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More than meets the eye

By Daily Bruin Staff

July 2, 1995 9:00 p.m.

By Kristin FioreSummer Bruin Staff

Much of what is innovative, emotive, or just plain bewildering
in 20th century art can be blamed on Wassily Kandinsky. One of the
first true abstract artists, Kandinsky expressed himself through
pure form and color, recreating a mood instead of a scene.

Six of his seven existing "Compositions" are being shown
together for the first time at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art
through Sept. 3. The exhibit includes preliminary sketches for the
"Compositions" as well as earlier paintings, lithographs and
woodcuts, all of which help clarify his artistic goals and his
journey toward abstraction.

The Russian-born painter continually defied artistic traditions
and formed revolutionary artists’ groups like the anti-elitist
Phalynx or "Der Blaue Reiter," the famous German expressionist
group that called for spiritual awakening. His early works conveyed
this rebellious spirit through more traditional and realistic
means, such as the poster for the Phalynx group’s first

The poster shows infantry armed with swords and shields
preparing to attack a distant white castle, a reference to the
artists’ attack on the stilted art world. Though the theme and
highly-stylized figures in the work anticipate Kandinsky’s later,
more radical art, the poster still relies on the use of real
objects to get its point across.

It wasn’t until Kandinsky returned to his studio one evening
that he realized the power of abstract art. He came across the most
beautiful painting he’d ever seen, overflowing with vibrant colors
and shapes, only to find it was one of his own paintings turned on
its side. Without concrete objects to distract the eye, the
intensity of the shapes and colors came through.

From that point on Kandinsky used forms and colors to express
himself, likening abstraction to music in its ability to conjure
emotion without limitations or subjects. His "Compositions" are the
pinnacle of this mode of expression, and are considered by both
critics and Kandinsky himself to be his most important works. They
are not only grand in scale and limited in number, but compile many
styles and years of reflection.

Numerous studies and sketches made in preparation for the
"Compositions" are exhibited next to the final product and show
Kandinsky’s otherwise inscrutable train of thought. They reveal
that many of the images he painted began as somewhat concrete
objects but mutate into abstractions as the work progresses.

Some also show the colors Kandinsky planned to use, as colors
were the focus of his early abstract works. Tours are also
available to provide insight into his paintings and the events in
his life that inspired them.

The first three "Compositions" were destroyed in World War II
and only exist as black and white copies. Together with the more
figurative sketches, they reveal the motif of horse and rider –
from Russian folklore and apocalyptic Bible verses – and the ideal
unification of the spiritual and material worlds.

Kandinsky believed a revolution was necessary to achieve this
unity, as the titles of his later "Compositions" reveal. The fifth
and sixth works are referred to as "The Resurrection" and "The
Deluge," and another is unofficially titled "The Last Judgment."
These works are much more dynamic and chaotic than the first three
"Compositions," with diagonals and more shades of color than
Crayola could imagine.

The sixth and seventh pieces are known as Kandinsky’s best
works, and rightfully so. Monumental in size and exquisitely
arranged in cascades of color and motion, these works fulfill the
promise of Kandinsky’s prior paintings.

"The Deluge," the sixth "Composition," is a cataclysmic scene of
tossed boats, fish, bits of human shapes, and heavy sheets of rain
all being swallowed by an angry roar of ocean waves. Early studies
show the boats and human figures that in the painting are barely
oars and hands, tracing the painting’s evolution into its final
state of disaster and disarray.

The seventh "Composition," the largest and most complicated,
combines elements of all of the previous ones – boats, peaceful
reclining lovers, angels, apocalyptic horns, falling towers and
horsemen – into one explosive canvas. Painted in 1913, this
passionate and angry work was triggered in part by the onset of
World War I.

Kandinsky moved from Germany to his native Russia for the
duration of the war, and did not paint the following "Composition"
until 1923. Its serenity, organized shapes, circles with haloes,
lines and neatly-drawn triangles are those of the calm after the
storm. The falling towers of the fifth and seventh "Compositions"
have been replaced with massive blue mountains (triangles),
symbolizing the spirit to Kandinsky.

His final "Compositions" were painted in Paris near the end of
his life, and are filled with allusions to birth and death. The
ninth is done in childlike soft pastels with embryonic shapes
floating about. In contrast, the final "Composition" throws bright
shapes against an endless black sky, the color Kandinsky associated
with death or a musical pause.

He often described his paintings in musical terms, and sought to
recreate pure sound’s formless tides of emotion, as an early work
entitled "Verses Without Words" suggests. His art could be
described as forms without objects, painting without limits.

Though Kandinsky’s art is abstract and less accessible to most
than a Renoir or a Michelangelo, the sketches, information and
tours that accompany it help clarify it and translate its power to
the viewer.

ART: Wassily Kandinsky’s "Compositions" at LACMA. Through Sept.
3. TIX: $6 adults, $4 students and seniors. For more info call
(213) 857-6000.

More than meets the eye

Wassily Kandinsky’s ‘Compositions’ capture reclining lovers,
stormy seas and crumbling towers in explosive colors and shapes.
But the trick is, with this artist, things are never what they

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