Geometric forms in bright colors and squiggly black lines may characterize the quintessential Kandinsky painting that we all hold in our mind’s eye, but to my eye, the pure joy of this retrospective at the Centre Pompidou can be found right near the beginning of the show. After a small group of the artist’s early, rather cloying Russian-folklore-influenced paintings, you turn a corner and are electrified by a display of paintings that positively explode with color and joy. Dating from the artist’s Munich period (1908-1914), they include examples of the “Impressions,” “Improvisations” and “Compositions” series, as well as works from the Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider) period. While some figures are still recognizable in these large-scale works, they show the artist taking an intermediate pause on the road to total abstraction, feeling his way toward what would become the archetypal Kandinsky.
Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) spent a good part of his life trotting around Europe, living through three of the 19th century’s major upheavals and participating in many of the important art movements. Born in Moscow to a well-off family, he gave up his law and economics studies to study art in Munich in 1996. After traveling around Europe and North Africa and spending a year in Paris, he settled in Munich, where he founded the Blaue Reiter group with Franz Marc in 1911. The onset of World War I in 1914 put an end to his German sojourn and eventually sent him back to Russia. War interrupted his painting for a time, leaving him without a studio and materials, but he made good use of this period by working on drawings and watercolors. A whole room in the exhibition is filled with the wonderful results.
In 1922, Kandinsky was back in Germany, teaching at the Bauhaus, where he stayed until the rise of Hitler led him to leave the country again, in 1933. His work was eventually classified as “degenerate” by the Nazis and removed from German museums. Kandinsky then chose to move to Paris, where he lived in the suburb of Neuilly until his death in 1944.
The arc of the artist’s career comes through clearly in this show of around a hundred major paintings dating from between 1907 and 1942: from the figurative and anecdotal scenes of Russian life to the bold, bright Blaue Reiter paintings to the more refined, less-cluttered, purely abstract paintings full of geometric forms, and finally to the softer colors and more organic forms of the later years.
This major exhibition must not be missed. And bravo to the Centre Pompidou for writing the names of the works high up on the walls, where they don’t interfere with the paintings, in big letters that are perfectly legible (so rare, so rare) from afar.
And, if you love Kandinsky, you might want to take in a complementary show at the Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain, featuring two very different contemporary artists whose work clearly shows the influence of Kandinsky.
Brazilian artist Beatriz Milhazes makes beautiful large-format, hyper-colorful works by painting designs in acrylic paint on sheets of plastic, and applying them to canvas one by one, painstakingly building up layer after layer until the painting is complete. Ten of these highly decorative works are on show in the Fondation’s glass-walled ground-floor gallery, along with a monumental collage and a dramatic installation in shades of gold decorating the building’s glass facade.
Downstairs, the Fondation is showing a commissioned series of color photos of Paris by American photographer William Eggleston, whose astounding color sense and semi-abstract, highly atypical views of Paris are often startling. While many of them could have been shot anywhere, others simply suggest Paris, glancing at the city from unusual angles.
Like Milhazes, Eggleston is a great fan of Kandinsky, an influence that shows up especially in his colorful abstract sketches, which are being shown here for the first time. And like Kandinsky – who was a friend of Arnold Schoenberg, composed music himself and found many correspondences between painting and making music – both Milhazes and Eggleston are great music lovers (Eggleston is also a pianist), a connection that can be seen in a certain rhythmic quality in their work.
Centre Pompidou: 19, rue Beaubourg, 75004 Paris. Tel.: 01 44 78 12 33. Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Closed Tuesday. Métro: Rambuteau. Admission: €10-€12. Through August 10. www.centrepompidou.fr/
Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain: 261, boulevard Raspail, 75014 Paris. Métro: Raspail. Tel.: 01 42 18 56 50. Open Tuesday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Wednesday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Admission: €6.50. Through June 21. http://fondation.cartier.com/