Blue Riders

Posted on Thursday, July 07, 2011, under , ,

Last Friday’s visit to Kandinsky retrospective at ‘Hyogo Bijutsukan’, which revolved around his Blue Rider period (1911-14), made me reread extracts from his essay published in the Blaue Reiter Almanac (1912), which in turn were reproduced in Modernism: An Anthology of Sources and Documents (one of the few theory books I shipped from UK to Japan nine years ago).

For the uninitiated, the Blue Rider was a coterie of artists, a movement of sorts, including among others, Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Gabriele Münter, August Macke, Jawlensky, Schoenberg. The group published an Almanac and held two exhibitions (WW1 cut the movement short). Kandinsky's writing on the problem of form in The Blue Rider Almanac is considered as one of the first and best defences as well as promotions of abstract art, his ideas quickly catching up especially in the English speaking world. Here are a couple of extracts from the Almanac:

If the reader is able to free himself for a while from his own wishes, his own thoughts, his own feelings and skims through this book, going from a votive picture to Delaunay, from Cezanne to a Russian folk print, from a mask to Picasso, from a glass painting to Kubin, etc., etc., then his soul will experience many vibrations and he will enter into the world of art. Here he will not be bothered by outrageous defects or aggravating errors. Instead he will experience a spiritual plus instead of a minus. 


The artist, whose life is comparable to a child’s in many respects, frequently can reach the inner sound more easily than anyone else. In this respect it is especially interesting to see how the composer Arnold Schönberg paints — simply and confidently. As a rule he is interested only in the inner sound. He omits, without regard, all embellishments and refinements and ‘poorest’ form in his hands becomes the richest (his self-portrait, for example).


In order to ‘understand’ [an abstract] picture the same liberation as in realism is necessary, i.e., here too one must learn to hear the whole world exactly as it is without any representational interpretation. And in such work abstract forms (lines, planes, spots etc.) are not important as such, but only as inner sound, as life.

For Kandinsky it seems colours and sound are one, or at least interchangeable. Schoenberg ‘paints’ with his music, and in turn music permeates abstract art. Kandinsky, himself an accomplished musician — he learned the piano and cello at an early age — claimed that when he saw colour he heard music. He even went as far as associating colour tone with timbre, hue with pitch, and saturation with the volume of sound!

Kandinsky incorporated musicality early on in his pointillistic works, employing mottled dots and blobs of colour. One such work was on display at Hyogo Gallery: Russian Beauty in a Landscape (1905), through which, in Kandinsky’s own words, he tried to ‘express the musical spirit of Russia’. These referential qualities, as we know, are gone once Kandinsky embraces abstraction: the later paintings are left to their own, self-referential, vibratory devices (or the lack of them). I stayed with one such painting — Composition VII — for some time and the experience was rewarding as I was able to draw out a host of ‘small pleasures’ from the lines and shapes dancing, floating, hovering, rebounding or blending into each other.

But no matter how invigorating Kandinsky’s abstract work may be, I think one should be always on guard against the overinterpretation, careful not to ‘overstay’ a painting’s welcome. One of the pleasures of abstract painting, after all, is that you can always come back to it and detect musical intricacies anew. Actually, I’ll be totally honest here: the main reason I went to the exhibition (it took me good two hours by train in one direction) was to see Paul Klee’s painting Cacti (1912). Or let’s put it this way: if it hadn’t been for Klee I doubt I would have gone. Yes, it is all to do with my fixation with the plant, with the fact it was painted by my current painting hero, and of course with the title of this blog.

I was immediately attracted to Klee’s cactussen for their subdued colours, the picture unusually dark for such prickly, palpable species, as if saying ‘don’t waste time on me, I am obviously not that special’. Yet the more I looked at the painting the more I got convinced there was more to it than just the sinister-looking pots — who can tell for sure what those teeth-like projections inside the middle pot are? And where is the blinking cactus in that one?! Isn’t it altogether missing? It made me feel a bit disconcerted at the time. Days later I came across this anecdote which, I felt, almost vindicated my previous ignorance. In 1895 Kandinsky saw Monet’s Haystacks at Giverny, after which experience he later stated: "It was from the catalogue I learned this was a haystack. I was upset I had not recognized it. I also thought the painter had no right to paint in such an imprecise fashion. Dimly I was aware too that the object did not appear in the picture..." (

I was also happy to see a number of paintings by Kandinsky’s friends from the Blue Rider group — Münter, Macke, Jawlensky. One that struck me in particular was Gabriele Münter’s Jawlensky, Werefkin (1908-9), in which she paints the couple in a leisurely yet rather enigmatic pose while resting upon the green hillside. One is never completely sure as to the nature of their current sentiment — whether they are in love, or upset with each other, plain indifferent, whatever. The blank faces and plain flowers may add to the feeling of tranquillity, but for me the absence of facial features only raises the emotional stakes in this kind of painting. And then there is that ominous-looking yellow bolt that splits the sky…

My tour ended some 90 minutes and three gallery rooms later, still enough to tire me out as I hardly could stand on my two feet. I ended up buying a Kandinsky A4 folder, a B2 Blue Rider poster (which now hangs in my room), and a ‘3D Stereo Viewer’. Kandinsky would have been proud. Well, I came across this telling anecdote related to the old man Kandinsky’s worsening eyesight (and some would say worsening art).

The year was 1944. Kandinsky had died on December 3rd of that year after coping with failing health since early March. By the summer his eyes had become almost permanently half-closed. After his death his widow Nina explained that he possessed the rare talent of being able to represent in his mind the world of his paintings with their colours and their forms, exactly as he later set them down on canvas. It has been suggested that these forms, their myriads of rings swimming across the surface of the work, were the effects of phosphenes that can be impressed on the eyeball when the eyes are closed. Towards the end of his life Kandinsky would have been painting what he was seeing with his eyes closed. That might suggest that he lost his grip on reality to some extent, but Nina says not.

‘I shut my eyes in order to see’, said Gauguin. Finally, do have a look at this cool kinetic Kandinsky. Who knows, this is how the man himself might have seen it with the help of those phosphenes.

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