The Coming Apocalypse: Kandinsky and Marc

Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word — the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.

                                                                                Philip Larkin. MCMXIV (1964)

It was the war that everyone had been waiting for. For decades, the European powers, England, France, Russia, Germany, Italy, Austria, girded by their respective empires, had eyed one another with a volatile mixture of hostility and fear. The wars of the nineteenth century–the Crimean War,  the Franco-Prussian War, and the recent war over the Balkans–were distant dress rehearsals that settled nothing, addressed no problems, and freely created new grievances. The reason for the antagonistic struggles was an old one, territory, with each contending party wanting to grow, expand, conquer and, for a small nation, such as Germany, war was an excellent way of gaining land and space. All that was needed to set off an international explosion was a trigger, an event, that when it arrived, like an expected guest at a party, started, not the war than had been anticipated, but a war that no one could have imagined. When the nightmare war ended four agonizing years later and the sacrificed millions were uneasily buried, people would look back at the last year of the war with deep sadness and something like reverence for those carefree days of innocence. That summer of 1914, they wrote, was particularly fine, and those last sun-lit hours in August before an Archduke was assassinated in Sarajevo took on a particular luster. Undoubtedly, the last summer before the War was a very nice one, but no better and no worse than countless other summers, and undoubtedly its ordinary days were magnified into wonder by regretful memory. It matters not whether or not the survivors remembered truth or a longing to return to the past, what is a fact is that after The Great War, the world was never the same again.

The world of art was ruptured as well.

Art history does not customarily study art done during times of war. For some reason, there is a scholarly skip from the beginning of the war to the end of the war, with little focused study given to the four years in between. One of the possible reasons for this historical lacunae is that the overall picture of art-making during the Great War is very complex and only a few specialists study this time period. Careful and extensive study of the art produced during the Great War reveals several tendencies. First, from patriotism or duty, artists were routed from their studios, their life’s work interrupted. Artists became soldiers, scattered across the battlefield, some dying, others suffering severe wounds, from which it took years to recover. Other artists, aware of the absurdity of the conflict, opted for going into exile when possible and commenting upon the madness that had overtaken the continent. In addition, second, the international art market and the cultural exchange among artists virtually ceased. Artists who had previously admired each other’s work, suddenly were cast in the role of “enemy combatants.” Art critics, once proponents of a open-mindedness, exhibited a sudden closure of free thinking and became sudden and extreme proponents of war. The resulting fracturing of the art world revealed the importance on international connections and the free flow of ideas for the nourishment of a truly avant-garde art. Once the bonds were broken, the historic avant-garde that had built upon decades of European artistic experimentation and innovation collapsed, never to return.

Patriotism overcame artistic ties, some of which could be reestablished only with great difficulty. The national differences that had been obscured by a sharing of styles within the pre-war art market asserted themselves after the war. When the art world returned to “order” or to normal after the war ceased, the pre-war art world had completely changed, as each country recovered from The Great War in its own fashion. France retreated to artistic conservativism; Germany became radicalized into representation. Other nations, such as Italy and America, where art-making was not as badly interrupted, soon found their own unique paths. Artists, such as Picasso, who stayed at home were able to continue their careers unhindered; artists who, such as Braque went to war rarely were able to resume their lives and found themselves unwilling or unable to continue in pre-war styles.

The artists who left for the War, carrying their reputations as avant-garde heroes with them, became yesterday’s news. Jean Metzinger faded from history, Albert Gleizes became deeply religious. Pre-war avant-garde art suddenly became history, and the writing of that history fell to the art dealers, such as Daniel Henry Kahnweiler and Léonce Rosenberg. Hardly neutral as art historians might have been, the art dealers had a monetary investment in writing a history that was favorable to the artists that they represented, and as the history the the pre-war avant-garde began to be written, the lived history experienced by the artists was interpreted in ways that privileged some artists at the expense of others, reversing artistic fates and evaluations. The leading artists of the Russian Avant-Garde, Mikhail Larinov and Natalia Goncharova, were displaced from their homeland and lived the rest of their careers in relative obscurity in Paris.

But historically the most difficult period to navigate is those four years of the Great War itself. Some artist simply ignored the War and continued to work with little or no acknowledgment of the carnage. Other artists threw themselves into the task of transforming art into a means of expression and a visual mode the explained and illustrated an event that was unprecedented. Some expatriate artists were displaced and were stranded outside their own homelands, struggling to resume their art. Or artists reacted against the war with rage and anger and mounted campaigns to re-write artistic language. Some artists celebrated and enjoyed the drama and excitement of the war and, in the process, created a visual vocabulary still in use today. It is important to realize that the artists of each participating nation had unique reactions to The Great War. But one of the odd and perhaps unprecedented aspects of art and The Great War was that a surprising number of artists seemed to have premonitions of something dark and terrible coming their way.

In the Spring of 1915, German artist, Franz Marc (1880-1916), less than a year away from death in the trenches, received a post card of one of his own pre-war paintings. The postcard was Fate of the Animals (May 1913) and he wrote back to the sender, writing of “its immediate effect on me when I saw it, as an utterly strange work, a premonition of war that had something shocking about it. It is a curious picture, as if created in a trance..” Later that same day, Marc wrote to his wife, saying that “At first glance I was completely shaken. It is like a premonition of this war, horrible and gipping. I an hardly believe that I painted it!” And Marc continued, “It is artistically logical to paint such pieces before wars, not as dumb reminiscences afterward. For then, we must paint constructive picures indicative of the future not memories as it now the case. I have only such thoughts on my mind..” According to Frederick S. Levine’s 1976 article, “The iconography of Franz Marc’s Fate of Animals,” the painting was originally titled The Trees Show Their Rings, The Animals Their Veins and that on the reverse side, Marc wrote “And All Being Is Flaming Suffering..” Upon the advice of friend and colleague Paul Klee, Marc changed the title by the time it was shown at Der Stürm Gallery the Fall of 1913.

Franz-Marc-Fate-of-the-Animals

Franz Marc. Fate of the Animals (May 1913) 

In that same year, Marc’s collaborator on The Blue Rider Almanac (1912), Vassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) painted an Improvisation No. 30, subtitled “Cannons,” and exhibited it at the Allied Artists Association. Founded in 1908, the AAA was modeled on the Salon des Indépendants in Paris and held annual Salons in the Albert Hall as an alternative exhibition for avant-garde artists in England and Europe. It was indicative of the international scope of avant-garde artists, that the founder, Frank Rutter, set aside space each year for “foreign artists” and was especially interested in Russian artists. As Louise Hardiman explained in her 2014 article, “‘Infantine Smudges of Paint… Infantine Rudeness of Soul’: British Reception of Russian Art at the Exhibitions of the Allied Artists’ Association, 1908–1911,” when Kandinsky began showing at the AAA in 1909, a year before Roger Fry’s famous show of Post Impressionism at the Grafton Galleries, his work, according to Rutter, caused “a large amount of interest and heated controversy.” In those years, Kandinsky was moving out of his version of Art Nouveau and towards his version of “Russian Primitivism,” works that seem transitional and tame today.  A year later, at the next Salon, the British press reacted strongly against Kandinsky’s radical paintings, complaining, as one writer expressed it: “Wassily Kandinsky offends from malice aforethought. Shapeless patches of garish colours, strung together in meaningless juxtaposition by bold, black lines, are dignified by the names of ‘Composition No. 1’, ‘Improvisation No. 6’, and, save the mark! ‘Landscape’. These atrocities are really only suitable for the badge of the Wagner Society.” Another critic grumbled that “I entirely failed to unearth his secret..I was unable to understand anything except that I was confronted by an apparently promises medley of color; color pure and strong and fervid; wherein I could detect the adumbration’s of strange forms, reminiscent of the nursery..”

Irritated by such reception, Kandinsky showed only prints in 1911, and then in 1912, according to Richard Cork, writing about the Origins and Development of Vorticism in 1976, he decided to send the British nothing–no paintings, no prints. But Kandinsky returned to the Salon in 1913 with even more abstract works, including Improvisation Number Twenty-NineLandscape with River Poppeln, and Improvisation No. 30 (Cannons), now at the Art Institute of Chicago. Perhaps due to the efforts of Roger Fry, critics in London began to understand Kandinsky’s paintings. Fry, himself, wrote of the Russian artist in The Nation, “They are pure visual music, but I cannot any onlooker doubt the possibility of emotional expression by such abstract visual signs.”

Improvisation_30_(Cannons)_1913

Vassily Kandinsky. Improvisation No. 30 (Cannons) (1913)

However, it was an adventurous American collector, Arthur Jerome Eddy (1859-1920), who purchased  the best work of that Salon, Improvisation No. 30 (Cannons) and wrote to Kandinsky inquiring about the meaning of the title. Eddy, converted to avant-garde art in 1913 on the occasion of the Armory Show in New York, had met Kandinsky in Munich. When he purchased Kandinsky’s Cannons, Eddy was writing the first book on the avant-garde to be published in America, Cubism and Post-Impressionism (1914), which introduced the Russian artist to American audiences. In a second edition published in 1919, the author wrote a forward, acknowledging the way in which–five years–later the book would be read. Eddy opened the new edition with these words, “The book was written in 1913 and published in March 1914. Six months later Europe was in war..” Then he wrote eloquently, “As we look back we can see that the war was preceded by a period of strange restlessness. National which had long been sleeping turned in their beds and stretched themselves. They had had dreams of conquest, of world domination, of uplift and power and they sought to realize those dreams. Scarcely awake they began fighting.” This extraordinary book, in its original form and its odd organization, is a remarkable primary document, written in the last years of the avant-garde and capturing the last bursts of creativity as the author traveled across Europe, learning as he wrote.

Kandinsky’s 1914 reply to Eddy was quite long and extensive, indicating that he was educating not only a collector and a patron but also an inquiring writer and future historian. The entire letter is available in the 1994 book, Kandinsky, Complete Writings on Art, but several passages were relevant to the title. As Kandinsky wrote, “The designation ‘Cannons,’ selected by me for my owns is not to be conceived as indicating the ‘contents’ of the picture. These contents are indeed what the spectator lives, or feels, while under the effect of the form and color combinations of the picture..The presence of the cannons in the picture could probably be explained by the constant war talk that had been going on throughout the year. But I did not intend to give a representation of war; to do so would have required different pictorial means, besides, such tasks do not interest me–at least not just now. This entire description is chiefly an analysis of the picture which I have painted rather subconsciously in a state of strong inner tension..” 

Increasingly nervous about the bellicose tones of European leaders, Kandinsky, a Russian national, had begun thinking about the very real possibility that he might have to leave Germany quickly. For two years, the concern had hovered in his mind, but the extent to which the possibility of war impacted his art is difficult to determine definitively. It is possible that his use of Apocalyptic themes, which came from Revelation of Saint John the Divine, filtered through Theosophy and the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, reflected the growing tensions in Europe. As with the painting of Marc, it is possible to read backwards, after the fact and see announcements of a war that actually arrived, both late and on time. But as Jeffrey Morrison pointed out in Text Into Image, Image Into Text (1995), Kandinsky’s responses to the New Testament tended to be rather literal, implying that he did not stray off the religious and spiritual path and wander off into the political. However prophetic some of his painting say have been, the coming of an actual war itself was a shock to Kandinsky. He wrote to Herwarth Walden (1879-1941) of Der Stürm on the second day of August, shortly after the assassination of the Archduke: “Now we have it! Isn’t it dreadful? It’s as if I had been torn out of a dream. I have been living mentally in a time when such things are completely impossible. My delusion has been taken away from me. Mountains of corpses, horrible torments of veers sorts, suppression of inner culture for an indefinite time.” 

On the occasion of a 2010 Kandinsky exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, art critic, Donald Kuspit, made the argument that the paintings the artist did just before the Great War were entirely personal and divorced from the culture. In discussing the abstractions in his article “Falling Apart and Holding Together: Kandinsky’s  Development,” Kuspit stated that, “They convey the psychic truth that one has lost control of one’s consciousness and has no control of the world and thus become helpless. I am arguing that Kandinsky — and through him art — suffered not simply an identity crisis, but the insanity of a complete breakdown, and that his apocalyptic landscapes are its abstract expression.” What ever the source of the artist’s apocalyptic visions–the Bible, the pre-war culture or his own mental state, the end of the world did come in an all too real sense. When War was declared, Vassily Kandinsky was forced out of Germany, a move which had the impact of sending him home to his home to a very changed Russia at the end of what had been a lovely summer. Older than Marc, who was enthusiastic about the war, Kandinsky was more somber, leaving his German friends, now his “enemies” to fight his countrymen on the Eastern Front. He returned to Moscow, where artists were in the process of interpreting Cubism and Futurism to their own ends. Kandinsky was a middle aged man, wrenched out a career that had been carefully built on the German art scene,  out of place and out of step at home. But his dreams of the Apocalypse, once symbolic and allegorical, would now come true in ways that even St. John, however Divine, could not have foreseen.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.   Thank you.

[email protected]

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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