Hilton Kramer: Kandinsky & the birth of abstraction

From The New Criterion, Vol. 13, n.7, March 1995.


The birth of abstract art —art that makes no direct, immediately discernible reference to recognizable objects— has long been recognized as a fateful event in the history of art. Yet the intellectual origins of this event, which promptly established abstraction as one of the central traditions of twentieth-century painting and sculpture, have remained a vague and little-understood subject for the vast public that now takes abstract art for granted as part of the familiar scenery of modern cultural life. That the emergence of abstraction early in the second decade of this century represented for its pioneer creators a solution to a spiritual crisis; that the conception of this momentous artistic innovation entailed a categorical rejection of the materialism of modern life; and that abstraction was meant by its visionary inventors to play a role in redefining our relationship to the universe —all of this, were its implications even dimly grasped, would come as a shock to many people who now happily embrace the history of modern art as little more than a succession of styles, or art fashions, that may have something to do with the history of taste but do not have much to tell us about life.

As for the academic study of modernism, Professor Rosalind Krauss no doubt spoke for many of her colleagues in the universities when, in the 1980s, she declared that she found it “indescribably embarrassing to mention art and spirit in the same sentence.” Yet the artists who first created abstract painting —Vasily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian pre-eminently among them— did not share that embarrassment. They really did conceive of their artistic endeavours as serving a spiritual mission, and if, some eighty-plus years after the birth of abstraction, we still take an interest in the art of its progenitors, we are obliged, I believe, to examine the ideas that shaped it, however odd or alien those ideas may look to us today.


This is certainly the case with Kandinsky, whose work is the subject of a current exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art that takes the birth of abstraction as its principal focus. Organized by Magdalena Dabrowski, “Kandinsky: Compositions” is a small exhibition about a very large subject. Yet it has the virtue of concentrating our attention on one of the pivotal moments in modern cultural history: the years 1910 to 1913, when Kandinsky was deeply engaged in painting the pictures that led him into the realm of abstraction and, at the same time, formulating the theories which supported this audacious endeavour. The exhibition includes some of the most beautiful paintings that have ever been created in the name of abstraction, and the greatest of them—Composition V (1911), from an unidentified private collection; Composition VI (1913), from the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg; and Composition VII (1913), from the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow—have the additional interest of being relatively unfamiliar to the American public. The many studies that are also included in the exhibition give us a vivid account of the inspired, painstaking pictorial thought that Kandinsky lavished on this crucial turn in his artistic development. If only because of the masterpieces of lyric abstraction the show contains, it would have to be considered an important occasion. What may not be so apparent is that it also marks an event in modern intellectual history.

Kandinsky was very much a man of ideas — a cosmopolitan artist and intellectual straight out of the emancipated bourgeois intelligentsia that dominated the life of art and social thought in Russia in the last decades of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth. His keen interest in music, theatre, poetry, philosophy, ethnology, and myth was an essential element in his thinking about art. So was his deep interest in the occult —an interest that he shared with Mondrian and certain other creators of early abstract art. The character of Kandinsky’s mysticism was different from Mondrian’s however —more socially and emotionally engaged, and less inclined to take refuge in strategies of withdrawal from the trials of life. Kandinsky relished intellectual combat and critical controversy. Even his celebrated treatise On the Spiritual in Art, which he published in the period covered by the current exhibition, bristles with argument, assertion, and polemical heat.

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