The Glow of Irreality


by Wassily Kandinsky, translated by Elizabeth R. Napier
Yale University Press, 136 pp., $11.95 (paper)

"Kandinsky: The Improvisations" 1981

The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. April 26-September 7,

The coincidence of the exhibition “Kandinsky: The Improvisations” at the National Gallery of Art in Washington with the publication of Elizabeth Napier’s translation of Kandinsky’s book Sounds(Klänge) is happy. Both belong approximately to the second decade of the present century. Kandinsky painted the first Improvisation in 1909. In 1913 Klänge, a volume of thirty-eight prose poems and fifty-six woodcuts, twelve of them in color, was published by Piper Verlag in Munich, in an edition of 345 copies. This edition, which did not sell well at the time, is one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century German book production. Five copies are on display in the present exhibition, though, as is inevitable, they are in a glass case, so that one can see only three poems and five woodcuts.

Nineteen of the original thirty-six Improvisations are here, together with drawings, watercolors, and prints. It is a small exhibition—about thirty items in all—the third in the excellent series of such exhibitions in the new building of the National Gallery, where the awed visitor searches for pictures among the overpowering architecture as for needles in a wonderfully constructed haystack. The previous exhibitions were of Mondrian’s “The Diamond Compositions” and Picasso’s “The Saltimbanques.”

Beautifully hung and arranged, this exhibition communicates the excitement of the avant-garde of the Blaue Reiter artists in Munich before the First World War. In Germany at that time, with a rawness not Parisian, the twentieth century seemed the beginning of an era in which the arts—music, poetry, and architecture, as well as painting—would transform the world with a new style which would influence men and women to live lives of pleasure, candor, truth, love.

In 1909 Kandinsky, who had abandoned his legal career in Russia to move to Germany, lived with the painter Gabriele Münter in a house known as “Russenvilla” at Murnau. Its very name brings with it a whiff of discussion of the relation of the inner life to art, the different significances of red, blue, green, and yellow, the music of Wagner and of Schoenberg—and also Schoenberg’s paintings—and of theories which are set forth didactically in Kandinsky’s pamphlet—a central document of modernism—Concerning the Spiritual in Art(1911).

Apart from Gabriele Münter, the artist closest to Kandinsky was Franz Marc, painter of horses, deer, and other animals which, within brilliant, stylized landscapes, seem in their elegant, shimmering, rainbow-like luminosity to have been restored by the artist to some Garden of Eden. Franz Marc shared with Kandinsky visionary religious views.

Despite his intermittent association with this “movement” of painters—endlessly dissenting from one another, exhibiting and refusing to exhibit together—Kandinsky appears isolated in his highly cerebral intellectualism, his passion for theory, his mysticism. There is an enchanting and enchanted description of him in 1912 by Jean Arp in “Kandinsky the Poet.” Arp promotes him from the Blaue Reiter to Dada:

Kandinsky spoke to me with tenderness, richness, vivacity, and humor. In his studio, speech and form and color fused and were transmuted into fabulous, extraordinary worlds. Across the bellowing and…

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