Munich's place in art history was sealed on an afternoon in Moscow in 1896 when a young lawyer laid eyes on one of Monet's famous haystack pictures.
“The catalogue told me they were haystacks, but for the life of me I couldn't see them. I was embarrassed by my inability to recognise what the painting was meant to be of,” Wassily Kandinsky said later.
According to the documentary that accompanies the major new retrospective in Munich's Lenbachhaus, the 30-year-old Kandinsky was so mesmerised by Monet's shimmering, unreal mushroom-like piles of grass, that he immediately rejected a job offer as lecturer in law at a prominent university, and enrolled in a western art school, a private institute in Munich.
Apocryphal as this story may be, the fact is that this promising lawyer spent the turn of the new century living in Munich's bohemian district of Schwabing, forming movements and having scandalous affairs with other avant-garde artists impatient to dissolve the realistic representation of the nineteenth century.
This important new exhibition in Munich, which exhaustively charts his career, is in cooperation with the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Guggenheim Museum in New York. It gathers around 95 major works from these three collections of the Russian artist's oeuvre.
The Lenbachhaus specialises in his pre-World War I period in Munich and Murnau, drawing particularly on the works from the famous Blue Rider collection. The gallery's permanent Blue Rider exhibition is included in the ticket, as is a unique exhibition of Kandinsky's 230 art prints, which serve as beautifully formed pendants to the magnificent paintings.
But Kandinsky's artistic journey started with the Blue Rider, a tightly knit artist collective that spent weeks in the village of Murnau, re-imagining the Bavarian countryside as a vivid expressionist pageant. The house he shared with the likes of Gabriele Münter, Franz Marc and August Macke was suspiciously called das Russenhaus (the Russian House) by the villagers, and there are photos of the great abstractionist cheerfully trying to fit into rural Bavaria by gardening in lederhosen.
The exhibition then traces his subsequent travels: back to Moscow in time for the October Revolution, teaching in the Bauhaus school (as a neighbour to Paul Klee) in Weimar, Dessau and Berlin, and finally his exiled late period in Paris, where he died in 1944.
The chronological arrangement makes it satisfyingly easy to follow his search for a purer form of depiction. In early works like “The Motley Life,” a sentimental, homesick painting of a snowy Moscow street scene, realistic images are merely broken up into little elements of bright colour floating in a black background – effectively, a richly coloured mosaic without the stones.
The Bauhaus era sees him exploring the geometrical roots of painting – “point and line to plane,” as he summarised it – while the later Paris work, apparently influenced by Miro-esque surrealism, seems to invest organic life into his intricate shapes and figures. Sky Blue looks like yellow alien Ren and Stimpy-style foetuses floating in chlorine water.
Being prone to the neurological condition known as synaesthesia (being able to hear colours as notes and see music in colour) clearly enhanced Kandinsky's sense of the platonic essence of objects. But in his later work we see him opening the door to his synaesthesia a little more consciously – the titles become musically inspired (Reciprocal Accord), and the forms resemble musical notation.
The development of colours can also be followed nicely in this exhibition – the rich heavy primary colours of his Blue Rider years give way to darker, heavier greys and browns in Moscow, before Paris inspires him to those brash cartoonish turquoises and purples.
He was the world's pioneering abstractionist, but Kandinsky's sense of the abstract, which he preferred oxymoronically to call “concrete,” was never cerebral, always spiritual. He rejected the mechanical approach of his constructivist contemporaries, and invested an almost religious, supernatural fervour into his paintings.
This project was not always successful. One early curator in Munich claimed he had to dry off the paintings of Kandinsky and his friends every evening, because visitors would continually spit on them. Happily, the paintings on display in this comprehensive and accessible exhibition are saliva-free.
The exhibition runs through February 22.
Open: Tues - Sun 10:00 am – 10:00 pm
Price: €12 / reduced €6
Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus und Kunstbau
Tel. 089 233 32000