Kandinsky Plays the Music of the Soul

Artist Richard Chartier and Curator Elsa Smithgall discuss Kandinsky's Painting with White Border. Photo: Evelyn Gardett

Artist Richard Chartier recently participated in a public talk on Kandinsky’s Painting with White Border with Curator Elsa Smithgall. Here he reflects on the experience and shares his meditations on the painting. Learn more about Richard on his website

When I first agreed to do an artist talk/conversation in connection with the Kandinsky exhibition I was unsure. I didn’t feel I had much connection to his early work.

Having said that, when I arrived and actually saw the painting I was to discuss, Painting with the White Border, in person I was astounded. There is a certain magic to this work.

Kandinsky created so many sketches and preparatory works for this one painting, and it shows. He spoke frequently of his desire to “paint the color of sound.” His initial drawings gave me the impression of graphic scores a contemporary composer might create for a piece of music. He thought of these shapes and colors and forms as elements in a symphony. It truly is a work that pulls you in and moves you around in a continuous swirl.

After talking with the curator Elsa Smithgall for almost two hours preparing our discussion, I went to see the Rothko Room. I spent some contemplative time there and then returned to sit in front of Painting with the White Border. I found myself having distinctly different but similar synaesthetic reactions. In both the Rothko paintings and this swirl of a painting by Kandinsky I found myself being pulled in and thinking about sound. Whereas the Rothkos were sumptuous understated drones, the Kandinsky was a musical tempest, a wild symphony for the eyes. The color, the density, the vibrant interactions make the surface of the painting almost uniform in its movement, but the one thing that keeps your eye moving back into the painting is that fascinating, almost undulating, white border.

Kandinsky wrote: “Color is the keyboard, the eye is the hammer. The soul is the piano with its many strings.” This painting knows exactly how to play the soul.

–Richard Chartier, artist

Gabriele Münter

It is time to expose the shocking truth about expressionist Wassily Kandinsky:

Under each of his paintings is the real source: a painting by his fellow Blue Rider founder, Gabriele Münter!

(clockwise from upper left) Wassily Kandinsky, Sketch I for Painting with White Border (Moscow), 1913, 39 1/2 x 30 7/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. © 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris; Infrared reflectogram of Sketch I; Infrared reflectogram of Sketch I without the overlay of Kandinsky’s composition; Gabriele Münter, Garden Concert, c. 1911-12, © , 11 1/4 x 14 7/8 in. Gabriele Münter- und Johannes Eichner-Stiftung, Munich, Kon. 34/20. © 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

Gotcha! Just kidding.

Current exhibition, Kandinsky and the Harmony of Silence: Painting with White Border, does include a Münter gouache work, Garden Concert, 1912,  that Phillips conservators found under Kandinsky’s Sketch I for Painting with White Border. But the possibility that he might have painted over other works by his former student and lover is actually addressed by Annegret Hoberg, curator at the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, in an essay in the exhibition catalogue. She says with certainty that this finding is an isolated case, a conclusion echoed by Phillips Curator Elsa Smithgall. Continue reading “Gabriele Münter” »

Meeting Lyonel Feininger

Lyonel Feininger, Waterfront, 1942. Watercolor and black ink on paper, 11 1/2 x 18 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

I hadn’t heard of the artist Lyonel Feininger until I opened the New York Times to see Roberta Smith’s review of the Whitney exhibition, Lyonel Feininger: At the Edge of the World.

Smith brings up what we’re all thinking when we look at the works in the exhibition: the whimsy and color of Chagall, expressiveness of Kandinsky, and maybe even a little Tim Burton meets Pinocchio.

It’s discoveries like this one that inspire me to learn more.

In fact, my colleagues in the library and in conservation pointed out that the Phillips has several works by Feininger. I met our librarian Karen Schneider in the galleries adjacent to our Kandinsky exhibition, hung with expressionist works, to view four beautiful watercolors by the artist. Our conservation fellow Patti Favero then took me backstage (i.e. to storage) to view one of two paintings we have by Feininger, Spook I (pictured below). There’s something adorably amusing about the little jack-o-lantern-like figures with top hats dancing about in the painting. Even the trees seem to be wearing witches hats.

When the leaves begin to change and the weather cools I’ll head to New York to experience the Whitney exhibition. You can, too: At the Edge of the World is on view through October 16 at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Megan Clark, Manager of Center Initiatives

Lyonel Feininger, Spook I, 1940. Oil on canvas, 21 x 21 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.