Unreal Nature

October 21, 2014

In the Last Analysis

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:48 am

… Let them be warned by the decorations that make vacuous the halls of the Art of Tomorrow museum.

This is from ‘Obituary and Review of an Exhibition of Kandinsky’ (1945) found in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol. 2, edited by John O’Brian (1986):

There are two sorts of provincialism in art. The exponent of one is the artist, academic or otherwise, who works in an outmoded style or in a vein disregarded by the metropolitan center — Paris, Rome, or Athens. The other sort of provincialism is that of the artist — generally from an outlying country — who in all earnestness and admiration devotes himself to the style being currently developed in the metropolitan center, yet fails in one way or another really to understand what it is about.

The late Marsden Hartley [ … ] was a provincial of this latter sort. And so was the Russian, Wassily Kandinsky, who died two weeks ago in Paris at the age of seventy-eight. They were quite different as painters but both were alike in being provincial. Hartley failed to understand the School of Paris because he really lacked culture. Kandinsky was learned and at ease in his learning, and was one of the first, if not the first, to get an intellectual purchase on post-cubist painting, yet he failed in the end to understand it in practice.

… His best work remains those paintings in fluid contour and gauzy color that he executed between 1909 or so and the early twenties (the heroic period of the flowering of cubism which also saw such non-cubists as Matisse and Chagall at their best).

Kandinsky_improvisation-dreamy-1913
Improvisation (Dreamy), 1913 [image from WikiArt]

The abstract or — as Kandinsky himself called them — “concrete” paintings he turned out from the middle twenties represent a misconception, not only of cubism and its antecedents, but of the very art of putting paint on canvas to make a picture. Like many a newcomer to a situation, seeing it from the outside and thus more completely, Kandinsky was very quick to perceive one of the most basic implications of the revolution cubism had effected in Western painting. Pictorial art was at last able to free itself completely from the object — the eidetic image — and take for its sole positive matter the sensuous facts of its own medium, reducing itself to a question — purely on canvas, not in the observer’s consciousness — of non-figurative shapes and colors. Painting could become like music, an art contained in its own form and thus capable of infinitely more variety than before — at least in theory. But Kandinsky erred in assuming that this newly won freedom exhausted the meaning of the cubist revolution and that it permitted the artist to make a clean break with the past and start all over again from scratch — something which no art can do without losing all sense of style.

Kandinsky_transverse-line-1923
Transverse Line, 1923 [image from WikiArt]

Kandinsky, in principle, seems to have paid ample homage to the new awareness that easel-painting takes place on a flat, continuous, finitely bounded surface, but he lacked an intuitive grasp of the consequences of these facts in actual practice. As if in reaction against his earlier liquescent style, he came to conceive of the picture überhaupt as an aggregate of discrete shapes; the color, size, and spacing of these he related so insensitively to the space surrounding them — that which Hans Hofmann calls “negative space” — that this remained inactive and meaningless; the sense of a continuous surface was lost, and the picture plane became pocked with “holes.” At the same time, having begun by accepting the absolute flatness of the picture surface, Kandinsky would go on to allude to illusionistic depth by a use of color, line, and perspective that were plastically irrelevant.

Kandinsky_composition-1944
Composition, 1944 [image from WikiArt]

… For a relatively short time Kandinsky was a great painter; he was and will remain a huge and revolutionary phenomenon — he must be taken into account always; yet he stays apart from the mainstream and in the last analysis remains a provincial. The example of his work is dangerous to younger painters. Let them be warned by the decorations that make vacuous the halls of the Art of Tomorrow museum.

-Julie

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