Making sense of the abstract

2971585302_e253a97be9Abstract art has always gone over my head. Never having taken an art history class (unless you count the one in Barcelona, where my Spanish professor droned on and on about something or other as he faced the wall, and we his back), I’ve always favored logical, realistic pieces. Or at least ones in which people were clearly people and mountains clearly resembled, well, mountains.

Enter Vasily Kandinsky, the Moscow-born painter of the abstract and inspiration for the design of New York’s Guggenheim. I’d gone to the museum last weekend more excited about the spiral than the works it contained (which is usually the case for me and museums), and clueless about the main exhibition. My expectations were low, considering the Bilbao Guggenheim had several abstract pieces that mustered up nothing more than a “Huh?” and a “Wha?” from me.

Headset and narration in tow, I started at the bottom (despite hearing a passerby talk about how you’re supposed to start at the top) and looked, puzzled, at his early works.

This is famous? I scoffed. It looks like a kindergartner’s handiwork!

But as I progressed to his later works the narration of his life took over, and things actually started making sense. Kandinsky started painting at 30 after he’d studied law and economics.  He believed that paintings should be as abstract as music, that composition was more important than the actual subject, and that colors were tied to emotional responses. Despite the seemingly haphazard quality of his work, his paintings were meticulously planned.

As he matured, so did his work, with increasing use of geometric shapes and spiritual themes. His work was influenced by the artists he encountered as well as life’s tragedies. When his son died, his paintings — known for color — noticeably grew darker, with more use of black. When the Nazis assumed power, he used more brown. In Paris, his later years, his colors were light and airy. His last major work paralleled a painting of his from the Nazi years, with white space symbolizing hope.

I ascended the spiral, intrigued by his life as an artist. He was influenced by where he lived, the artists in his community and the political conflicts around him. I’ve often wondered where to draw the line when displaying your personal life for artistic purposes. I like that Kandinsky incorporated his personal life into his work, communicated his message but still left things up for interpretation.

Neat stuff indeed.

Check out the Kandinsky exhibition at the Guggenheim in New York, on display until January.

I kept in mind that Kandinsky started painting at 30, pretty late in life and after he’d studied law and economics.
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