Kandinsky, Marc and Der Blaue Reiter, Edited by Ulf Kuster for Fondaton Beyeler Beyeler Stiftung, Wyss Foundation 2016


It should be almost superfluous to emphasise specifically that in our case the principle of internationalism is the only one possible. However, in these times we must say that an individual nation is only one of the creators of all art; one alone can never be a whole. As with a personality, the national element is automatically reflected in each great work. But in the last resort this national coloration is merely incidental. The whole work, called art, knows no borders or nations, only humanity.’

From the preface to Der Blaue Reiter, 1912 edited by Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc


Contrary to popular myth, Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) was never the name of an art movement per se, it was the romantic title conjured up in a Munich coffee house by two avant-garde artists, Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc, for an Almanac they had conceived in June 1911 as a means to secure further exhibition space to communicate the new art forms they and their brethren were then passionately expounding. These Munich-based artists were united in open revolt against the conservatism of the existing order, namely the Neue Künstlervereinigung-Munchen (New Artists Society Munich) and provided an abstract counterpart to the distorted figurative style of Die Brücke. This book, published to coincide with the lavish exhibition at the ideally suited Fondation Beyeler in Basel, focuses on this now legendary Almanac, which appeared in early 1912, hot on the heels of ‘The First Exhibition of the Editorial Board of the Blue Rider’ in December 1911. The anodyne backdrop of the airy, spacious and judiciously light- bathed chambers of the Beyeler showed off these extraordinary colour laden paintings to full effect. This was the first exhibition of its kind in Switzerland in thirty years and the organisers chose to secure rarely seen high quality pieces drawn from private collections around the world instead of merely drawing from the Archive of the Zurich Art Society and Kunsthaus Zurich. For those who were unable to reach Basel, then this superb book with its scrupulous attention to detail and gorgeous illustrations serves as some recompense. Aside from the paintings the book offers a number of fascinating essays to flesh out the nature of the period and the relationship between the main players. That between Kandinsky and Marc is the most crucial and the respect they held for each other is examined through the works they exchanged as gifts. Also included is a study of the influence of French painting on the Blue Rider artists, notably Robert Delaunay whose cubist-inspired work fascinated both Marc and Macke.

Although Marc attested that the choice of blue for the rider was simply because both painters loved the colour, the name is surely taken from Kandinsky’s Blue Rider of 1903, showing a blue-caped rider galloping across a meadow on a white steed, the image fairly bristling with vital energy. Yet Marc saw colours as directly corresponding pictorially to the male and female spirit, or symbolising the strata of elements in nature of light, earth, shadow, fire etc. and thus their selection was for him as an artist highly significant. The rider then represents dynamism and the leaps between these elements, seen to full effect in the evolution of Kandinsky’s works, saturated as they are with unbridled movement and tension. These Munich- based artists were united in open revolt, seeking nothing less than an over- turning of the existing status quo, or as they saw it, the desiccated ‘easel painting’ of the academic old order. Their objective was to embrace a new sense based approach to the figurative subject, pioneered by Van Gogh and Munch. ‘It is not form (matter) that is most important but content (spirit)’ declared Kandinsky. ‘Everything then, choice of subject, the harmony of colours, all must be in accord with ‘the principle of the purposeful touching of the human soul.’

Both Marc and Kandinsky saw that understanding the symbiotic relationship between tone and colour was paramount and that any sense of harmony derived from the outcome of that relationship could only be meaningful through the human eye’s direct involvement with the painting. Although other artists such as Kandinsky’s partner Gabriele Münter, Alexej von Jawlensky and Marianne von Werefkin appear in the collection, their work is somewhat overshadowed by that of the three lead riders, Kandinsky, Marc and latecomer August Macke. Eschewing the mythologizing of his fellows, Macke’s works, mostly inspired by an eight-month sojourn at Lake Thun in Switzerland in 1913, concern themselves with ordinary scenes from modern life and through his combining of abstract colour com- positions with figurative truth demonstrate a welcome humanistic quality.

However, for many, Marc’s more recognisable animal works will always have the greatest pulling power. What mattered for Marc was not representing the animal literally or even wholly figuratively, but rather communicating its interior life as an expression of authentic nature. Safeguarding the animal’s soul through paint also represents a stand against the relentless technical progress of an era where animal protection was in its infancy. The rarely exhibited and majestically imposing The Large Blue Horses (1911), proves the dominant canvas. In this strikingly seductive image, the triumvirate of voluptuous horses present their inclined heads, sinuous rumps and dark-edged manes, while the landscape around them is likewise in motion, mimicking the graceful curves of their bodies. Blue-black Fox, of the same year, has a grey mauve coloured fox reclined upon a background of contrasting blocks of carefully appointed colour. But observe more closely, the figurative is giving way to the abstract. We may see the fox clearly enough, but the tree and the foliage on either side is beginning to shed its visible contours, slipping irresistibly into enigma. Marc’s achievement climaxes in The Wolves (Balkan War) 1913, a painting heavy with foreboding and dire premonition on the eve of World War. An ominous trio of scarlet, black and brown wolves advance horizontally from left to right across a desolate cubist-inspired landscape towards a bleeding prey. The whole painting is compressed, claustrophobic and disorientating to the eye. Through well- judged symbolism, Marc has prophetically captured the dislocation and absurdity, the unbridled terror of a conflict which would later claim him as a victim.

But this march from figurative to abstract over only five years, 1908-13, is most clearly observed in Kandinsky’s works, from the early pastoral landscapes of 1908/9, exemplified by the dream-like Blue Mountain, 1908-09, with its rich, luminous colours and still perfectly visible mountains, trees and riders, to the climactic intensity of the entirely abstract ‘compositions’, which Kandinsky considered the pinnacle of his work. Through his three simultaneous approaches, ‘Expressions’, ‘Improvisations’ and ‘Compositions’, Kandinsky sought to communicate the purest expression of a feeling. Improvisation 12 is a perfect example of this quest, as the horse and rider, though still visible as such, begin to morph into untenable shapes, sacrificing their reassuring material form for a kaleidoscopic visual disharmony.

Kandinsky and Münter’s intuitive escape from Munich in 1908 to Münter’s house in the pre-alpine idyll of Murnau in Upper Bavaria proved the moment to consolidate the couple’s determined rejection of the then dominant impressionistic style for one of teasing out the soul from a subject. Jawlensky soon joined them in this rural hothouse of creativity. Rivalry between the painters at Murnau fuelled the rapid evolution of the new approach. Marc had witnessed an NKM exhibition of the Murnau painters in 1909 and overwhelmed, made a decisive break from the isolation which had threatened to sideline him. Once Kandinsky had met Marc on 1 January 1911 and their partnership was cemented, things began to progress at almost breakneck pace towards establishing that ‘new inner renaissance’.

As for the almanac itself, what surprises is the sheer length of the document, the wealth of writers, artists and even composers represented. Not only key founders of Die Brücke, such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Eric Heckel presented, but figures as diverse as maverick Austrian illustrator and author Alfred Kubin, Henri Rousseau, Picasso, Braque, Matisse and composer Arnold Schoenberg. The almanac also included examples of tribal art and Eastern art. The Blue Rider members were keen to stress the link between primal art and the new unsullied art by conservatism they were themselves pursuing. The Blue Rider was a truly inclusive venture with a real sense of internationalism. In Kandinsky’s famous letter to Marc of 19 June 1911, he enthuses over the initiative.

A kind of almanac with reproductions and articles… and a chronicle! That is reports on exhibitions reviewed by artists, and artists alone. In the book the entire year must be reflected; and a link to the past as well as a ray to the future must give this mirror its full life… We will put an Egyptian mask beside a small Zeh (Munich architect August Zeh) a Chinese work beside a Rousseau, a folk print beside a Picasso, and the like!… The book could be called “The Chain”, or some other such title…

The arrival of The First World War abruptly cancelled any further pantheistic proceedings, with first Macke and then Marc tragically joining the roll call of the slaughtered. In 1924 Kandinsky, Jawlenksy, Lionel Feininger and Paul Klee formed Die Blaue Vier (The Blue Four) which lingered on until 1936, more from a desire to exhibit together, and the revolutionary atmosphere of Der Blaue Reiter could not be resurrected. However, the five incendiary years preceding the European apocalypse had been sufficient. Viewing the giant canvas of Kandinsky’s legendary Composition VII, 1913, from the Tretyakov State Gallery in Moscow, is to look vertiginously out into the future of modern art, a disorientating riot of colour, form and linear absurdities symbolise the upending of values inherent to the twentieth century and beyond. I commend this book to anyone who seeks to better understand the powerful currents leading into abstraction and the trajectory it took when its bold initiators, armed only with belief in the restitution of the essential, the untainted, delved so spiritedly into the enigmatical properties of the soul.

Will Stone is a poet, essayist and literary translator. His first poetry collection Glaciation (Salt, 2007), won the international Glen Dimplex Award for poetry in 2008. A second collection Drawing in Ash appeared from Salt in May 2011. Shearsman Books republished these in 2015 and published a third collection The Sleepwalkers in April 2016. Arc Publications has published a selected poems of Georg Trakl (2005) and Emile Verhaeren (2013) and to follow Georges Rodenbach (2017). Pushkin Press published his first English translation of Zweig’s Montaigne in August 2015 and Zweig’s Messages from a lost world in January 2016. A further collection of Zweig’s essay portraits will be published in autumn 2017 as Encounters and Destinies – A Farewell to Europe. Hesperus Press will publish his translation of Friedrich Hölderlin: Life, Poetry and Madness by Wilhelm Waiblinger in 2017. Will is writing a book about the lesser known artistic and cultural landscapes of Belgium.

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