Will Kandinsky Be Dethroned?

Will Kandinsky Be Dethroned?
The Moderna Museet in Stockholm sees Hilma af Klint as the first creator of an abstract picture - Annegret Hoberg of the Munich Lenbachhaus disagrees

Under the heading of “The Throne-Challenger,” the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper reported on a sensational discovery at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. They claim to have discovered that the world’s first abstract picture was not painted by Wassily Kandinsky in 1911; instead, the Swedish artist Hilma af Klint had already triggered the art revolution five years earlier. The museum is an extensive exhibition for 2013 “to put her on the map of art history as the creator of the first abstract picture of the Modern Age“ (FAZ). We spoke with Annegret Hoberg, who heads the department of the “Blue Rider” at Munich’s Lenbachhaus, about the announced throne toppling.

Später abstrakt? Kandinskys "Kleine Welten" von 1922

Später abstrakt? Kandinskys "Kleine Welten" von 1922

Ms. Hoberg, will it be necessary to rewrite art history due to the discoveries from Stockholm?

That remains to be seen. Hilma af Klint is not an unfamiliar name. Already in 1989, the Moderna Museet in Stockholm organised a major retrospective of this artist and published a competent catalogue. During the past twenty years, Hilma af Klint has been represented at almost every important exhibition that was related to occultism, Theosophy and the avant-garde.

But did she achieve pioneering work or not?

The question regarding the “first abstract picture” is asked on a regular basis every two years, mostly by laypeople and journalists. It is quite pointless to have a new answer each time. The question is always posed anew as to whether it was actually Adolf Hoelzel – who was active in the Dachau Artist Colony during Kandinsky’s time in Munich – or obviously Kupka, Mondrian, Malevich, Mikajolus Ciurlionis, Rudolf Steiner, Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater in the “abstract” drawings of their book on thought forms or – yes, she has actually already been acknowledged – Hilma af Klint. The last-mentioned personalities all belonged to the circle of Theosophy, which was actually well known as a fertile ground for abstract painting. This especially also applied to Kandinsky and Mondrian in their efforts to depict the “spiritual” in their art. Yet, Theosophy and its design phenomena was just one of the many “hotbeds,” and many criteria come together in the art that we call “abstract,” especially including a theoretical reflection, which was also called a historic differentiating characteristic in art history. Without this criterion, we could start using the term of “abstract” for Leonardo’s storm studies and the ink drawings of Victor Hugo and Odilon Redon and attempt to find the right of the first birth here, which has also been done with a tiring regularity.

So there have also been various paths to the abstract picture with very different characteristics. What makes Kandinsky’s work in this field of tension so significant?

We only need to look at the pictures. Kandinsky’s painting just does not have the same appearance as that of Malevich, Archipenko or Delaunay. He laid claim to a special path and did not follow the geometric abstraction. In the following period, he partially also rejected Russian Constructivism. His quality lies in the encoding and concealing of contents that still resonate as “(emotional) sound” in his forms and colours of the expressive abstraction before 1914. If we follow his path quite precisely, we see that he had achieved a style of painting with the autonomous artistic means – composed purely of colour and lines, which he had firmly formulated as the goal in his writings – in the works of 1913/14.

The article suggests that Kandinsky took a very assertive approach to his work and – as we know from art history – turned himself into a pioneer. Is this presumption correct?

For some years now, I have observed a certain knee-jerk automatism with which Kandinsky’s authorship of the “first abstract picture” is continually questioned. This form of throne toppling is dubious. It is apparently still a provocation that Kandinsky was one of the first artists to take action in a way that would be characteristic for all fine artists and artist groups of the avant-garde during the 20th century: He accompanied his work with writings and propagated it through exhibitions and group initiatives. Strangely enough, people now like to use this as an accusation. If he called himself the creator of the first abstract picture in a lexicon note of 1919, this was also related to his isolated position in the Soviet Union after the war and the revolution. The group around Malevich was not familiar with his Munich period. Inicidentally, the note mentioned by FAZ correctly states: “He painted his (not: the) first abstract picture in 1911.” When he came to the Bauhaus in the 1920s, Paul Klee overshadowed him by far as an abstract painter in the public reception. This is how the situation also remained after his death and up into the 1960s.

But is Hilma af Klint really the “throne-challenger” that the people from Stockholm would like her to be?

We will know this at the latest after the major exhibition of 2013. There is no doubt that she is an interesting artist with the courage for large-format painting. Her art is very closely associated with the Theosophical principles of her time. In two years, she will be measured against the incumbent gods of the modern age. I am curious about the comparison.

The interview was conducted by Ingolf Kern.

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