It’s not often we see a single artist take center stage at the Frist. Kandinsky: A Retrospective celebrates the life and legacy of modern art master Wassily Kandinsky, displaying over 100 paintings, drawings, and photographs that chronicle four decades of Kandinsky’s life, from his earliest work to the last watercolor made in 1944, the year he died. Seeing this artist’s journey through two world wars, three countries, intense love, devastating heartbreak, financial hardship and international success is at once sobering and exhilarating.
Much of the exhibition is drawn from the collection of the Centre Pompidou, Paris, which houses heavy-hitter paintings like “Yellow-Red-Blue” (1925) to more obscure ephemera like Poems without Words – a rare book of Kandinsky’s engravings published in Russia in 1903. While some works by other artists are included – namely his first wife Gabrielle Münter and Blue Rider comrades Alexei Jawlensky and Franz Marc – the show focuses solely on the five distinct phases of Kandinsky’s artistic career.
The exhibition begins in 1896 when, at the age of thirty, Kandinsky moves to Munich and begins to experiment with the major styles of the time: Art Nouveau, Impressionism, Symbolism, Post-Impressionism. These works give viewers a sense of Kandinsky before he is “Kandinsky.”
The next gallery is dedicated to Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), an artist collective Kandinsky helped establish in 1911. He moves away from representational painting and starts to explore the symbolic potential of bright colors and simple geometrical forms. Music begins to play a major role in his work as well. He draws important connections between art, music, and spirituality. First editions of his seminal books Concerning the Spiritual in Art and The Blue Rider Almanac are on display along with photographs of the artist in his Munich apartment. Stunning paintings by his then-wife Gabriele Münter like “Portrait of a Young Woman” and “Portrait of Mrs. Olga von Hartmann” almost steal the spotlight. In “Boating”, arguably Münter’s most famous work, she paints herself into a telling portrait of Kandinsky.
In 1914, at the outset of World War I, Kandinsky relocates to Russia. He divorces Münter, marries his second wife, Nina, and grieves the death of their 3-year-old son. As the availability of canvas dwindles significantly during the war, he turns to ink and watercolor on paper. In the paintings made during this time a darker, saturnine palette supersedes the bright color scheme of his Blue Rider days.
A highlight of the exhibition is the Bauhaus gallery, which chronicles his years teaching at the famous German art school in the 1920s. In addition to expertly painted compositions, we get to see Kandinsky’s actual Bauhaus faculty I.D. and a knock-out group portrait of Kandinsky standing among fellow Bauhaus masters Josef Albers, László Moholy-Nagy, Paul Klee and Gunta Stölzl. Another black and white photograph shows the modernist dining room in Kandinsky’s apartment. In the photograph, “On White II” is shown hanging above his dining table. The painting hangs nearby on the Frist’s wall in full color.
To sum up such a colossal career in an exhibition must have been difficult, yet this retrospective managed to achieve a consistently compelling narrative and a happy ending. The exhibition signs off in Paris at the death of Kandinsky in 1944. His final works are joyful and light, suggesting a sense of peace and an air of calm. The last note is a happy one, and a satisfying end to the storied life of this most musical of painters.