Борис Бурда
Author: Boris Burda
Journalist, writer, bard. Winner of the «Diamond Owl» intellectual game «What? Where? When?»
Liberal ArtsNomina
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ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: famous artist and founder of abstract art Wassily Kandinsky, who grew up in Odessa (Ukraine)

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: famous artist and founder of abstract art Wassily Kandinsky, who grew up in Odessa (Ukraine)
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It is not very serious, but as they say, there is a grain of a joke in every joke. For example, I personally sometimes think that many of the features of my hometown of Odessa are determined by the name of the Turkish fortress, on the site of which it was built, and this is not just a coincidence.

During the next Russian-Turkish war ( in the 18th century, at least the fourth), a detachment under the command of Brigadier Jose de Ribas captured the Turkish fortress, which occupies the place from the Vorontsov Palace to Primorsky Boulevard, if compared with the modern map of the city.

The name of this fortress made it possible to surprise the Soviet poet Yevgeny Vinokurov with a cunning question: what does the city of Odessa have in common with the magazine in which he edits the poetry department? It turned out that this fortress was called Yeni Dunya – in the literal translation, it was the New World.

It is possible that this name somehow programmed the city erected on the site of this fortress – to be exactly the New World, not striving to blindly follow the old patterns. It is our way to be inventors, innovators, to change for the better the inveterate traditions!

There are more than enough examples, including art, – the writers who created their own individual and unique style were Semyon Kirsanov, Isaac Babel, Ilya Ilf with Yevgeny Petrov, and Korney Chukovsky, who laid the foundations for the new children’s poetry.

There are enough innovators among the workers of the visual arts – suffice it to name Sonia Delaunay, about whom I wrote recently. But an innovator of innovators grew up in Odessa, the creator of the first abstract painting, who invented the word “abstractionism” – Wassily Kandinsky.

 

BEGINNING OF LIFE

 

He was born, in fact, not in Odessa, but in Moscow, and in a very interesting family. His father came from an old Kyakhta family (Kyakhta is a city in Buryatia, which for centuries was a transit point for Russian-Chinese trade). A family legend derives his lineage from the rulers of the Kondinsky principality, the state of the Finno-Ugric people of the Mansi, absorbed by Russia.

And the great-grandmother of Wassily Kandinsky was generally a Tungus princess (now it is customary to call this people Evenks) and bore the surname Gantimurov, known in history. Their ancestor Gantimur, the leader of the Tungus and a relative of the Chinese Bogdykhan, moved to Russia in 1664.

Such children, in whose veins the blood of different nations flows, often show a penchant for creativity. And Kandinsky’s father Wassily Silvestrovich, a capable businessman who settled in Odessa and began to manage a tea-packing factory there when his son was 5 years old, did a lot to ensure that his son’s creative inclinations developed freely.

He not only sent his son to the newly opened 3rd gymnasium (this is on Uspenskaya, 1, where the high school of the police is now), but also began to teach him music, like any Odessa child from a decent family, this is the way it is – and at the same time piano and cello.

This seemed not enough, and he was also given classes with a private drawing teacher. Already in his children’s drawings, there were very unusual color combinations, which he explained by the fact that “each color lives its own mysterious life”. “I remember that drawing and a little later painting pulled me out of the conditions of reality,” he wrote later.

 

SHORT LAWYER CAREER

 

Such bright young people who have received a high-quality all-round education usually have a problem associated with this – the choice of a profession is not easy for them: everything is so tasty … Wassily bypassed this difficulty as much as many – my father wants me to be a lawyer, please!

He entered the law faculty of Moscow State University, studied a little longer than he was supposed to (for health reasons), but graduated with brilliance. After graduation, on the recommendation of Professor Chuprov, they remained at the department for another two years – “to prepare for a professorship and write a dissertation”.

At the same time, he also married his cousin Anna Filippovna Chemyakina, whom he knew very well from early childhood. She was 6 years older than him and was very much like his mother – such marriages are concluded more often than many people think.

Everything seems to be going as clearly and better as possible – his personal life has settled, success in his studies pleases everyone, the old and venerable University of Dorpat (Dorpat is the name of Tartu) is already offering him the place of assistant professor … And suddenly the whole line of life is going to hell!

 

FROM THE VERY BEGINNING

 

Kandinsky often said that two events influenced his sudden decision to abandon a perfectly starting career as a lawyer. There are people who only watch and listen to works of art, and there are those who change their lives because of them.

The first event was the impression of Wagner’s opera Lohengrin seen at the Bolshoi Theater. It seemed that even Wagner could not find a plot less close to life than the story of the Grail Knight, who sailed in a boat towed by a swan, but here, please, how it worked!

The second was a visit to an exhibition of French impressionists in Moscow, where he was simply struck by Claude Monet’s painting “Haystacks”. This artist has a number of paintings with this name – choose for yourself which one, in your opinion, became the impetus for Kandinsky.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: famous artist and founder of abstract art Wassily Kandinsky, who grew up in Odessa (Ukraine)
Claude Monet. Haystacks

Later, Kandinsky recalled that the very idea of ​​the abstractness of painting came to him when he turned one of these “Haystacks” upside down (it is unlikely that he did it right at the exhibition – most likely, he bought a reproduction) and noticed that it was much more for him. 

Then it turned out that this problem was chronic for abstract art. For many years Malevich’s “Black Square” hung upside down in the Tretyakov Gallery – it was accidentally found out only in 2015 by the inscription made by Malevich himself, “Negroes Fighting in a Cellar at Night”.

 

LEARN AGAIN

 

He gives up his established life and goes to Munich, where he begins to study in a private studio of the artist from the Balkans, Anton Azbe, but clearly does not get what he wants there. Igor Grabar wrote later: “Kandinsky did not succeed too much with Azbe, and in general he did not shine with talents”.

On the second attempt, he entered the Munich Academy of Arts, where he studied with Franz von Stuck. A year later, Wassily created the art association “Phalanx”, and with him organized the art school Münchner Malschule Phalanx, in which he no longer studies, but teaches himself.

From time to time, he returns to the Russian Empire – either to Moscow or to Odessa. It was in Odessa in October 1898 that he first exhibited his painting at the exhibition of the Association of South Russian Artists – it bears the characteristic name “Odessa. Port”.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: famous artist and founder of abstract art Wassily Kandinsky, who grew up in Odessa (Ukraine)
Odessa. Port. 1898

His strict teacher was mostly pleased with him, but believed that Kandinsky was using an unnecessarily bright palette of colors. He demanded that the artist paint only in black and white, and he obediently works in this technique for a whole year, “studying the form as such”.

 

STYLE IS NOT ONLY CHANGING

 

In the hard work of rebuilding, his wife helps him faithfully and loyally. Practically without controversy, she breaks down with her husband from a warm familiar place, supports in everything in a new, not yet arranged and not formed life … Is she waiting for gratitude? If so, then in vain.

A painting school is not only for men, but also for women. And one of them, the German expressionist Gabriele Munter, who strongly influenced him in a creative sense, is not limited to this influence. Soon he leaves his wife and goes to the student – probably for additional studies, and it is quite clear in what subjects.

The legal spouse, in grief and despair, returns to Moscow, but does not give a divorce for a long time. It seems that Kandinsky is somewhat satisfied with this – he never documented his relationship with Gabriele. But for 11 years they have been working and living together, traveling around Europe.

However, even having received a legal divorce in 1911, Kandinsky was in no hurry to conclude a new marriage. When he left for Moscow in 1916, he gave her all the usual oaths and assurances in such cases, promised to collect the necessary papers and return … They never saw each other again.

Throughout the war, Munter tried to find him – but to no avail. Only 4 years later, she received a letter from his lawyer – he demanded the return of all his paintings, clothes, bicycle and other junk. She replied with an angry 40-page letter, he replied with a notarized power of attorney for the right to dispose of his property. It turned out to be a very smart decision.

 

NEW DIRECTION

 

Kandinsky spent this time not only on his personal life. He quite clearly formulated his renewed views on art. It seems that it was he who gave the new direction, into which his work fit in, the name “abstractionism” from the Latin word “removal”.

Of course, he did not invent abstract art – abstract ornaments adorn the products of the Paleolithic inhabitants, and it is still unclear which art appeared earlier – abstract or realistic. But, as it should be for an Odessa citizen, he created this New World in due time.

The National Museum of Georgia keeps Kandinsky’s watercolors, painted by him in 1910, while living in the German city of Murnau. Take a closer look at it – this is the first abstract painting in the world.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: famous artist and founder of abstract art Wassily Kandinsky, who grew up in Odessa (Ukraine)
Untitled (First abstract watercolor). 1910

In 1911, Kandinsky and his expressionist friend Franz Marc organized the Blue Rider creative association. Later, the artist recalled: “We came up with the name ‘Blue Rider’ at the coffee table in the garden in Sindeldorf. We both loved blue, Mark loved horses, I loved riders. And the name came by itself”.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: famous artist and founder of abstract art Wassily Kandinsky, who grew up in Odessa (Ukraine)
The blue rider. 1911

And in 1912 Kandinsky’s book Concerning the Spiritual in Art was published, the first theoretical substantiation of abstractionism. Here is a quote from it: “Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another purposively, to cause vibrations in the soul”.

He began to divide his work into impressions – impressions from reality, the remnants of which are quite noticeable, improvisations – impressions from the secret soul of nature, and compositions – pure abstractions. Here are samples of all three genres – compare and feel the difference.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: famous artist and founder of abstract art Wassily Kandinsky, who grew up in Odessa (Ukraine)
Impression III (Concert). 1911
ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: famous artist and founder of abstract art Wassily Kandinsky, who grew up in Odessa (Ukraine)
Improvisation 34. 1913
ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: famous artist and founder of abstract art Wassily Kandinsky, who grew up in Odessa (Ukraine)
Composition VII. 1913

 

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BACK HOME

 

During the war, the Russian citizen Kandinsky was forced to leave Germany, lived for two years in Switzerland (still with Gabriele), but in 1916 he returned to Moscow. There he accidentally got a phone call – and he immediately painted the picture “Unknown Voice”, so this call struck him.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: famous artist and founder of abstract art Wassily Kandinsky, who grew up in Odessa (Ukraine)
Unknown voice. 1916

He managed to get to know the owner of the voice that struck him and soon married her. Her name was Nina Nikolaevna Andrievskaya, she was the daughter of a Russian general. Kandinsky was about 30 years older (noone knows exactly, she hid her date of birth).

This marriage turned out to be more successful than the previous two – they lived together in love and harmony until the artist’s death, and in difficult times. So a revolution began in Russia, which, among other things, actively influenced the fate of art in general and Kandinsky in particular.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: famous artist and founder of abstract art Wassily Kandinsky, who grew up in Odessa (Ukraine)
Nina Kandinskaya in 1924. Photo by Hugo Erfurt/wikipedia.org

At the beginning of the revolution, many people renounced the old world and its art, and Kandinsky was in great demand. He participated in the organization of the protection of monuments, the creation of the Museum of Artistic Culture and the Russian Academy of Art Sciences, taught at VKHUTEMAS.

By participating in the management of the Institute of Artistic Culture (Inhook), he draws up a curriculum for it based on his theory. But the constructivists, including Rodchenko, are sharply opposed. Punin (Akhmatova’s husband) called his works “disfigured by spiritualism”.

In general, the romance of the Soviet government with the new art ended. Kandinsky realized this in time and, having received an invitation to work at the famous German architectural and art school Bauhaus, left with his wife to Germany – as it turned out later, forever.

 

GERMANY AND BAUHAUS

 

For more than ten years, Kandinsky and his wife have been living quietly in Germany. At the invitation of Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus, he and Nina settle in Weimar, where Kandinsky is the head of a wall painting workshop. He teaches and develops his ideas – there they are quite to the court.

The ideas of the “unity of the arts” (Gesamtkunstwerk) proclaimed by the Bauhaus, attempts to merge creativity, science, technology, material and spiritual aspects of life that had diverged in the 19th century in the form of a “craft guild”, as it was in the Middle Ages, turned out to be close to him.

In 1928, Kandinsky received German citizenship. Both Russia and Germany consider him their pride – and they have the right to. But Ukraine can be proud that such a significant artist has emerged as a person in Odessa. No need to divide anyone – it leads to trouble!

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: famous artist and founder of abstract art Wassily Kandinsky, who grew up in Odessa (Ukraine)
House of Kandinsky in Dessau/wikipedia.org

However, in 1933, the Nazis came to power. The Bauhaus became a private school, and then it was completely closed, avant-garde artists were persecuted for their views, and emigrants from the USSR – for a potential communist “threat”. They always found something to complain about …

In 1933, the Nazis gave the order to the last director of the Bauhaus Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: “Kandinsky must be fired immediately, because he is dangerous to us because of his style of thinking”. Kandinsky leaves for France – and, of course, he made the right choice.

 

ARTIST NOT FOR FRANCE

 

The Parisian community of artists perceives Kandinsky very little: abstractionism is not their honor. So he lives and works quite secluded, communicating mainly with old friends. He stops using combinations of primary colors, preferring to work with subtle and tender color nuances.

At the same time, in Germany, his paintings became taboo, were taken to the notorious exhibition of “degenerate art”, they were taken from museums, his books were confiscated, and many of his paintings and sketches were publicly burned in the courtyard of a fire station on the outskirts of Berlin.

Kandinsky accepts French citizenship – and immediately the Second World War begins. He is thinking about another emigration – to the USA, but in the end he remains in the suburbs of Paris. Surprisingly, he called this period of his work “a truly picturesque fairy tale”, despite the fact that he had to paint a lot in gouache on cheap cardboard – there was no money for paints and canvas.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: famous artist and founder of abstract art Wassily Kandinsky, who grew up in Odessa (Ukraine)
The last watercolor. 1944

On the outskirts of Paris, Neuilly-sur-Seine, he died on December 13, 1944. The artist did not see the complete fall of Hitler, but on August 25, the German garrison in Paris capitulated, and he managed to live up to the time when it became clear to everyone that Hitlerism could not resist.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: famous artist and founder of abstract art Wassily Kandinsky, who grew up in Odessa (Ukraine)
Grave of Kandinsky/tripadvisor.com

 

ETERNAL LIFE

 

Kandinsky is remembered and revered in our time. His role as the discoverer of a new branch of art is generally recognized and obvious. As befits a person who grew up in a city whose predecessor was called the New World, he also turned out to be the creator of the New World in painting.

The prolific artist left a lot of works, the Nazis managed to burn only a little. And Nina took good care of his work, and, even more interesting, Gabriele Munter, despite their relationship, also saved a lot, openly risking her life in Nazi times.

Nina and Gabriela even sued a little over the paintings, but in the end they agreed to transfer them to Nina. And after her terrible death in 1980 (she was found strangled in her own villa, the paintings were not touched, but the jewelry disappeared), according to her will, they mainly went to museums.

Prices for Kandinsky’s paintings continue to break records. In June 2017, at the Sotheby’s auction in 22 minutes, the painting “Murnau – Landscape with Green House” was sold for $ 26.7 million, and “Painting with White Lines”, which hung in the Tretyakov Gallery until 1974, for $ 42 million.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: famous artist and founder of abstract art Wassily Kandinsky, who grew up in Odessa (Ukraine)
Murnau – landscape with a green house. 1909
ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: famous artist and founder of abstract art Wassily Kandinsky, who grew up in Odessa (Ukraine)
Painting with white lines. 1913

There are streets of Kandinsky in Moscow, Odessa and Kiryat Ata (Israel). In Odessa, there is a memorial plaque at 17 Deribasovskaya, where he lived, and a star on our Alley of Stars. Asteroid 2662 and a crater on Mercury are named after him. There are many more – he deserves.

And personally from me, thanks to him for the fact that the word he invented “abstractionism” infuriated dumb Soviet party bosses for decades. It was a good hint to pay attention to a complex genre – since THESE scolds, then there is something in it!

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