NEW YORK — "Kandinsky in Paris" is the final salvo in a triumvirate of Guggenheim Museum exhibitions devoted to the great modernist innovator and theoretician. The first segment surveyed 18 yeasty years in Munich, up to 1914 when he evolved the effusive non-objective abstraction which stands as his wellspring contribution to posterity.
Next came a look at his return to his native Russia, when avant-garde artists believed that the revolution was on their side. Kandinsky occupied teaching and museum posts in Moscow, but radical zeal disintegrated beneath vicious art-political infighting and mounting government rejection of modernism. When social realism became the party-line style, Kandinsky returned to Germany to teach at the legendary Bauhaus. If he was looking for a cozy pasture in which to graze in middle-age comfort, he picked the wrong puddle.
By 1934, Hitler's hostile rhetoric and the Reichstag fire made it clear to Vassily Kandinsky and his wife, Nina, that Germany was no place for an artist linked to the Russian Revolution. They went into voluntary, if half-hearted, exile, taking an apartment in the quiet Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine. They planned to stay a year. As it turned out, the sojourn would last the rest of Kandinsky's life.
The exhibition, on view to April 14, traces this last and rather sad chapter in the career of a great artist. He was 68, and certainly deserved a quiet place to work in the sun of honored achievement. He would not find it in Paris' conservative Russian emigre community, which mainly scorned his sort of art. And acceptance came but slowly in Paris' art world, a stagnating center that did not quite know who he was. It seems inconceivable to us today, but in the 1930s Kandinsky was not everywhere renowned. The textbooks that anointed him for our generation had yet to be written, the great museum collections that confirm his originality were yet unformed. And the Paris of then--like the New York of now--was inclined to feel that if it hadn't happened there, it hadn't quite happened.
So, once again the wanderer, Kandinsky got busy proving one more time who he was. The exhibition includes some 200 works. A brace of them are by such colleagues as Arp, Mondrian, Miro and Klee, but the bulk are Kandinsky's own quite energetic efforts. His Paris years produced some 144 paintings and hundreds of watercolors, gouaches and drawings.
Unfortunately they are not, with significant exceptions, very good. Long gone are his days as the painter of magnificently rhetorical soulscapes full of moist, saturated colors and bold boomerang strokes. Those works seem to lead into the cosmos of consciousness, the Paris period merely natters about matters mystical.
Kandinsky took to painting crowded fields of hard-edged geometric and biomorphic shapes rendered in sweet pastels. Sometimes he composed in checkerboard grids; sometimes kidney shapes, amoeba silhouettes and fetus forms sit there amid a myriad of neat circles that look less like the old metaphysics and more like kids' marbles.
What happened? Had the old boy just lost it, or what? And what are we the viewers supposed to do with an exhibition of major proportions that is not terrible enough to cause a nice cathartic snit or good enough to nourish aesthetic appetite?
Learn something. Read the catalogue. Try and find out how this happened.
The principal essay by Christian Derouet is redolent with facts, but its best quality is an almost novelesque ambiguity that permits the reader to piece together a picture that feels true to life. Much of it even feels familiar to our own moment.
Paris in the '30s comes across as vaguely stale, dominated by a conservative artistic reaction that promoted a born-again figurative artist like Andre Derain and worshiped Maurice Utrillo, Moise Kisling and the potboiler-period Maurice de Vlaminck as the patriarchs of the School of Paris. This teaches that it is possible for a great art center to be dominated for a time by third-rate talent.
Kandinsky bypassed this fashionable establishment to seek out whatever was left of the various radical turn-of-the-century movements, only to find they had largely guttered out, and their gurus were getting a bit long in the tooth too. Piet Mondrian was 62, the fiery Futurist poet Filippo Martinetti was 58 and Leger 53. The striplings of the time were Dadaist Hans Arp at 47, Miro at 41 and Alberto Giacometti a mere lad of 32, yet to see his star in its zenith.
All represented parties out of power. The names of various coalitions that they tried only attest to the entropic second-rate quality of the times. Remember such influential groups as the Circle and Square, NeoPlasticism and Concrete Art? Don't feel badly; neither does anyone else, except specialists and scholars.