informs and guides our contemporary sensibility, having irrevocably altered the ways in which we look at art and the world, in our time, for all time.
This was also the year in which Kandinsky completed the typescript in German for his book ,UUber das Geistige in der Kunst, (On the Spiritual in Art), which he dated Murnau, 3 August 1909. He had laid out in this eclectic text an ambitious and impassioned agenda for revitalizing the art of his time, and from the tenor of his pronouncements it is clear that he had elected to undertake what amounted to a messianic quest--he sought to bring about the ascendancy of spiritual values over materialism in all aspects of human consciousness. He considered himself to be the very seer whom he described in his pages: "And then, without fail, there appears among us a man like the rest of us in every way, but who conceals within himself the secret, inborn power of 'vision.' He sees and points... He continues to drag the heavy cartload of struggling humanity, getting stuck amidst the stones, ever onward and upward" ("On the Spiritual in Art," in K.L. Lindsay and P. Vergo, eds., Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art, New York, 1994, p. 131). A new kind of art, intuitive, not governed by external reality but "determined by internal necessity," was to be the prime instrument he would employ to forge the consciousness of a more profound, inner reality. Kandinsky wrote in the 1910-1911 text Content and Form:
"The great epoch of the Spiritual which is already beginning, or, in embryonic form, began already yesterday amidst the apparent victory of materialism, provides and will provide the soil in which this kind of monumental work of art must come to fruition. In every realm of the spirit, values are reviewed as if in preparation for one of the greatest battles against materialism. The superfluous is discarded, the essential examined in every detail. And this is happening also in one of the greatest realms of the spirit, that of pre-eternal and eternal art" (in K.L. Lindsay and P. Vergo, eds., op. cit., p. 88).
The transformation in Kandinsky's own art during the years 1908-1910 was radical and unprecedented, and had come largely from within, stemming from the imperatives of his own "internal necessity." There were no guideposts to mark the way as Kandinsky edged his way toward abstraction. In 1909 he could sense where his destination might lay, but it was not until two years later, when the text of On the Spiritual in Art was given its final revisions and first published in December 1911 (dated January 1912 on the title page), that he could look back on his recent work and assess the means that had taken him this far. "Today I can see many things more freely, with a broader horizon," he wrote in the foreword to the second edition, published in April 1912 (ibid., p. 125). He divided his paintings during this period into three categories:
"1. The direct impression of 'external nature,' expressed in linear-painterly form. I call these pictures 'Impressions.'
"2. Chiefly unconscious, for the most part suddenly arising expressions of events of an inner character, hence impressions of 'internal nature.' I call this type 'Improvisations.'
"3. The expressions of feelings that have been forming within me in a similar way (but over a very long period of time), which, after the first preliminary sketches, I have slowly and almost pedantically examined and worked out. This kind of picture I call a 'Composition'" (in "Concerning the Spiritual in Art," ibid., p. 218)
As of the conclusion of 1909 Kandinsky had not yet painted any pictures that he called Impressions, although he had done and continued to paint numerous works based on nature. He painted the first of his Compositions in 1910; he executed a total of seven such major works before the beginning of the First World War. The Improvisations were in fact his starting point, the very means by which he began to radically alter the form and content of modern art. He painted eight numbered Improvisations during 1909, and more than two dozen others would follow before the war. Will Grohmann has noted that "The landscapes Kandinsky called 'Improvisations' occupy a special place in his works of the transitional period 1910-1912. They come closest to the ideas he developed in On the Spiritual in Art. The strict canon of the human figure is less amenable to new conceptions than the landscape, which can be treated with greater freedom" (op. cit., p. 116).
He painted these remarkable, prescient pictures in an unlikely place, the small Bavarian market town of Murnau (fig. 1), on Lake Staffel at the foot of the Alps, about 44 miles (70 km.) south of Munich. Kandinksy first visited Murnau in 1904, while he was living in Munich. From the end of 1905 until the summer of 1907, Kandinsky and his companion, the painter Gabriele Münter, had lived outside Germany, first traveling in Italy, then spending just over a year in Sèvres, a suburb of Paris. They attended the 1906 Gauguin retrospective, visited Ambroise Vollard's gallery, called on Gertrude Stein, and became familiar with the paintings of Cézanne, Van Gogh, Munch, Matisse and Picasso. The works Kandinsky submitted to the Salon d'Automne, however, had gone unnoticed, and he and Münter failed to develop any strong ties with other artists working in Paris. They returned to Germany, and lived for eight months in Berlin, before they returned to their base in Munich. During a cycling tour during the summer of 1908, Kandinsky revisited Murnau. He wrote in a postcard to Münter: "It is very, very beautiful the low-lying and slow-moving clouds, the dusky dark-violet woods, the gleaming white buildings, velvety-deep roofs of the churches, the saturated green of the foliage, remain with me. I even dreamt of these things" (in H. Fischer and S. Rainbird, ed., Kandinsky: The Path to Abstraction, exh. cat., Tate Modern, London, 2006, p. 209). He and Münter took rooms at the Gasthof Griesbrau in Murnau for the remainder of the summer, and returned to the town the following spring, in 1909 (fig. 2).
The great developments in early modern art often took place, not in the great cosmopolitan centers of Europe, but in small, out-of-the-way locales where painters could experience a quieter, more introspective and elemental way of life. Murnau would become for Kandinsky what Collioure had been for Matisse, or Horta del Ebro, Céret and Sorgues for Picasso. Kandinsky and Münter admired glass paintings and other folk art of the region, and they were only a few miles from Oberammergau, whose Easter Passion plays had been famous throughout Germany since medieval times. Removed from the bustle and art politics of Munich, Murnau became a retreat where Kandinsky could reflect and take stock of his ideas and his work. It was here that he finally assembled his notes, many of which he had been carrying around for years, and completed the German draft of On the Spiritual in Art.
Kandinsky's enticed two close friends, the Russian-born painters Marianne von Werefkin and Alexej von Jawlensky, to join him and Münter in Murnau. For the first time in two years Kandinsky was again involved in a circle of talented and mutually supportive artists. In January 1909, Kandinsky, Münter, Jawlensky, and Werefkin joined with the artists Alfred Kubin, Adolf Erbslöh and Alexander Kanoldt, as well as the art historians Heinrich Schnabel and Oskar Wittgenstein, to form the Neue Künstlervereinigung München--the New Artists' Association of Munich--known by the initials NKVM. Kandinsky was elected to serve as the group's first chairman. That summer Münter purchased a house in Murnau, where she and Kandinsky could spend a few months each year. They decorated the house with their own folk art-style designs, and because their Russian friends were frequent visitors, it became known as the Russenvilla. The first NKVM exhibition took place in December 1909.
During this period Kandinsky painted landscapes that drew on local motifs, but in a less descriptive and specific manner than before (fig. 3). For a number of years he had painted scenes that recalled old Russia, but now he turned increasingly to lyric pictures and fantasies that were more generalized, timeless and symbolic in their aspect. Peg Weiss has written: "As if a gate had suddenly opened onto a new vista, Kandinsky now experienced a liberation in style that represented a drastic break with the recent past. All at once, there seemed to be a way to resolve the dichotomy between his impressionist landscapes and the lyric works that had held his heart in thrall for so long. ...Kandinsky explained that his transition to abstraction had been effected by means of three major steps: the overcoming of perspective through the achievement of two-dimensionality, a new application of graphic elements to oil painting; the creating of a new 'floating space' by the separation of color from line" (in Kandinsky in Munich, exh. cat., The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1982, p. 59).
By means of these steps, Kandinsky had begun to veil his imagery, instead of depicting it naturally and descriptively. This was his principle of "hidden construction." He wrote in part VII of On the Spiritual in Art:
"That art is above nature is by no means a new discovery The objective element in art seeks today to reveal itself with particular intensity. Temporal forms are therefore loosened so that the objective may be more clearly expressed. Natural forms impose limitations that in many cases hinder this expression. They are therefore pushed aside to make room for the 'objective element of form'--construction as the aim of composition Not the immediately obvious, eye-catching type of 'geometrical' construction, not the richest in possibilities, nor the most expressive, but rather the hidden type that emerges unnoticed from the picture and thus is less suited to the eye than to the soul. This hidden construction can consist of forms apparently scattered at random upon the canvas, which--again, apparently--have no relationship one to another: external absence of any such relationship here constitutes its internal presence. What externally has been loosened has internally been fused into a single unity. And this remains for both elements--i.e., for both linear and painterly form. The future structure of painting lies in this direction" ("On the Spiritual in Art," op. cit., pp 208-209).
Improvisation 1 is known today only from a drawing (illustrated in Roethel and Benjamin, no. 271). mprovisation 2 (Roethel and Benjamin, no. 274; fig. 4) shows a procession of figures and a rider on white horse; it is subtitled Trauermarsch ("Funeral march"). The space in this and all of the other Improvisations done in 1909 is very shallow and stage-like--the flattened natural forms in the background are like stage sets--and reflects Kandinsky's collaboration in multi-media theater projects, and his plans for color operas, in collaboration with the composer Thomas von Hartmann.
A study preceded Improvisation 2 (Roethal and Benjamin, no. 273; Städische Galerie, Munich) at approximately half the dimensions of the final version. The same is true for Improvisation 3 (Roethel and Benjamin, no. 276; fig. 5)--the present painting is the smaller Studie for it. Will Grohmann had mistakenly assumed that because the present work was signed by the artist and dated 1910, then it must have followed Improvisation 3--which Kandinsky signed and dated 1909--as a smaller copy of it. Roethal and Benjamin pointed out that this was not the case, stating that Studie zu Improvisation 3 did in fact precede the larger version; Kandinsky simply signed and dated the present work at some later date. There is the beginning of a "fantasy" painting on the reverse of the board on which Studie zu Improvisation 3 was done. Vivian Endicott Barnett has dated this verso work 1908-1909. A prophet, half buried to his waist in the green earth, declaims his message, as passersby shrink from this bizarre sight and head off on their way. The paint must have been still wet when Kandinsky decided to scrape the surface with his palette knife to cancel the image; this appears to have been done before the artist began painting the present Studie on the other side.
Both Improvisations 2 and 3 include a horse and rider. This subject appears in scores of other paintings by the artist, beginning with the famous Der blaue Reiter, 1903 (Roethel and Benjamin, no. 82; fig. 6), the name which Kandinsky later gave to the artists' association he founded with Franz Marc in 1911. In his reminiscences, Kandinsky discussed his early love of Rembrandt, and the figure of the rider may have been based on the Dutch master's The Polish Rider, 1655 (Frick Collection, New York), in which the mounted archer is seen against the backdrop of a crag, a natural formation which Kandinsky often depicted in his Improvisations and other lyrical paintings, including some of his best-known works (figs. 7, 8 and 9). The horseman in Albrecht Dürer's well-known allegorical engraving Knight, Death and the Devil, also known as The Rider, 1513, may also have a model for Kandinsky's figures. These riders do indeed recall medieval knights, Templars and crusaders, as well as the figure of Saint George, who appears in a half dozen paintings by Kandinsky. As Peg Weiss has pointed out, "This most consistent of his images became his personal emblem." (in exh. cat., op. cit., p. 67).
While the veiled figures and simplified natural motifs in the Improvisations and other paintings during this period are usually not difficult to pick out and decipher, the narrative in these works, on the other hand, is frequently obscure and not easy--or sometimes even impossible--to follow. The horseman and figures, and especially the fortress-like structure surrounded by a moat, in Studie zu Improvisation 3 (the larger final version shows no significant additions) might have come out the Middle Ages, but the tell-tale sign here is the rearing horse, which is pale blue-green. This is the color of the fourth horse in the Seven Seals of the Apocalypse, the Revelation to Saint John the Divine. Readers of the King James version will not find mention of this color, which is in the original Greek and would have been known to Kandinsky, a reader of the Russian Orthodox New Testament. This color was restored in the English New Revised Standard Version, which follows. The horses of the first three seals were white, red and black. According to John:
"When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature call out, "Come!" I looked and there was a pale green horse! Its rider's name was Death, and Hades followed with him, they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, famine and pestilence, and by the wild animals of the earth" (7.7)
As Rose-Carol Washton Long has noted in her comprehensive and illuminating study of Kandinsky's early abstract works, the Apocalypse of Saint John was widely read in Russia during the early years of the 20th century, especially in the wake of the abortive Revolution of 1905, when many artists, writers and other members of the intelligentsia came to believe that another, even more convulsive cataclysm was inevitable:
"Kandinsky's concept of the spiritual realm was an amalgamation of ideas derived from numerous Symbolist and Theosophical sources. The ideas of [Stefan] George, [Karl]Wolfskehl, the Russian religious movement espoused by Bulgakov and Berdiaev, the Symbolist ideas of Bely, Ivanov and Merezhkovsky, and the Theosophical ideas of [Rudolf] Steiner all played a crucial part in shaping Kandinsky's messianic vision. All of these men took an apocalyptic view of history and attached great importance to the The Revelation to John. Not only Steiner, but many of the Russians believed that an eschatological upheaval was at hand. Many of the Symbolists, such as Bely, actually believed for a while that the Russian Revolution of 1917 was the cleansing spiritual apocalypse of which they had dreamed. With all the emphasis placed on The Revelation to John as a secret document containing the key to the understanding of the future, it is not surprising that Kandinsky began to use apocalyptic motifs around 1910 to convey the utopian promises of the colourful 'spirit-land'" (in Kandinsky: The Development of an Abstract Style, Oxford, 1980, p. 41)
Kandinsky's vision in Studie zu Improvisation 3 may be apocalyptic in terms of its symbolism, but it is in no way as doom-laden or catastrophic as the opening of the fourth seal is normally interpreted. In appears that Death has been held here in abeyance: the pale horse rears up and balks at the base of the white stone bridge, it will not cross over and carry its fateful rider into the yellow fortress--the impregnable "spirit-land" that lies beyond the moat. A seated sentinel, a saint perhaps, looks on; she is clad in robe of blue, in Kandinsky words, "the typically heavenly color." For Kandinsky ("On the Spiritual in Art," op. cit., p. 182).
From 1910 onward, the progression of Kandinsky's painting was like the opening of the Seven Seals, one by one, as he persisted in his messianic quest to purge all that was superfluous and extraneous--that is, all remaining evidence of materialism--from his art. He continued to strip down and veil his imagery, employing his idea of hidden construction, to the point where the object, though still relevant, became virtually unrecognizable. In certain paintings of 1912, Kandinsky completed the process of de-materializing the object, having transformed it into a purely pictorial presence, which nonetheless carried the weight of strong feeling and profound emotion . These we recognize to be his first great non-objective, abstract works. Kandinsky declared:
"The more freely abstract the form becomes, the purer, and also the more primitive it sounds. Therefore, in a composition in which corporeal elements are more or less superfluous, they can be more or less omitted and replaced by purely abstract forms, or by corporeal forms that have been completely abstracted. In every instance of this kind of transposition, or composition using purely abstract forms, the only judge, guide and arbitrator should be one's feelings. Moreover, the more the artist utilizes these abstracted or abstract forms, the more at home he becomes in this sphere, and the deeper he is able to penetrate it. The spectator too, guided by the artist, likewise increases his knowledge of this abstract language and finally masters it" ("On the Spiritual in Art," in op. cit., p.169).
This brave new world of modern painting began here, in the astonishing and prophetic mprovisations of 1909.
(fig. 1) View of Murnau am Staffelsee, circa 1900. Color photo lithograph. Library of Congress, Washington, DC. BARCODE 24406406
(fig. 2) Kandinsky gardening in Murnau, circa 1909. Photograph by Gabriele Münter. BARCODE 24409056
(fig. 3) Wassily Kandinsky, Murnau--Landschaft mit Kirche I, 1909. Sold, Christie's New York, 2 November 1993, lot 34. BARCODE 24409025
(fig. 4) Wassily Kandinsky, Improvisation 2 (Trauermarsch), 1909. Moderna Museet, Stockholm. BARCODE 24409070
(fig. 5) Wassily Kandinsky, Improvisation 3, 1909. Musee National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. BARCODE 24409087
(fig. 6) Wassily Kandinsky, Der blaue Reiter, 1903. Private collection. BARCODE 24409049
(fig. 7) Wassily Kandinsky, Der blaue Berg, 1908-1909. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. BARCODE 24409032
(fig. 8) Wassily Kandinsky, Bild mit Bogenschützen, 1909. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. BARCODE 2440901
(fig. 9) Wassily Kandinsky, Berg, 1909. Städische Galerie, Munich. BARCODE 24409063