DescriptionWassily Kandinsky (1866-1944)
Untitled (Composition lyrique), 1922
Watercolor and India ink on paper
12-3/8 x 14-3/4 inches (31.4 x 37.5 cm) (sheet)
Signed and dated lower left: K / 22
Richard G. Leahy, Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts;
E.V. Thaw, New York;
Galerie Krugier, Geneva, 1968;
Galerie Tarica, Paris;
Galerie Jacques Benador, Geneva, 1979;
Christie's London, April 3, 1979, lot 127;
Leonard Hutton Galleries, New York;
Sotheby's London, July 1, 1987, lot 471;
Galerie Nierendorf, Berlin, 1923;
Musée Rath, Geneva, "L'Art du XXe siècle: Collections genevoises," June 28-September 23, 1973;
Leonard Hutton Galleries, New York, "Jawlensky & Major German Expressionists," October 17, 1980-January 1981 (label verso).
Musée Rath, L'Art du XXe siècle: Collections genevoises, Geneva, 1973, no. 55, illus.;
Leonard Hutton Galleries, Jawlensky & Major German Expressionists, New York, 1980, p. 39, no. 17, illus.;
V. Endicott Barnett, Kandinsky Watercolors: Catalogue Raisonné, 1922-1944, Volume 2, Ithaca, New York, 1994, p. 43, no. 586, illus.
Wassily Kandinsky's Untitled (Composition Lyrique) from 1922 signals a major turning point in his development of an abstract pictorial language, namely his adoption of strong geometric forms toward the end of his Russian period (1915-21) and beginning of his Bauhaus period (1922-1933). Untitled (Composition Lyrique) also demonstrates his extraordinary handling of watercolor as an expressive medium. Indeed, this particular watercolor exemplifies what Kandinsky defined in his 1911 book, On the Spiritual in Art, as a complex "Composition," where internal feelings were systematically explored over a period of time through numerous studies - to be differentiated from the "Impression," an art form based on recognizable nature, and the "Improvisation," one born impulsively out of the unconscious.
Kandinsky was a brilliant theoretician and teacher as much as a painter, and his magnum opus, On the Spiritual in Art, written during his early period in Munich (1898-1914), laid the foundation for his revolutionary nonobjective art. In Part I, Kandinsky describes a new spiritual art for the era, one deriving from the distinctive inner vision of the artist and sharing fundamentals with other art forms, such as music, dance, and theater. Influenced by Symbolism, Cubism, and Fauvism, Kandinsky lists various prophets for this spiritual art, including the playwright Maurice Maeterlinck, composers Richard Wagner and Claude-Achille Debussy, and painters Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Part II is devoted to Kandinsky's specific theories on color and form. Colors have a superficial physical effect (e.g., lemon yellow hurts the eye) and a psychological or spiritual effect (e.g., warm red can conjure up painful memories, or blue, heavenly associations). Color cannot exist independently of form, and certain forms accentuate certain qualities of colors (e.g., a triangle sharpens the sensation of yellow, whereas a circle deepens the sensation of blue). Forms can either delineate representational objects or stand alone as abstract entities. In a modern age of uncertainty, it is the goal of the artist to juxtapose colors and forms stemming from a unique "internal necessity," or "vibration of the soul." Paradoxically, only then can a harmonious composition emerge.
Kandinsky's formation of the avant-garde Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) with Franz Marc in Munich gave him a public context in which to promote this spiritual art. The Blue Rider held its first exhibition at Thannhauser's Galleries in 1911 and featured works by members Kandinsky, Marc, Alexej von Jawlensky, Marianne von Werefkin, August Macke, and Gabriele Münter, as well as by international artists like Robert Delaunay, Henri Rousseau, and Burliuk, who were pushing traditional art boundaries. In this show, Kandinsky debuted his new paintings, astounding in their formal complexity, where each canvas was a kaleidoscope of fragmented, overlapping, and colliding planes, colors, and shapes. Over the next four years, Kandinsky tested his theories from On the Spiritual in Art through Impressions, Improvisations, and Compositions. While some of these paintings maintain representational references - animals, figures, riders, boats, water, mountains, and buildings - they evince full abstraction by 1914.
With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Kandinsky was forced to return to his native Russia, and his affiliation there with avant-garde schools and artists increasingly infused his expressionist abstract art with a hard-edged geometry. At the beginning of this seven-year period in Moscow, Kandinsky married Nina de Andreevsky, the young, delightful daughter of a Russian general, and immersed himself in writing and teaching at state institutions. In 1918, following the Russian Revolution, the painter-architect Vladimir Tatlin invited Kandinsky to become a member of the Department of Visual Arts of the People's Commissariat of Enlightenment, where he soon headed a studio, as well as the theater and film sections of the Free State Art Schools. By 1920, he had founded and was directing the Institute of Artistic Culture (INKhUK). In these various leadership positions, Kandinsky advocated for an integration of the arts, encouraging students to analyze objectively the shared elements among painting, sculpture, architecture, music, dance, theater, and literature, and their effects on the psyche.
While teaching, Kandinsky also met influential artist-colleagues, especially Kasimir Malevich and Alexander Rodchenko. Like Kandinsky, Malevich advanced a nonobjective art stemming from the artist's interior vision, yet his "Suprematist" vocabulary, which elevated the circle and the square, was purely geometric. Rodchenko's post-War "Constructivist" paintings also emphasized a geometric aesthetic, but one that was materialistic and utilitarian rather than spiritual and autonomous. By 1921, Kandinsky's paintings evidenced a newfound appreciation for geometry inspired by these movements. Delineated shapes -- sometimes drawn with a compass or ruler -- emerge, notably circles, points, disks, rings, crescents, triangles, quadrilaterals, and linear groupings. Where his exuberant Blaue Reiter compositions celebrated overlapping, blurred-edged forms with modulated color and swirling brushwork, Kandinsky now began to employ negative space to differentiate geometric shapes, which appear to float in a galaxy. From Malevich, Kandinsky borrowed "diagonality" as a way to orient his compositions and effect the sensation of movement; shapes and colors often appear to disperse from a nucleus or axis and are either activated or calmed depending on their relationship to other shapes and colors. Despite this increasing geometrization of his compositions, Kandinsky still maintained his belief in the subjective power of the artist, which manifested in his works as atmospheric, modulated colors and freely drawn contour lines. Ultimately, it was his failure to join the Communist party and fully embrace the prevailing Constructivist ideals of the art academies - which forbid subjectivity and expression - that compelled Kandinsky to leave Russia for a teaching post at the Bauhaus in Weimar in 1922.
Kandinsky's German friend from his days at the Free State Art Schools, Walter Gropius invited him to join the faculty of the Bauhaus, which he had organized in 1919 as an art school where students applied theories of visual elements to both fine arts and design. Bauhaus professors, including Lyonel Feininger, Adolf Meyer, and Paul Klee, offered preliminary courses on form and led workshops in various crafts, such as furniture, weaving, stained glass, and typography. Widely respected as a theorist and abstract painter, Kandinsky taught his "theory of correspondences" - the physical and psychological effects of colors and forms and their interrelationships - and became master of the mural workshop. In this collaborative learning environment, he embraced the Bauhaus ethic of art in the service of functional design for a modern society. Simultaneously, his own artwork from 1922-23 reflected the Constructivist-like geometric aesthetic of the Bauhaus. For example, his Small Worlds lithograph portfolio and his major painting Composition VIII (1923, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York) exhibited new geometric shapes -- checkerboards, grids, parallel bars, criss-crossing lines, and needlelike diagonals - which he combined with some irregular shapes and gestural passages of stippling, mottling, and loosely applied paint.
During his Russian and early Bauhaus periods, Kandinksy painted numerous watercolors, both as studies for paintings and as independent works like the present lot, Untitled (Composition Lyrique). Here, he exhibits his masterful ability to create a geometric "universe" with translucent watercolors and India ink. True to precepts outlined in On the Spiritual in Art, Untitled (Composition Lyrique) presents a "symphonic" balance of complementary forms, colors and textures all deriving from the artist's inner vision. Against the negative space of the cream paper, a cosmos of shapes appears to drift outward from a small pale grey "sun" in the approximate center of the composition. At the same time, Kandinsky simulates inward thrusting motion with a diagonal "needle" on the left, striped "golf tee" along the bottom, "mountain peaks" in the lower right, and two "arrows" in the upper right. Kandinsky highlights Suprematist, Constructivist and Bauhaus shapes and patterns, including the needle, circles, criss-crossing lines, checkerboard, and "horn" on the left, and, on the right, the colored and mottled rectangles, arrows, and semi-circles. Not succumbing to a machinist geometry, however, he accents freely-drawn and irregular forms - the whiplash curve bordering the left side, the biomorphic forms of the yellow- and blue-haloed "planets," and the imprecise edges of the rectangles - as well as painterly effects - the blurred auras around the planets and various stippled and cross-hatched passages. In addition, Kandinsky vaguely references the landscape elements of his earliest Munich paintings, such as the pink and blue-yellow mountain peaks in the lower right and the "buildings" atop the stippled rectangle and the tail of the horn. His predominantly pale blue, red, and yellow colors, however, reference a more muted Bauhaus palette rather than the bright palette of his Munich paintings; in the present lot, these soft colors intentionally contrast with the pulsing, dark passages of India ink. Untitled (Composition Lyrique) reveals an expansive cosmos of expressive geometric forms. The directional sweep of these forms - from the rectangle in the lower right through the whiplash curve on the left and finally through the upper planets - creates a circularity that urges the viewer to look inward at this personal world, a perfect metaphor for Kandinsky's very instruction for making art.
Estimate: $400,000 - $600,000.
Overall slight paper discoloration with scattered spots of surface soiling and light foxing; small bumps and handling creases along the edges; left and right edges are lightly curling; paper is taped to mount along the edges verso; framed under glass. Framed Dimensions 20.25 X 22.75 Inches
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