The work of the Blaue Reiter is vivid, unstructured and vaguely expressionistic, a protest against the staid conservatism of early 20th century German artby Matthew Wolfson / November 26, 2013 / Leave a comment
The entrance hall to the Neue Galerie in New York City is panelled in dark wood. Ornate hexagonal lights hang from the ceiling. Sunlight from East 86th Street streams in through high windows. Three security guards in what look like tailored grey suits stand near the gold revolving doors. The overall effect is one of beautiful and brocaded heaviness, a daunting amalgamation of style and wealth. It evokes the atmosphere of fin de siècle Germany and Austria, where most of the Neue’s collection comes from, and is an oddly appropriate setting for an exhibition of Vasily Kandinsky’s evolving artworks between 1910 and 1925.
Kandinsky’s artistic trajectory amounted to a rebellion against this baroque style. He searched for a better way to express the excitement and confusion of modern industrial life. His allies included many of the subversive artists featured in the Neue’s permanent collection: Oskar Kokoschka, Gustav Klimt, Paul Klee and Franz Marc. What is unusual about the Neue’s Kandinsky exhibition is that it shows, often in mesmerising detail, the ambiguities of this rebellion. It is not just about Kandinsky’s quest to smash a tottering social order, but also his struggle to cope with what came after.
The exhibition’s first room focuses on Kandinsky’s two formative periods, divided by the trauma of the First World War. On one side of the first room are paintings from Kandinsky’s Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) period, before 1914, when he channelled the Expressionism of Berlin artists like Marc and Klee. On the other side are paintings from his Bauhaus period, after 1922, when, along with Klee, he joined the functionalist architectural school of Walter Gropius.
The work of the Blaue Reiter group was colourful, unstructured, vaguely impressionistic. But they were also eerie: the colours were too bright, the contrasts weirdly stark, the impression was of barely contained anger or ecstasy. Members of the Blaue Reiter drew on a Freudian understanding of the subconscious and the primal in their protest against the staid conservatism of early 20th century German art. Many of them welcomed the violence of the First World War as an ecstatic solution to the problems of modern life, and some of them, like Marc, died on the battlefields of France.
Bauhaus was different: a reaction in part to the violence of World War One, it’s what we think of when we think of high modernism—rigorously abstract, unemotional, distant: form triumphant over feeling. On their own, I’m not particularly drawn to either style: Blaue Reiter is too histrionic; Bauhaus too abstruse. But, in the same room, where my head could swivel back and forth, and I could step back to put both styles in my line of sight, the contrast was surprisingly resonant.
The two works that drew my attention were near the room’s entrance. Murnau: Street with Women, from 1908, the Blau Reiter period, portrayed a village street, with two women in the foreground. The street and house roofs are chequered slabs of reds, oranges, pinks and yellows; the horizon is plaited in green-blue brushstrokes; in the foreground, two women and a child turn toward us. The painting conveys a vitality that’s not quite under control—at any moment, the images could lose their form and stream into unmediated, elemental colour.
Across from Murnau is Circles within a Circle, from 1923, the Bauhaus Years: a series of circles, in cool blues, greens and purples, the lines precise, the brushstrokes invisible. The circles are balancing against each other in the centre of the canvass. Floodlights of dark yellow and blue-green shoot through the circles, stretching from one end to the other of the canvas, but everything’s rigorously controlled by geometry. This is a severe, distancing piece of work.
What stopped me short was the juxtaposition, the ways in which each picture compensated for the other’s shortcomings. Every time Murnau Street overwhelmed me with its formless colour, I could turn to Circles and my vision would refocus on the painting’s precise constructions. This one room seemed to contain an artist’s troubled evolution in its entirety. This was the trajectory of a freewheeling, rebellious expressionist who watched his friends die in World War One, saw the formless postwar world, and sought to reassert control in his art with geometric exactness; to reconcile it with the dizzying pace of change made manifest by the war. As Bauhaus’s founder Walter Gropius put it: “We want an architecture adapted to our world of machines, radios and fast cars.”
Eventually—this was, in part, the point of the exhibition—Kandinsky merged the two worlds, keeping the abstract geometric forms of Bauhaus but experimenting with the colour of Blaue Reiter. These later works of synthesis, among them Compositions IX and X, are more complex conceptions, allowing for a world that’s both luminous and austere, and yet I wouldn’t have traded anything, at that moment, for the experience of standing in front of these two.
Vasily Kandinsky: From Blaue Reiter to the Bauhaus, 1910-1925, Neue Galerie New York, until 10th February 2014