Christie’s Impressionist and Modern Sale Has This Kandinsky
There’s a cliche in the auction business about work that is “fresh to market” always doing well. This Kandinsky, Studie zu Improvisation 3, has been in the same family for 85 years. How’s that for fresh? The Guardian offers this review of a new book about Kandinsky:
The book’s co-editor, Annegret Hoberg, maintains that Kandinsky is the last century’s finest painter after Picasso. “The reason you can see Kandinsky in hotel rooms everywhere is because he has a universality in his painterly language, people understand it. He found new levels of sense and meaning in art via abstraction, he had inner vision.”
After the jump, we’ve condensed the catalogue entry where Christie’s experts make a case for painting’s seminal position in the transition from figurative to abstract art. That explains the $15-20 million estimate and Christie’s feeling that they’ll sell the picture in that range. (By the way, the image doesn’t do the painting justice.)
A momentous time it was–in 1909, the year in which Kandinsky painted Studie zu Improvisation 3, fauvism had already fanned the fires of expressionism in Germany, Matisse had painted the first version of La danse, and Parisians were puzzling over the appearance of “petites cubes” in the paintings of Picasso and Braque. A few visionary pioneers–Kupka, Mondrian, Delaunay and Kandinsky–were setting out, tentatively at first, each on his own path, towards abstract, non-objective painting. [ . . . ] The Improvisations were in fact his starting point, the very means by which he began to radically alter the form and content of modern art. He painted eight numbered Improvisations during 1909, and more than two dozen others would follow before the war. [ . . . ] Improvisation 1 is known today only from a drawing (illustrated in Roethel and Benjamin, no. 271). mprovisation 2 (Roethel and Benjamin, no. 274; fig. 4) shows a procession of figures and a rider on white horse; it is subtitled Trauermarsch (“Funeral march”). The space in this and all of the other Improvisations done in 1909 is very shallow and stage-like–the flattened natural forms in the background are like stage sets [ . . . ] A study preceded Improvisation 2 (Roethal and Benjamin, no. 273; Städische Galerie, Munich) at approximately half the dimensions of the final version. The same is true for Improvisation 3 (Roethel and Benjamin, no. 276; fig. 5)–the present painting is the smaller Studie for it.[ . . . ] Both Improvisations 2 and 3 include a horse and rider. This subject appears in scores of other paintings by the artist, beginning with the famous Der blaue Reiter, 1903 (Roethel and Benjamin, no. 82; fig. 6), the name which Kandinsky later gave to the artists’ association he founded with Franz Marc in 1911. [ . . . ] While the veiled figures and simplified natural motifs in the Improvisations and other paintings during this period are usually not difficult to pick out and decipher, the narrative in these works, on the other hand, is frequently obscure and not easy–or sometimes even impossible–to follow. The horseman and figures, and especially the fortress-like structure surrounded by a moat, in Studie zu Improvisation 3 (the larger final version shows no significant additions) might have come out the Middle Ages, but the tell-tale sign here is the rearing horse, which is pale blue-green. This is the color of the fourth horse in the Seven Seals of the Apocalypse, the Revelation to Saint John the Divine. Readers of the King James version will not find mention of this color, which is in the original Greek and would have been known to Kandinsky, a reader of the Russian Orthodox New Testament. This color was restored in the English New Revised Standard Version, which follows. The horses of the first three seals were white, red and black. According to John:
“When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature call out, “Come!” I looked and there was a pale green horse! Its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed with him, they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, famine and pestilence, and by the wild animals of the earth” (7.7)
As Rose-Carol Washton Long has noted in her comprehensive and illuminating study of Kandinsky’s early abstract works, the Apocalypse of Saint John was widely read in Russia during the early years of the 20th century, especially in the wake of the abortive Revolution of 1905, when many artists, writers and other members of the intelligentsia came to believe that another, even more convulsive cataclysm was inevitable [ . . . ] From 1910 onward, the progression of Kandinsky’s painting was like the opening of the Seven Seals, one by one, as he persisted in his messianic quest to purge all that was superfluous and extraneous–that is, all remaining evidence of materialism–from his art. He continued to strip down and veil his imagery, employing his idea of hidden construction, to the point where the object, though still relevant, became virtually unrecognizable. In certain paintings of 1912, Kandinsky completed the process of de-materializing the object, having transformed it into a purely pictorial presence, which nonetheless carried the weight of strong feeling and profound emotion . These we recognize to be his first great non-objective, abstract works.