Please see the previous installments of The Obstacle Course Kandinsky Ran: 1. His Early Critics, is here; 2. The Consequences of War, is here, and 3. Collectors, Art Dealers, Galleries, Museums, is here.
And a reminder:
Most of what follows comes from the important, least known parts of Kandinsky's exciting letters. Half of these have remained unpublished, or
known only in Russia or France. Until now: eminent co-author of this "Kandinsky Anew" entry, Jelena Hahl-Fontaine, has finally translated them—"with
enormous pleasure," she says—and is about to publish them in a German edition. Jelena muses, "Perhaps a similar edition might be of interest in English?" In
the meantime, we have worked to give Scene4 readers a historic, English-language preview of what the letters—not available to the public—contain.
FRANCE: PRACTICAL MATTERS
In 1933, after years of threats and interference, the Nazis shut down the Bauhaus, the German experimental school of art and architecture; they
also made experimental art illegal nationally. The Russian Kandinsky, surely Germany's most ground-breaking and important abstractionist, had lived in Germany for 18 years
before World War I, and had now been living there for 12 more years while teaching at the Bauhaus. As a result, when the school was closed, he was among the innumerable artists
forced to join the diaspora out of Germany. And with that, he joined the throngs in their anxious quest for a safe passport.
In a sense, his move to Paris at the end of 1933 was inevitable. In October of that year, Kandinsky explained to his friend and representative in
America, the German Emilie (also Emmy) "Galka" Scheyer, the several ways the Nazi government viewed him that endangered his stay in Germany: "1) as a native
Russian, 2) as an abstract artist, 3) as a former teacher at the Bauhaus."
It is ironic that, at that juncture, Kandinsky's goal was to hang onto his German passport. Five years later, Kandinsky wrote more to Scheyer
about that frightening period: "We almost fled to Switzerland, since—with our German passports—we are threatened with the concentration camp."
But his hope to retain his German passport makes sense in context: in the confusion and disruptions of the times, Kandinsky, like so many,
couldn't believe that the Nazis, so clearly barbaric, would be holding onto power for long. In a letter to the painter Alexei Jawlensky, his friend since their pre-WWI
Munich days, Kandinsky wrote of his "deep roots in Germany," and said he planned to stay in Paris for only one or two years.
We benefit today from such correspondences as these, carried on at that time between artists who landed in foreign countries but continued to
share their ideas with fellow artists through letters. This is true of the many wonderful letters between the Russian Kandinsky in France and the German Josef Albers, who was in
America with his wife, the artist Anni Albers, who was Jewish; their letters also give us some of the most intimate windows we have onto their lives, pleasures, fears, concerns
beyond their work. On Sept. 19, 1938, Kandinsky wrote to Albers, his former Bauhaus student and colleague, then founder of the art program at Black Mountain College in
To extend my [German] passport I was asked to prove my Aryan descent. My birth certificate is not enough, and my grandparents on my father's
side were born in Eastern Siberia, where they lived their whole lives. Would you know the names of the towns Nertchinsk and Kiakhta? It is from there I am supposed to get the
proof. If not, I will get only a "short-term" passport–for 3 months or so. Not very attractive. But in case of war I will suffer all the consequences as a
German citizen. This is the problem I am occupied with for the moment. Painting is easier.
He wrote to Albers again on November 24, 1938, about the "terrible, insane times": "Like all decent prople, we were profoundly
shocked by the inhuman torture of the Jews. And of course we thought about our Jewish friends still in Germany and especially about your and Anni's relatives."
Image 1. Kandinsky called for an exhibition of foreign artists in Paris.
Five of Kandinsky's paintings were included in the resulting show
at the Mus√©e de Paume in Paris, 1937. See full credit below.
By then Kandinsky was eligible to apply for a French passport, since he had
already been living in Paris for four years. Still, he needed help from French friends: his gallerist and friend, Christian Zervos helped; director
of the Jeu de Paume museum, Andr√© Dezarrois helped—even going out on a limb to mount a show, at Kandinsky's urging, for foreign artists in Paris.
Even then, Kandinsky had to ask for more help in 1939 from the art collector Pierre Brugi√©re. And that precious passport document was outrageously expensive.
FRANCE: PROFESSIONAL MATTERS
When Kandinsky emigrated and settled in Paris, he was far from being the only refugee; thousands of artists had had the same idea, and not many
other options. Like many a foreigner making the transition from being welcomed as a visitor to being cold-shouldered as a new resident,
Kandinsky expected that museums, gallery owners and art dealers would be eager to help artists who had fled Germany in 1933/34: he was surprised by a frosty reception.
But that was na√Įve. Paris was understandably protective of its own thriving
art scene, and wasn't crazy about the potential competition from refugee artists. The French also considered the lineage from the French Cezanne to
French Cubism to be the sole origin of abstraction. This was exasperating (read: irritating) for Kandinsky, who had followed his own, completely
different path to abstraction already in 1911. Indeed, 1911 was a full year before he had ever seen a cubist work. When he did see one, it was a 1912
cubist painting by Picasso, which Kandinsky then included in his Blue Rider Almanac that same year.
One might have thought the Russian √©migr√© press would rally behind him,
but not at all. For example, painter, art critic and longtime Diaghilev collaborator Alexandre Benois was in a position to do him a good turn, but
Kandinsky wrote to Jawlensky in September of 1937: "Benois lives here and writes for The Latest News. We've met a few times, he is very pleasant,
but the new art is totally alien to him." Indeed, after later seeing a Kandinsky show, Benois wrote him: "I understood nothing."
So Kandinsky got the brush off from Paris's art establishment, and was also
dismissed by his fellow Russians in Paris. He felt "like a beginner" again. So it was with great pleasure that he was finally exhibited by two small but
devoted gallerists. These were Jeanne Bucher, a discriminating and lively champion of all new trends in art, and then Christian and Yvonne Zervos,
who were also founder-editors of the excellent Cahiers d'Art, a journal influential for its defense of modern art. It was in their journal that Will
Grohmann, the formidable German art critic, published a first small monograph of Kandinsky.
PREOCCUPATION WITH U.S. MATTERS WHILE IN FRANCE
At the same time Kandinsky was juggling practical and professional matters in France, he was embroiled in art matters in the United States.
This was because at the same time German art curator Hilla von Rebay was buying modern art for New York millionaire Solomon Guggenheim in the
late 1920s, she was in love with the German artist, Rudolf Bauer.
Rebay had first known Bauer in Berlin in 1917. Bauer, whose paintings of
geometric shapes were "abstractions," came to New York in 1939 after Guggenheim and Rebay's brother managed his release from Nazi
incarceration, the same year as the first opening of Guggenheim's museum. What has been called Rebay's personal "obsession" with Bauer, along with
her exaggerated emphasis on collecting Bauer's work for Guggenheim, had consequences for many artists, among them Kandinsky. San Francisco
gallery owner Rowland Weinstein, who manages the Bauer estate, said of Rebay, "Her overpromotion of his work became notorious."
Rebay bought considerably less from Kandinsky than from Bauer, and he suffered the indignity of being lumped together with Bauer as a "non
-objective" painter, and even of suggestions that he had been influenced by Bauer. Clearly irked, in October of 1937 Kandinsky first shared his
frustration with Galka Scheyer, who continued to promote his paintings in California: "Hilla von Rebay thinks that I do too little for Rudolf Bauer," he
wrote. And the following month, Kandinsky wrote his friend Otto Nebel, the German poet-painter: "Have I mentioned that I am being 'punished' for
misconduct? I have been told [by Rebay] that Solomon Guggenheim will buy nothing from me for two years, because I do too little for Bauer. It is, in
fact, not nice of me… to imitate Bauer so closely."
Image 2. Wassily Kandinsky in Paris, 1938. See full credit below.
In his late letters, Kandinsky made remarks that might suggest to us his
perspective on Bauer's paintings. Having "an eye," he said—one's own
eye—was a rare thing indeed. "Imitators," he wrote, are so often more successful than those they imitate because they are "easier to understand
and appreciate," and more "decorative." After Rebay's reign, Bauer's works were moved by the hundreds into the Guggenheim Museum's storage.
Today it is recognized that Kandinsky played a central role in the history of the Guggenheim Museum, and that his work remains a conrnerstone of the collection.
What with one thing and another, Kandinsky was 73 years old before he
could at long last place an important painting, in 1939, in a Paris museum! But no matter how endless the practical difficulties were, or how many
professional snubs and mortifications he endured, he continued to paint. That he didn't let any of the obstacles he met with affect his work shows
the objective greatness of his art and the resilience of his character—both of which can serve as inspiration for the artists and humans among us.
* * *
Image 1. Photograph of Kandinsky's works exhibited in the show "The
French origins and development of international independent Art," at the Mus√©e du Jeu de Paume, Paris, 1937. Left to right: Courbe dominante (1936), D√©veloppement en brun (1933), L'Arc noir (1912), Sur blanc (1923), Entre deux (1934). Photo ©Biblioth√®que Kandinsky, Centre Pompidou,
Image 2. Photo by Josef Breitenbach, Wassily Kandinsky, Paris, 1938.
Vintage gelatin silver print. ©2021 Gitterman Gallery, New York, NY. https://www.gittermangallery.com.
I highly recommend this photographer's work—he took other portraits from this period, too—and the entire Gitterman Gallery page.
See Dr. Kate Kangaslahti's delicious essay on Kandinsky's activism on behalf of the foreign artists living in Paris: "The (French) origins and
development of international independent Art on display at the Mus√©e du Jeu de Paume in 1937." Wonderfully researched and beautifully written.
Along with Jelena Hahl-Fontaine's Albers-related translations above, there is Jessica Boissel's Josef Albers and Wassily Kandinsky: Friends in Exile, a
Decade of Correspondence, 1929-1940, translated by Oliver Pretzel. Hear Albers and Kandinsky speak to each other in their own voices on topics
personal and professional. With 46 letters. Includes photos.
For a bit more about Bauer and Guggenheim, see my first entry in this
"Kandinsky Anew" series (April 2019): "Still 'Mr. Modern Art' at 100: An Interview with Peter Selz on Kandinsky," here.