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Vol 2, No 16
25 April 2000
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Malevich: Suprematism
Beyond Fission
Schoenberg, Kandinsky, the Blaue Reiter and the Russian avant garde
Sue Bagust

The first two decades of the last century were a period of frantic creativity and turmoil. The destruction of previous norms and expectations in all areas of life had a huge impact on all the arts in all countries. In 1913, Wassily Kandinsky wrote that "the disintegration of the atom was to me like the disintegration of the whole world." Like many other artists he expressed this new perception of things with a new aesthetic, one that dissolved the previous sense of a solid material reality - with the help of music, the least solid of all the arts.

A new exhibition, on display at the Schoenberg Centre in Vienna until 28 May, demonstrates the international nature of the turmoil of early modernism by bringing together the artists who were associated with Kandinsky, Schoenberg and the other members of the avant garde who clustered together around the name Der Blaue Reiter (the Blue Rider).

Extravaganza of expression

The Blaue Reiter was a formation of artists that first exhibited their work together in 1911 and also produced Der Blaue Reiter Almanach in 1912, one of the ground-breaking manifestos of the modernist movement in art, music and painting that sprang up in the years before the First World War.

The exhibition in Vienna is comprised of over 120 oil paintings and 80 manuscripts, water colours and drawings. Some of these belong to the Schoenberg Centre itself, but most are on loan from other institutions throughout Europe.

The inclusion of many important paintings by Russian artists who were associated with Kandinsky and the Blaue Reiter is the result of a co-operation between the Schoenberg Centre and the Russian Museum in St Petersberg. Many of these have not been seen in the West before, and the fact that they hang beside those of Arnold Schoenberg, Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc and the other members of the Blaue Reiter is a demonstration of the renewal of cultural unity between Western Europe, Eastern Europe and Russia.

Impression 111 (Koncert)
While the Blaue Reiter is usually only associated with the development of German Expressionism, the present exhibition affirms the aesthetic and cultural pluralism of the original Blaue Reiter exhibitions, organised by Kandinsky and Marc.

While the first of these exhibitions, held in December 1911, signalled a break with the new but comparatively conservative art of the Neue Kunstlervereinigung of Munich, the second one, held in March 1912, assembled the work of the main representatives of the modern art world, in a bid to show that the Blaue Reiter's progression towards abstract art was central to the wider developments that were sweeping Europe and Russia at the time.

In this second exhibition, the French cubism of Braque, Derain, Picasso and Maurice de Vlaminck hung alongside the German Expressionist painting of Die Brücke and the painters of the Russian avant garde that had already made inroads into abstraction in art. This exhibition travelled all over Germany, until the war disrupted the momentum of Kandinsky's iconoclastic promotion of modern art.

Sounds into images

An important ingredient of the new movement was the idea that painting could become like music; an idea that led to the composer Arnold Schoenberg (who was himself an innovatory painter) becoming central to the consolidation of Kandinsky's and Marc's Blaue Reiter aesthetic. After a concert of Schoenberg's music in January 1911, Kandinsky established contact with the composer, and the two wrote and collaborated intensively for the next few years.

The painting Kandinsky did after this 1911 concert is one of many of Kandinsky's works on display in the rooms of the Schoenberg Centre. Entitled Impression 111 (Koncert) it exploits bright colours and bold shapes, which are expressive in their own right without references to the outside world distracting from their immediate effect. In this work, it is just possible to make out the shape of a grand piano and the audience of people sitting around it.

Kandinsky: Black Spot
A later painting, the Black Spot from 1912, reaches a higher degree of abstraction and expresses the tension and dark emotion through colour and rhythm, in the same way that a musical composition would. This painting was of seminal influence and is one of the works on loan from the State Russian Museum in St Petersburg.

Although Kandinsky was the first artist to break into abstraction in its most extreme form (his first abstract painting was in 1910), many of his fellow countrymen who had stayed in Russia were not far behind. For example, the artist Mikhail Larionov painted his first abstract work in 1911. Also, Robert Delaunay and Frank Kupka in Paris found their way to abstraction quite independently of the Russians. By 1915, the movement was well under way and in this exhibition there are many examples of painting that functions like music in its capacity to express emotion through pure form and colour.

Kasimir Malevich's Suprematism of 1915 (see top image) is one such painting that is part of this exhibition. Constructed of geometric shapes, it creates a painterly rhythm, as the shapes and colours clash and interact with one another.

Schoenberg: Red Gaze
The paintings and sculptures of the Russian painter-composers Mikhail Matiushin and Piotr Miturich are also represented in the exhibition, as are many paintings by Schoenberg himself. Such works demonstrate the way the fruitful interaction between music and painting influenced the arts at the turn of the century, Schoenberg's development of atonal music, for example, coincided with his experiments with painting. Paintings such as the Red Gaze of 1910 show how original his visual works were for the time.

A friendship of rule-breaking

Still Life-Musical Instruments
This exhibition is far more than a presentation of paintings, however, as it is also a re-telling of stories.

One of these is the story of the relationship between Kandinsky and Schoenberg (told by means of a computer generated slide show), and the remarkable aesthetic congruence that is revealed by their letters. The simultaneous discovery of atonal music and abstract art is revealed in the story of the friendship between these two men, a friendship that led to Schoenberg's visit to St Petersburg in 1912, where he conducted his orchestral tone poem Pelleas and Melisande at the invitation of Tchaikovsky's pupil, Aleksander Siloti.

Christiniija Fjord
For visitors to the exhibition, there is also an audio tape available which tries to bring together the arts of music and painting by making comparisons between specific works of music and paintings in the exhibition. Thus, one is led to stand before Kandinsky's Impression 111, whilst the music of Schoenberg, which inspired Kandinsky's painting, is played on the tape.

Perhaps the most interesting story of all is that told by the paintings themselves, as they are grouped together in the rooms of the Schoenberg Centre as a demonstration of the rich network of artistic friendships and professional influences that stretched from Paris, across Europe and beyond, to Russia.

Portrait of Arthur Lourié
Paintings such as Nadezhda Udalzova's Still Life-Musical Instruments of 1915 echoes the work of Braque and Picasso, as does also Liubov Popova's Objects of 1915. Both artists studied in Paris under Henri Le Fauconnier and Jean Metzinger, between 1912 and 1913. A work by Vladimir Baranov-Rossine, Christiniija Fjord of 1915, is reminiscent of the brightly coloured style of French Orphism, that of Sonia Delaunay-Terk, for example.

There are echoes of Matisse in the economical linear style of Piotr Miturich's portrait of Arthur Lourié (1915) and the more abstract Composition - Peasant painted by Aleksander Naumov in 1920.

Jawlensky: Lola
Artists such as Pavel Filonov, whose White Painting (1919) and Flowers of the Universal Blooming (1915) reveal the results of the kind of preoccupation with the relationship between sound and colour that inspired Kandinsky. In this case, the canvas is covered in a rhythmic mass of carefully synchronised segments of colour, as are the works of Boris Ender, also represented in the exhibition. Colour is also an important feature of the expressively painted heads that Alexei von Jawlensky (a Russian member of the Blaue Reiter in Munich) worked on between 1911 and 1913.

Painting music

Ekster: Non-Objective
At every turn, as one walks around the rooms of the Schoenberg Centre, there is in the work of most of these artists the evidence of a quest for the synthesis of the arts: the Russian artist Vladimir Baranov-Rossine's invention of the colour-audio piano; Aleksandra Ekster's search for an analogy of colour and music, painterly line and musical rhythm in her Non-Objective Composition (1917/18); Boris Ender's colour-musical constructions in his abstract paintings; Nikolai Kulbin's article "Free Music" in Der Blaue Reiter Almanach and the musicality of his pointillist paintings; the interest in "colour music" demonstrated in the work of Nicolas Benois, for example his Fantasy in the Spirit of Čurlionis (c 1920), which has a "melodic" construction in which sign images repeat across the canvas in the manner of the symphonic compositions of the Lithuanian composer.

White Painting
Also in this exhibition is the Schoenberg Centre's own collection of the composer's stage sets for Erwartung and Die Glückliche Hand, which are attempts at a synthesis of music and drama with the visual elements of shape and colour, all of which aim to express the same "inner sound."

As Schoenberg wrote to Kandinsky during the most intensive period of their aesthetic collaboration, "Every formulation that strives for traditional effects is not completely free of conscious acts. But art belongs to the unconscious!"

With all the works shown in this exhibition, wherever they were painted, it is the attempt to allow art to spring from the well of the "unconscious" and by-pass the logic and reason of reference and representation that unifies the various styles, groups and nationalities that are represented here.

Sue Bagust, 24 April 2000

Other articles of interest:

Moving on:

More information:

The catalogue that accompanies the exhibition has an extensive collection of essays and is illustrated fully with all the paintings in the exhibition.

It is available from:

The Arnold Schoenberg Centre
Zaunergasse 1
1030 Vienna
The catalogue also forms the Journal of the Arnold Schoenberg Centre, Vol. 1/2000

Further information is available from the Centre's web site.


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