A powerful ferment attends the turn of centuries. The period from 1890 to 1914 was what the Germans call a "Blumenzeit," a time when artistic creation bloomed like flowers in a wet and warm spring.
The Austrians called it "Vers Sacrum," the sacred spring. Its brilliant sun and warm breezes aroused creative furor in France and Belgium as well, after an earlier stirring in England and Scotland. Later shoots came up in Finland and Italy, with a few sprouts in the United States. The style, deriving its inspiration from nature, folk art, epics, Oriental and primitive art, was called Art Nouveau, Jugendstil, Secession, Stile Liberte'. It broke free of the derivative "neo" styles of the past and eventually became the mother of Modern.
Now New York's Guggenheim Museum has organized a massive show of 339 paintings and objects made in Munich between 1896 and 1914. The exhibit is remarkable for an art museum because it combines a retrospective of the pioneer abstract painter Vasily Kandinsky with an equally important collection of work by his contemporaries. The show evokes not only a man, but also his friends, his mistress, his time, his city.
The show juxtaposes paintings against Jugendstil graphic and decorative objects, the glory of the period: embroidery, furniture, ceramics, and decorative objects by Kandinsky and other artists. These works show the unity of the movement throughout all of art, the effort to make beautiful every object one sees or touches.
In 1930, Kandinsky, then the color and painting teacher at the Bauhaus, looked back on Munich, andespecially the artists' quarter of Schwabing, which he had discovered in 1896.
In a letter quoted in the exhibit, he describes Schwabing as "comical, rather eccentric and self-conscious," the sort of place "in whose streets a person--be it man or women . . . without a palette or without a canvas or without at least a portfolio, immediately attracted attention."
Everyone, he said, "painted . . . or made poetry or music, or began to dance. In every house one found at least two ateliers under the roof, where sometimes not so much was painted, but where always much was discussed, disputed, philosophized and diligently drunk (which was more dependent on the state of the pocketbook than on the state of morals).
" 'What is Schwabing?' a Berliner once asked in Munich.
" 'It is the northern part of the city,' said a Munchner.
" 'Not a bit,' said another, 'it is a spiriual state.' Which was more correct. Schwabing was a spiritual island in the great world. . .
"There I lived for many years, there I painted the first abstract picture. There I concerned myself with thoughts about 'pure' painting, pure art. I soughtto succeed analytically, to discover synthetic connections, dreamed of the coming great synthesis, feltmyself forced to share my ideas not only with the surrounding island but with people beyond this island . . . "
This creative spirit planted seed in all forms of artistic endeavor. The essential unity of the arts was its rallying cry. All artistists were brothers and sisters in the faith. Artists designed furniture, embroidery, stage sets. Architects fashioned dresses and silver-handled canes. painters wrote plays. Embroidery designers turned to sculpture. Dancing, music, costumes, theater, architecture, decorative arts, all were seen as a manifestation of a single gift from the gods.
Thomas M. Messer, director of the Guggenheim, notes in the show's handsome and scholarly catalogue that Kandinsky is the Guggenheim's patron saint. The Guggenheim owns 130 works by Kandinsky, more than it has by any other artist. It also exhibits Kandinsky more. Its original name (1937-52) was the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, and "among the artists who provided the basis for a designation derived from this stylistic attribute, Kandinsky was pre-eminent."
Messer, walking through the exhibit recently, pointed out that it was during this early period that Kandinsky crossed the bridge between ornament and abstraction. "He was not pushing to abstraction . . . His painting was not without ornament or meaning. Painting always had a subject. To take it out was a strain."
In this spirit, Messer has included some of the objects that influenced Kandinsky: an Aztec figure from Mexico, a sculpture from the Cameroons, a dance mask from Ceylon, an Easter Island ancestor figure, a New Caledonia mask. In the same way, Kandinsky included folk art and primitive objects in his famous art book, "Almanach der Blaue Reiter," in the spring of 1912.
Kandinsky began as a law professor at the University of Moscow in his native Russia. He was well-educated and well-traveled. He'd seen folk art with intense colors and strong designs in the peasants' homes in northern Russia, and the subtle color and light in Rembrandt's paintings at St. Petersburg and the wonders of the world's fair in Paris.
In 1895 he began to design chocolate box covers for a printing firm.
In 1896 something happened that caused him to desert his wife, his family and his country: He saw Monet's "Haystack in the Sun." He realized then the possibilities of abstract painting. Almost immediately he left for Munich.
In the Munich artistic firmament, Kandinsky enrolled in an academic, traditional school, but after hours he painted on his own in a freer style, as shown by some nude sketches in the show. A charming traditional nude by Azbe shows what Kandinsky was rebelling against.
In 1900, after being rejected by the Munich Academy, Kandinsky became a member of the atelier of Jugendstil artist Franz Stuck, who is well-remembered for the wonderfully decadent nude painting called "Sin." The woman's face is shadowed, but her breasts and navel are highlighted. Stuck's poster for an art show in 1897 is a remarkable example of a Teutonic Revival Figure and modern lettering. Stuck was a man of parts. His villa was an art environment itself and he designed fanciful furniture for it. His oil on wood of himself and his wife show them as handsome, romantic types.
In 1901, Kandinsky founded the Phalanx, a society of artists, and subsequently a school. One of his pupils was Gabriele Mu nter, who became his mistress for the rest of his Munich stay.
Kandinsky's poster for its first show portrays two military forms ready for battle standing between Doric columns. It is a typically Jugendstil illustration. In 1902, he exhibited designs for ceramics, jewelry and embroidery. It is amusing to think of the fierce abstractionist designing a pocketbook showing two la-See KANDINSKY, G11, Col. 1 KANDINSKY, From G10 dies in a park. He also painted the charming "Walled City in Autumn Landscape," a romantic, almost childlike, painting with a castle and rolling hills.
But most important was a 1901 tempera called "Twilight." The knight on a white horse is galloping toward his destiny. In this period, he was still very much of a Jugendstil artist, with the strong, yet stylized forms more illustrative than painterly. But by 1903, his "Trumpet Blowing Rider" has escaped from the hard lines and begun to move toward abstraction.
A charming set of paintings show Kandinsky painting Mu nter painting a landscape, and vice versa.
In 1904, he wrote to Mu nter, "it is ready within me and it must find expression . . . every nerve vibrates, music rings in my whole body and God is in my heart."
Meanwhile, Jugendstil was the style rampant. The vitality of the movement sweeps through the Wrightian spiral of the Guggenheim. Appropriately, work by Hermann Obrist in the exhibit could well have influenced Frank Lloyd Wright's design of the museum. These are a sketch,"Yet longer beneath," and two plaster sculptures, "Motion Study" and "Sketches for a Monument."
Hermann Obrist opened an embroidery studio in Munich in 1894. The Guggenheim is to be congratulated for exhibiting 13 of his works, ranging from pencil sketches to pieces of sculpture. The wonderful sketches are all line and form. The "Whiplash," a flatstitch embroidery on wool, is beautiful abstract line; the "Twisted Bough with Branch and Flaming Blossom" is enough to set a soul on fire. Much more scholarly and critical attention should be paid to this overlooked master.
Obrist may be the only embroidery designer who inspired a building. Photographs of August Endell's Hoftelier Elvira are worth the trip to New York or at least the purchase of the catalogue. The photographic studio was designed in 1896-97 in a fantastic webby, winged creepy-crawly style full of whiplash curves and twining tendrils, all based on Obrist's embroidery designs.
Obrist once designed embroidery panels for a model room which had furniture by Richard Reimerschmid. A chair from that room is in the show. Chairs by Endell are also included, as is a candelabra by Gertraud Schnellenbu hel of silver plated brass. To see it is to know Art Nouveau.
By contrast to those sophisticated and beautiful objects are Vasily Kandinsky's furniture from 1911-13. The childlike folk decorations are executed on rustic pine furniture. But here we see the Blue Rider, the heroic motif of the knight who slays dragons, galloping through the decorations and the painted wood plaques.
In the next years Kandinsky traveled, and for several summers he and Mu nter lived an idyllic life in several small villages. When they went back to Munich, he began to write his "Klange," a sequence of prose poems, and made a series of related woodcuts. In the next few years he painted in oil tempera, sometimes mixed with glues, plaster, eggshells, clay. Most of the work in this time are again of the mysterious horse-and-rider and some costume works.
But the painting becomes more and more abstracted, flatter, more ornamental than natural. In several works, notably "The Night" and "Riding Couple" (both 1907), the figures are composed of colored dots and specks.
In 1909, Kandinsky formed the NKVM asssociation (New Artists Association Munich). He began to paint "Improvisations." In these works, the subject matter begins to blur, and the brilliant globs of color set in heavy lines blot out all the identifiable detail. "Improvisation VI (African)" from this year is on the cover of the catalogue. The painting burns into the viewer's eyes like an after-image.
Mu nter bought a house in Murnau for the two of them. And Kandinsky began to write theatrical presentations, including "The Yellow Sound." A painting of 1908 called "White Sound" is composed of dots and brushes of almost ice cream colors.
The famous Blaue Reiter exhibition opened in December 1911. The almanac appeared with its illustrations, essays and even music (by Arnold Schonberg and Alban Berg).
In the years between 1911 and 1913, Kandinsky moved ever closer, as the exhibit calls it, to "the edge of abstraction." His Blue Rider, which can be easily identified in the 1911 "Small Pleasures," is only a splash of paint in the "Small Pleasures" of 1913. He made "Color Studies," squares and circles of pure color. He painted "Black Lines" in which sunbursts of red, blue, green and yellow are violated by black scribbles. "With Three Riders" and "Painting with White Border" show he had freed himself from the clinging confines of form. All that was left was color and line bursting like comets and novas on the universe of art.
In 1914, as the war began, he and Mu nter left for Switzerland. In a few months, Kandinsky left, alone, for Russia.
"Kandinsky in Munich: 1896-1914," is open at the Guggenheim Museum through March 21. The show goes to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art from April 22 to June 20, and to the Stadtische Galerie in Lenbachhaus, Munich, from Aug. 17 to Oct. 17. The Guggenheim plans to mount two more Kandinsky exhibitions, centering around his later years in Moscow, at the Bauhaus and in Paris.
The artist died in Neuilly, France, in 1944.