Kandinsky: Twilight and Abstraction

Wassily Kandinsky, Painting with White Border (Moscow), 1913. Oil on canvas, 55 1/4 x 78 7/8 in. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection, By gift 37.245. © 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

With the change of seasons approaching and twilight coming earlier, I was reminded of the ways in which this special time of day affected Kandinsky as he worked toward the creation of Painting with White Border (Moscow).

Curator Elsa Smithgall writes in the exhibition’s catalogue that Kandinsky’s work was deeply affected by the moment when day turns to night. His discovery of abstraction came out of a revelatory experience that took place at twilight. Kandinsky recalled a moment after his arrival in Munich when he was . . .

“enchanted . . . by an unexpected spectacle that confronted me in my studio. It was the hour when dusk draws in. I returned home . . . still dreamy and absorbed in the work I had completed, and suddenly saw an indescribably beautiful picture, pervaded by an inner glow. At first, I stopped short and then quickly approached this mysterious picture, on which I could discern only forms and colors and whose content was incomprehensible. At once, I discovered the key to the puzzle: it was a picture I had painted, standing on its side against the wall.”

Kandinsky was unable to re-create this visual experience during the light of day, recalling, “I constantly recognized objects, and the fine bloom of dusk was missing. Now I could see clearly that objects harmed my pictures.”

Although at first glance Kandinsky’s work may appear to be abstract, his paintings and works on paper contain motifs that evoke the emotional sounds of his beloved Moscow, such as the troika and Saint George and the Dragon. Kandinsky was attracted to abstraction but was unwilling to relinquish the “spiritual sound” that objects contributed to his work. The artist spoke of “dissolving objects to a greater or lesser extent . . . so that they might not all be recognized at once and so that these emotional overtones might thus be experienced gradually by the spectator.”

It took Kandinsky five months and fifteen studies, including the Phillips’s Sketch I for Painting with White Border (Moscow) to arrive at the solution for Painting with White Border : “I was sitting looking in the twilight at the second large scale study, when it suddenly dawned on me what was missing . . . the white edge.”

Might the artist’s sensitivity to twilight, a liminal time of day, have affected his preference for a style of painting that is on the threshold between figuration and abstraction?

-Karen Schneider, Librarian

Kandinsky: A Russian-born German Expressionist

Wassily Kandinsky, Watercolor after Painting with White Border (Moscow), 1915. Watercolor, India ink, and pencil on paper, 5 1/16 x 13 1/4 in. The Hilla von Rebay Foundation, on extended loan to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1970.37. © 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

As visitors to The Phillips Collection make their way through our special exhibition, Kandinsky and the Harmony of Silence, they may find themselves puzzled as to why two entire rooms have been dedicated to German expressionism when Wassily Kandinsky was a Russian.

When I joined The Phillips Collection community as a curatorial intern in March, I was quickly thrown into the final preparations for this exciting project. One of my tasks was to draft wall text for this specific portion of the show. Having studied German expressionism and Kandinsky at various points throughout the course of my art historical education, I knew a fair amount about both. I did not, however, understand the deep connection between the two. While doing the necessary research, I quickly learned that although the city of Moscow was Kandinsky’s beloved hometown as well as the inspiration for his Painting with White Border (Moscow), Germany is where he spent the majority of his artistic life, thus becoming his second home.

Turning to painting at the relatively late age of thirty, it was in Munich that he embraced Germany’s thriving art scene, working with artists Gabriele Münter, Franz Marc, Paul Klee, Lyonel Feininger, Heinrich Campendonk, and others.  These artists – not only his colleagues but also his close friends – left an indelible mark on Kandinsky’s work.  His fond reminiscences of Russia continued to color his art in both subject and style throughout his career, but it was Germany and the community of artists and theorists he came into contact with there that nurtured his artistic identity.

Paul Klee, Arrival of the Jugglers, 1926. Oil on incised putty on cardboard mounted on cardboard, 6 7/8 x 10 3/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1939.

So, while enjoying Kandinsky and the Harmony of Silence, pause for a moment to contemplate the expressionist installation that accompanies the exhibition. This body of work gives the viewer a taste of the wide reaching art movement that is inextricably linked to the formation and success of this artist. Revolutions in Painting: Expressionist Art from The Phillips Collection is an essential addition to the overall experience of this exhibition and the viewer’s fundamental understanding of the abstract master named Kandinsky.

-Samantha James, Curatorial Intern

Art, Creativity, and Yoga

Chair yoga session in The Phillips Collection's galleries. Photo: Katie Schuler

Kimberly Wilson, director and founder of Tranquil Space, recently taught two inspiring chair yoga sessions during Phillips after 5. Kicking off their shoes in the galleries, visitors of all ages and experience levels participated; they stretched their creativity and focused on the beauty of the art in the museum and around them and in their daily lives.

The classes were designed to complement the evening’s theme:  Spirituality in Art. The program also featured a live video remix by artist Robin Bell and tea tastings by Silence Tea. 2011 marks the 100th anniversary of Wassily Kandinsky‘s seminal treatise Concerning the Spiritual in Art, which served as the inspiration for the night’s events.