Episode 38: Wassily Kandinsky’s Untitled (1922)
One day I got a call from my mom, who was breathlessly excited to share with me the made-up Ikea names she and my stepdad had come up with over breakfast. It’s a sippy cup, she said, and it’s called SPILLN! And so on and so forth. This, of course, led to a long series of emails back and forth as we tried to one-up each other with names that fit the game, which obviously were equal parts faux-Swedish, descriptive of their task, and ridiculous. And if you don’t spend the kind of time at Ikea that I do, or at least that I used to when I was poor and needed both crappy furniture and a cheap night out, then you’ll never know the pleasure of those product names, and heck, even those products themselves. Sometimes you just need a thing to be exactly what it is. No less, no more. In fact, sometimes less is more.
This kind of efficient specificity is, as we all know, not only a central concern if you’re going to shop at Ikea, but if you’re going to dive into the art of the Bauhaus as well – without which, you might be interested to know, there would be no Ikea. The Bauhaus was an early 20th century Weimar German art school with a focus on industrial chic, mass production, and, most importantly, this sense of specific, streamlined efficiency, which means that we can talk about the Bauhaus all we want, and you still won’t really have a sense of what their output looks like unless, well, you stopped at an Ikea.
Because the Bauhaus, translated as “building house” or “school of building” since it was founded by a bunch of architects, is really more of a philosophy than an aesthetic, one that elevated itself into a century-defining ethos. And the core of this ethos is wonderfully German phrase, and my very favorite word in all of art history, gesamtkunstwerk. Its translation is as efficiently straightforward as the Bauhaus itself: gesam meaning total and kunstwerk meaning artwork. A total work of art. The idea that art on a wall is harmonious with the design of the furniture, which itself is attuned to the walls themselves. The gesamtkunstwerk of the Bauhaus became an immersive experience, where everything from the curve of your kitchen faucet to the typography of your books has been created with efficient aesthetic intention.
But the thing is: the intention is consistent; the aesthetic is not. With the exception of the iconic glass and steel sleekness of the Bauhaus architecture, there’s nothing particularly stylistically consistent as you move from a Bauhaus chair to a Bauhaus faucet to, here, an artistic Bauhaus print. Because when your point is to be the most efficient aesthetic for any one object, you’re kind of at the mercy of the object. So any plan for a style that cuts across the movement, say, the gaudy pastel arabesques of Rococo, or the short, luminous brushstrokes of Impressionism, the kind of style that says oh! It’s that movement – kind of goes out the floor-to-ceiling glass window that you might find in a home designed by a Bauhaus architect. And this lack of a cohesive aesthetic becomes an aesthetic ethos all its own. It’s the art of lack of artistry, tossed aside in favor of efficiency, the fastest way to get to where you’re going without decoration getting in the way. Consider, for example, Helvetica, which could be described as the perfect Bauhaus font. It’s remarkable for how purely unremarkable it is. Its claim to fame is its straightforward sleekness, its flow, its lack of tooth. None of those pesky serifs slowing down your eye; no discernible personality distracting you from the content of the text. In other words, don’t Baskerville Old Face me with your Jane Austin, or try to oppress me with your Gothic Fraktur Blackletter. Nobody in the Bauhaus had time for that.
And why is this efficiency so important? Because it needs to become a gesamtkunstwerk. It needs to cross artistic boundaries to reflect all the arts: metalworking, cabinetmaking, typography, craft. In short, it needs to become design, the design of mass production. This is how they can turn, per the Bauhaus slogan, “art into industry,” how they can spend happy hours arguing out the tension between beauty and usefulness, how they can pare down aesthetics to their bare essentials as cleanly as possible. Clarity, clarity uber alles.
Okay, fine, but you’re looking at a little explosive piece of abstract confetti by Wassily Kandinsky. This frenzied print of colors and shapes harbors none of the clean efficiency we’ve just discussed, none of fellow Bauhaus instructor Mies van der Rohe’s less is more, form follows function architectural philosophy, or fellow instructor Marcel Breuer’s sleek, seamless, tubular steel chair. At least not at first glance it doesn’t. And maybe you don’t know much about Kandinsky, but a quick Google search will lead you to a painter who was a deeply emotive German Expressionist, who composed his paintings with the same improvisational styles as a jazz pianist, who was famous for writing a treatise titled “On the Spiritual in Art.” How does he fit into the sanserif, gleaming industrial chrome of the Bauhaus? How did Kandinsky and the Bauhaus even find each other?
To answer, we have to contend with both of their histories, and let’s start with a quick background of the Bauhaus itself. In 1919, the architect Walter Gropius founded the school in Weimar, having taken over the Grand-Ducal Saxon School of Arts and Crafts in 1915, and then merging it with the Weimar Academy of Fine Art. In its early stages, the school faculty was a kind of island of misfit toys, if those toys were an all-star invitation-only community of modernist artists from across the continent: Lyonel Feininger, El Lissitzky, Theo van Doesburg, Paul Klee, and Kandinsky, to name a few. And it’s fascinating how the duality between these two merged schools was present from the very beginning. Really, it was tension between the modern art that had been evolving in Germany since the turn of the 20th century, and where that art was going to go over the next decade – at least until the 1930s when all modern German art, the Bauhaus included, was stopped in its tracks, lumped together, and branded degenerate by the Nazis, and you can listen to that story in episode 9. But more specifically, the period when the Bauhaus was founded was the point at which German Expressionism, which had always defined itself as raw, expressive, immediate, and emotional, was moving towards the much more straightforward, even practical art of the Neue Sachlichkeit, or the New Objectivity. These artists, which included Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, George Grosz, and others, argued that, to be truly expressive, you basically need your art to be your real talk. There’s nothing romantic or navel-gazey about Weimar Germany and the angst that comes from having to live within it. And there’s no spare patience to parse through the emotional muck of romantic and navel-gazey subjectivity, no more than we have time to be slowed down by decorative fonts. Insomuch as a movement as subjective as Expressionism can be about the cold, hard facts of living, the artists of the New Objectivity made it happen.
Take, for example, Beckmann’s “Self Portrait in a Tuxedo” from 1927. He painted himself to be a Weimar caricature, a “captain of industry,” and the satirical pique wouldn’t have been lost on his contemporary Weimarians, any more than it is on us. He’s just standing there, ostensibly facing himself, given that it’s a self-portrait, but really facing us, challenging us, staring us down, a bored hand on his hip. He can stand here a long time, at least as long as we can, at least as long as his cigarette lasts. This is the definition of postwar, second wave German Expressionism. He’s German, and there’s no doubt that there’s expressiveness here, but it’s steely, confrontational, with meaning presented through a strikingly efficient vehicle. Less is indeed more.
And so you can understand why an architect like Gropius would have taking a shine to this new direction, why the straightforwardness of this kind of German painting would have spoken to his own efficient Bauhaus aims. So again, you’ll ask, where does a pre-World War One German Expressionist spiritualist like Kandinsky fit into this picture? And the answer is, in an indirect but surprisingly coherent way. And this is where we need to take a step back and follow Kandinsky’s trajectory from his own role embracing and evolving first wave German Expressionism to arrive into Gropius’ open arms as a faculty member at the Bauhaus.
Wassily Kandinsky was born in Moscow in 1866, and after playing the academic field in early adulthood, he gave up a career teaching law and economics to enroll at the Munich Academy of Art in 1896, at the age of 30. He knew from the beginning how important both music and, after studying the French Impressionists, color would be to his art. And it was this interest in color, and particularly the spiritual aspects of color, that led him to his collaboration with the German artist Franz Marc to form the movement Der Blaue Reiter, or the Blue Rider, the movement that, alongside Die Brucke, comprised that first wave pre-World War One German Expressionism that, as I said, the artists of the New Objectivity were so keen to get away from. You might remember Die Brucke also from episode 9, where Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and his fellow Dresden art students experimented with bright color, primitivist form, and sensual nudes to create a style of German art that both actively retreated from industrialization and modernity, and drew on its own cultural heritage of an aesthetic that was carved, raw, unhewn. Der Blaue Reiter came along a few years later in 1911, this time in Munich, also with an emphasis on color, but now focusing on its spiritual properties, how individual colors affected a viewer’s subconscious. Everything about this group spoke to a love of symbolism, spirituality, the earnest simplicity of the natural world, even down to the name, The Blue Rider. Franz Marc, who had suffered from depression, simply had a thing for what he described as the calming “chaste majesty” of horses, which was one of his most common motifs; meanwhile, Kandinsky felt that blue was the most spiritual color in the palette, the bluer the better. Furthermore, both felt that painting should be an intuitive, spontaneous thing. And you can tell from Kandinsky’s work during this period just how invested he was in this sense of instinct and flow. Look at his “Improvisation #27” from 1912. His work is loose, softened, its imagery bordering on abstraction, like a place remembered through a dream, and defined in musical terms: improvisations, compositions. Art beyond a conventional world; art unconstrained by material reality.
Of course, nothing pulled these artists back down to the ground faster than the onset of World War One, which effectively ended both Die Brucke and Der Blaue Rieter and the lives of many of its members, included Franz Marc. So from 1914 to 1921, Kandinsky returned to Russia and happened upon an interesting turn of aesthetic events taking place – the dueling art movements of Suprematism and Constructivism, and I’ll describe each one briefly. You might recall that we talked about Suprematism, the first movement of pure abstract art, briefly in episode 10 when we looked at Mondrian. The movement was founded by Kazamir Malevich, and it was was significant in that they were the first to let an entire canvas simply be a black square, and that the square represented a transcendence beyond the canvas itself, “the supremacy of pure artistic feeling.” These shapes and primary colors – squares and rectangles and circles – were pure, clean, emotionally unencumbered, and above all, universal. They transcended narrative representation, which therefore meant they transcended class – Suprematists believed that they were painting the first fully egalitarian art, as even illiterate Russian peasants could recognize squares and circles – and the Suprematists were therefore understandably disappointed when they realized how badly they miscalculated, as pure abstraction, despite its intention to be explicitly democratic, was seen as inaccessible and elitist, a stigma it carries with it even today.
Constructivism, on the other hand, was warmly embraced by the working class. It was a movement that worshiped the object not for its spiritual glory but for its spatial authority. Construct the damn thing, swing a hammer, build it up, feel the weight of its mass. A perfect example of their work was Constructivist founder, Vladimir Tatlin’s model for The Monument to the Third International, which was meant to be built in St. Petersburg, a giant industrial structure that was never built, but would have dwarfed the Eiffel Tower if it had been. This spiraling twin helix, meant to be constructed with industrial materials and rotating like a mobile, was a monument to Lenin and the Bolsheviks that a contemporary Soviet critic at the time said was “made of steel, glass, and revolution.”
And this was Kandinsky’s Russia when he got the call from Walter Gropius in 1921 to come to Weimar and join the Bauhaus faculty. And you can imagine how his influenced his own evolving aesthetic. When Kandinsky arrived in Weimar, he was assigned to teach courses on the foundational elements of painting, mural painting, free-associative painting, and color theory. And this during this time at the Bauhaus, where he remained even as it moved from Dessau and then to Berlin, where his work takes shape of this explosive little print. It’s from the series of lithographs from 1922-25, titled Little Worlds, printed on location at the Bauhaus printmaking studio. And it’s in looking at them that we begin to see the merging of all the visual vocabulary that Kandinsky had picked up along the way, from Der Blaue Reiter to Suprematism to Constructivism: a pure, universal aesthetic language of circles, triangles, existing on flat, overlapping planes. A sense of the disassembled image, or maybe an image that’ s just waiting to be constructed, like a Rube Goldbergian game my niece once got for her birthday, spilled out of its box and onto the floor. And this pile of shapes, this collection of pieces parts that still create such a balanced, cohesive whole, exemplified Kandinsky’s immersion in the Bauhaus aesthetic. Consider the fact that a core tenet of Bauhaus architecture was that its buildings were stripped of their ornamentation so that you can not only plainly see the materials used, but their function as well. Form follows that function. And in Kandinsky’s print, it’s exactly the same. This is an artist who knows the tools he’s working with. You see his building elements, the shapes, the lines, the colors.
And it’s not like he gave up the spiritual dimension as he strapped on his hardhat – he continued to investigate the spiritual and psychological properties of shapes and colors, believing, for example, that triangles embodied aggression, while squares embodied peace. It was almost like he was seeking out harmony, a kind of efficient trajectory, from the material to the spiritual and back again, as he writes in his book “Point and Line to Plane,” from 1926, his follow-up to 1911’s “On the Spiritual in Art”: he writes, “the work of art extends beyond the surface of our consciousness…as the street can be observed through a windowpane, but as soon as we open the door and plunge into the outside…we become an active part of this reality and experience its pulsation with all our senses.” It’s almost like a gesamtkunstwerk of its own, the total work of art immersing us body and soul, the spiritual tension of the artwork deconstructed into its material shapes, and that collection of shapes assembling a transcendent whole.
And there’s a poetic metaphor in here for the Bauhaus itself, this idea of disparate pieces coming together to form a kind of uncanny cohesion. When we consider the synergy of its faculty, their fertile common ground, and the influence of their aesthetic throughout the century, you do get a sense of how rare an event something like the Bauhaus really is, like an early 20th century German art school equivalent to the Beatles. And like the Beatles, the Bauhaus went through its own evolution and ended abruptly, at its point of ripest influence over the next generation of acolytes. The school moved from city to city and was eventually shut down by the Nazis in 1933, its faculty scattering both back around the continent and largely to the U.S. Kandinsky himself emigrated to France where he lived out his days until his death in 1944, at the age of 77. But the effects of less is more Bauhaus aesthetic lingered, coming to define Modernism itself. It rippled across European and especially American art, architecture, design, until the 1970s and 80s, when Post-Modernism had decided it was time for something new. Efficiency drooled; now ornament ruled. “Less is a bore,” the postmodern architect Robert Venturi proclaimed. And honestly, maybe it is. The Ikea comparison isn’t exactly a compliment; I mean, if you put a Breuer chair in an Ikea showroom today, there are only a handful of people in the world who, at a glance, would be able to distinguish its value next to its shoddy, serviceable, mass-produced brethren. And let’s be fair, it’s not like the art of the Bauhaus is exactly beautiful. It is, though, at its core, the art of an idea that’s been beautifully expressed. And like with any beautifully-expressed idea, it’s so clear and so well-organized, so efficiently straightforward, that you’d never guess the amount of work, both spiritual and material, that went into it. It’s simply exactly what it is. No less, no more.
Special thanks to Chris Lydon, Mary McGrath, and the Radio Open Source team for collaborating with me on this episode, which you’ll be able to hear on live on 90.9 WBUR in Boston on Thursday, April 11th at 9pm EDT, and again on Sunday at 2pm EDT. And if you miss the broadcast, you can listen in its entirety at to radioopensource.org, or download the podcast on your favorite podcatcher.
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