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…