Visual Arts: First, but not among equals

Kandinsky is considered the founder of abstract art. So why does so much of his work look derivative? By Tom Lubbock
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One night, Wassily Kandinsky went into his Munich studio and noticed an unfamiliar picture. It was a weird, unrecognisable image, but it seemed to him "of extraordinary beauty, glowing with an inner radiance". It was, in fact, one of his own pictures, which happened to have been placed upside down. But it was this experience that revealed to Kandinsky the power of abstract art. And soon he was doing some of the first abstract pictures there ever were.

Not quite the very first. But, like all originating moments, the "first abstract picture" is a grey area-cum -red herring. Questions of priority get lost in questions of definition. There are several candidates. It depends what you mean by abstract (or by picture). And in the nature of things, it's not even clear what was Kandinsky's own first abstract. But the turning point is about 1910-11, when brightly coloured figures-in- a-landscape become brightly coloured something elses.

The change occurs in the first room of Kandinsky: Watercolours and other Works on Paper, at the Royal Academy, a pretty comprehensive survey of the artist's career, and his first retrospective in Britain. Kandinsky was in his mid-forties. He wasn't just one of the great originals, he was one of the great late-starters. Born in Russia in 1866, he was 30 years old before - bowled over by a Monet - he abandoned a law career to go to art school in Germany. For a decade he did folksy-fairylandish images. He got a bit of Fauvism. He founded the Expressionist Blue Rider movement with Franz Marc. Then he made the big development.

Why? With hindsight, we tend to take Kandinsky's (or anyone's) move to abstraction too much for granted - as if abstraction was an obviously profitable modern art option, just waiting to be taken up by some forward- looking artist. And we praise the artists who made the advance, without asking for further explanation or justification. But the step needs a bit more motivation; a bit more content. The tale of the upside-down picture was no doubt true, but hardly the whole story.

The embarrassing truth is that, like quite a lot of modern art, Kandinsky's abstraction begins in mumbo-jumbo. He was a follower of Madame Blavatsky's Theosophy and Rudolph Steiner's Anthroposophy. He believed in auras and "thought-forms". He was interested in, may well have possessed, the faculty of synaesthesia, where one sense sets the others off (sounds visualised, colours felt, etc). He understood shapes and colours to have specific moods and meanings. And so, for Kandinsky, a non-representational picture wasn't an arrangement of pure forms. It was a very direct sort of soul music.

Kandinsky was himself a great explainer and justifier. He expounded his idea in works such as On the Spiritual in Art, which, if they weren't major documents of modern art, would plainly qualify as crank pamphletry. Of course, this doesn't really matter - not because the theory is irrelevant to the art (it's integral), but because you can't do anything with it. I mean, a mediumistic critic might come forward to assure us that a particular Kandinsky, for example, was an excellent rendering of a particular "thought- form"; or again, a very poor one. But this judgement is beyond most viewers. Besides, a likeness isn't everything. You have to take them, as best you can, as pictures.

Which is a pity. For, giving all due honour to Kandinsky as an inaugurator, I think you have to admit that the pictures are not much good, and indeed, often pretty hopeless. What's odder is that it's actually very doubtful how many of those abstractions are strictly speaking abstract. And connected to that, what's odder still is that this founder looks like an imitator. Nobody had done quite this sort of picture before, but the way the pictures fail suggests a follower-on who can't get the trick.

Abstraction? Well, take the breakthrough images from 1910 to 1916 (the First World War compelled Kandinsky to return to Russia). Most of them, seen at a distance, would certainly pass for figurative. Their overall structure says landscape: fantastical, visionary, convulsive landscape to be sure, but a definite scene all the same. Coming close, you see that some of them are indeed just what you expected, with details of hills, figures, clouds and creatures appearing clearly.

With the rest, the majority, this doesn't happen - but it seems to be only a gratuitous suppression of specifics, in images that evidently want to be landscapes like the others. Turn any of these upside down, and upside down is what they look.

Even in details, Kandinsky can barely control his figurative impulse. If that squiggle or that blot isn't some sort of critter, it's only by a wilful insistence that, technically, it shall count as non-representational. Abstraction here isn't an independent pictorial world: instead, it's a kind of pedantry.

Nothing wrong with that, as such. It's not the usual story, but half- way abstraction is perfectly fine. It only seems a problem because it fits in with other doubts about Kandinsky's abstract talents. To put it bluntly, he simply can't do energy and he can't do tension.

There's an "Untitled" and maybe unfinished drawing from about 1915, which is interesting because it labours so hard to be free and spontaneous, and bares only the marks of this labour. It's a concatenation of wandering jerks which declare: "I'm doing this drawing - and I really don't know what kind of stroke I'm going to do next - oh look, there goes one over there - and there's another, completely different - all right, not completely - have another shot." It's like a failed seance, the artist's hand making itself available too, just begging for some "automatic" supernatural guidance that never actually arrives.

Kandinsky spoke of a lot of "inner necessity" as the crucial ingredient of art. It's precisely what his pictures never have. His signature is the hesitant dash, the guarded fling. True, a drawing can make weakness and uncertainty into something wonderful. Back in Germany following the Russian Revolution, Kandinsky did some outer-spacey etchings in the series Small Worlds (1922), where he seems to be onto this, deliberately de- energising and anti-climaxing his compositions, and I think they're the best things. Weakness is his forte.

But mostly at this time he can't resist the whiz-pow, criss-cross crash of forces which die of feebleness and fussiness. Like a doodler, he adds bits until the composition is, if not filled, at least neutralised, evened out - perhaps a compensation for the lack of definition in the individual constituent parts.

And in the years working at the Bauhaus in the Twenties, using more and more geometrical components, he resorts to what are no much more than pretty patterns - pleasant, balanced, blandly colourful arrangements of stencils, which often make a most unfortunate use of the recently invented airbrush. Strange that these should be the works of an artist who had quasi-messianic aspirations for his art, seeing it as part of a great spiritual regeneration. The late work done in Paris takes neatness and blandness a notch further.

In modern art, we operate a kind of patent law. We generally expect the artist who did it first to be the artist who did it best. We presume that imitations will be pale. Often that's true, but with Kandinsky it's not true. He makes you think of quite a few other artists, abstract and not - Malevich, say, or Mir. But if you didn't know the chronology, going simply from strength, you might well guess that copying them was what started him off. His standing is ambiguous: important, crucial as a foreunner; tedious, minor as practitioner. Or put it another way: he was a father that nobody had to kill.

Kandinsky: Watercolours and Other Works on Paper, Royal Academy, London W1, daily to 4 July