Andreas Whittam Smith: The genius of an artist always in the wrong time and place

'He found himself in front of a painting of "indescribable and incandescent beauty" '
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The Independent Online

If you have still to take your summer break, and if you have not been dissuaded from going to the South of France by exaggerated tales of traffic chaos, then I have a recommendation to make, the Fondation Maeght, an art gallery on top of a hill outside Saint-Paul near Vence.

For my family, this has long been a place of holiday pilgrimage. The building is a rare example of pleasing 1960s architecture. The garden is full of sculpture by Miro; its strange and wonderful forms often combined with running water. In a south facing courtyard, generally drenched with sun, stand half a dozen Giacometti figures, tall and lean. And in the summer there is always a special exhibition.

This year it is the Russian pioneer of abstract painting, Kandinsky (until 10 October). This is an artist for whom a retrospective exhibition is particularly valuable because most of his work is now distributed between five widely dispersed cities, St Petersburg, Moscow, Munich, Paris and New York.

Kandinsky was always in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was born in Moscow and was at school in Odessa, but it was not until he was 30 years old that he decided to study art. He went to Munich where he lived until 1914 when the Czar's declaration of war on Germany sent him, a Russian subject, scurrying back to Moscow. He worked there through the Bolshevik upheavals. As he said: "I saw the revolution from my windows".

He was out of sympathy with the new Russian avant-garde, was financially ruined and lived with great difficulty. But curiously, when in 1921 he asked the Russian authorities for permission to leave and return to Germany, no objection was made. The following year, he joined the reforming art movement the Bauhaus, and taught in its school at Weimar until the hostility of the town council forced the group to move to Dessau. Later, Kandinsky even acquired German citizenship, but after the Nazis came to power in 1933, Goering closed down the Bauhaus and Kandinsky fled to France. In 1939 he became a French citizen, only to see the Germans march in a few months later. He died outside Paris in 1944.

In the exhibition you occasionally find some reflection of the terrible events through which Kandinsky lived. There is a canvas painted in 1912, containing scarcely any figurative elements, which nonetheless powerfully suggests confrontation and struggle. Some profess to see in the l'arc noir, to give the picture its title, a reference to the type of yoke traditionally used to harness cavalry horses in Russia.

In August 1933, immediately after Goering's order, Kandinsky made a wholly abstract painting in geometric forms which has also been read as a reference to political developments. Running vertically down the middle of the picture, between circles and rectangles in shades of brown, a bit like sliding doors, can be glimpsed a central zone of brightly striped triangles, one on top of the other, all on a white background. Does this represent hope – or, as you could equally say, the narrowing space for liberty?

These elusive relationships were not, however, the main reason why I enjoyed the exhibition so much. For just as I am forever fascinated by the stages in the journey from figurative painting to Cubism made by Picasso and Braque between 1900 and 1914, so I was equally enthralled to follow Kandinsky's route during the same years, though he ended up in pure abstraction.

One day in 1908 Kandinsky was going into his studio deep in thought. Abruptly he found himself in front of a painting of "indescribable and incandescent beauty". Astonished, he stopped and stared. "The painting had no subject, it represented no recognisable object, it was solely composed of luminous patches of colour. Finally I went up to it and it was only then that I saw what it really was – on the easel was my own canvas placed on its side." From this Kandinsky drew a stark conclusion that was to determine the rest of his work: "objectivity, the description of objects, they would have no place in my work. They were harmful".

The pictures I enjoyed most in the exhibition were all painted in that year, 1908 – Mountain landscape with a village, Castle courtyard, Houses and Houses in the marketplace. The colours are intense, distinct and often shimmering as if in a heat haze. These are nearly the last predominantly figurative painting that Kandinsky would attempt. But for me the still visible structure of familiar objects seems to give the colour even more power than would the abstract shapes, and then the geometric constructions, that were to dominate Kandinsky's art after that momentous year.

If I haven't yet convinced you that the Fondation Maeght show is worth a visit, there is one more consideration. The excellent Colombe d'Or restaurant, with the prettiest outside dining in the whole of the Riviera, is five minutes walk away. The Fondation Maeght followed by lunch: what a perfect way to spend a holiday morning.