In Russia, modernism at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century often meant an embrace of all things ancient. In music, Igor Stravinsky shocked Western audiences with the violent rhythms of “The Rite of Spring” (1913), which derived from Russian folk music. In visual art, Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) abandoned his law career after a government mission to the countryside awakened him to the vibrant colors of his country’s folk art. Although he would spend most of his adult life abroad and gravitated increasingly toward abstraction, the soul of Kandinsky’s art remained in Mother Russia.
However, Germany played a crucial role in Kandinsky’s life. He would die in German-occupied Paris during World War II, but first came to the attention of the art world in the more nurturing environment of pre-World War I Munich. In those days, Munich was a cultural mecca rivaling Paris for importance, drawing artists for its Baroque setting, art schools and convivial atmosphere. Although he was accepted as a student at the Munich Academy in 1900, Kandinsky was frustrated by the conventional education it offered and became an organizer of exhibitions that brought the work of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and an international cast of modern artists to Munich.
In 1911 Kandinsky became co-editor of the Blue Rider Almanac (Blaue Reiter Almanac), a publication arguing for primitivism and modernism in the arts, as well as a search for the mystical behind surface appearances. The artists associated with the Blue Rider, including Gabriele Munter, Franz Marc and Kandinsky’s fellow Russian expatriate Alexej von Jawlensky, became a loose movement at the avant-garde of German modernism. Kandinsky suggested the name Blue Rider in reference to the image of the dragon-slaying St. George, especially popular across Russia but familiar throughout Europe as a symbol of good defeating evil. For Kandinsky, the knight also represented the mission of the modern artist to overcome the bonds of a dead, materialistic world with swift strokes of visionary insight.
Although many of Kandinsky’s early paintings alluded to Russian Orthodox iconography and images drawn from Russian tradition, he was pulled back to his homeland after 1917 by the Bolshevik Revolution’s promise of a new beginning for his country. He became an official of the Commissariat of Popular Culture, leaving Russia in 1921 to teach at the Bauhaus, Germany’s famous modern school of art and design.
When the Nazis closed the Bauhaus in 1933 and condemned Kandinsky’s work as “degenerate art,” he fled to Paris. The Germans caught up with him when France fell in 1940, but the military administration of Paris, wary of Nazi excesses and often staffed with cultured officials, tolerated him and other modern artists.
Paris is home to the Kandinsky Society, whose mission is to authenticate and catalog Kandinsky’s body of work. Founded in 1979 by Kandinsky’s widow, Nina, its member stakeholders are the directors of prestigious museums in Paris and Munich and the Guggenheim in New York, which together comprise the majority of Kandinsky’s work. The Society’s current president is a former French prime minister. Headquartered at the Pompidou Center, the Society’s first president was Claude Pompidou, who held rank until 2007.
Many works come to the market attributed to Kandinsky. Having lived and painted during unstable times in the Soviet Union, Germany before and during the rise of the Third Reich and finally Nazi-occupied Paris, determining legitimate provenance is difficult. The situation is opportune for fakes and forgeries. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990, an industry in fraudulent Russian art has flourished. Some say there are more forgeries than authentic works currently in the marketplace. Of key interest is modernist art from Russia, painted in the first three decades of the 20th century. As Western collectors paid high sums for Russian avant-garde works, the fakes began to appear.
Providing false provenances and bogus certificates of authenticity, forgers have worked the fakes into the market and even into art history scholarship. Skilled forgerers have re-worked and fraudulently signed obscure European artwork from the early 20th century to pass the work off as the creations of major painters. The integrity of the marketplace has been threatened. And collectors are wary.
High on the endangered list of collected artists’ work include Marc Chagall, Kazimir Malevich, Natan Altman and Kandinsky. Sotheby’s and Christie’s will only accept artwork of Kandinsky if it appears in the Roethel/Benjamin catalogue raisonne, which the Kandinsky Society approved and financed. It is a secure assumption that if a Kandinsky has the nod from the Society, it is legitimate. With other artists, the collectors are aware of discrepancies and review work carefully before considering their bid.
In the last two decades, auction records for Kandinsky have been set. At Sotheby’s May 1990 sale, $20.9 million was the hammer price for the artist’s Fugue (1914), a vibrant abstract executed as Kandinsky’s style was evolving from less materialistic to more spiritual.
Studie zu Improvisation 3 (1909), a highlight at Christie’s November 2008 sale, sold for $15 million (hammer). An important work, it dates to the year when Kandinsky completed his tome on the art of his time, titled On the Spiritual in Art; it became his manifesto on revitalizing the direction of art and the beginning of the artist’s easing in to abstraction. Along with Matisse, Picasso, Braque, Mondrian and Delaunay, 1909 was a pivotal year for the “shock of the new” coming out of Europe.
To date, the highest price paid for a Kandinsky was Composition V (1911) purchased by Ronald Lauder in a private sale for around $40 million. Lauder, an American businessman and art collector, founded the Neue Galerie (2001) in New York, which houses the world’s largest collection of Viennese successionist painter Egon Schiele.
The Guggenheim in New York will open an ambitious collection of Kandinsky’s work this fall. With works from the Guggenheim’s partner institutions, Paris’ Centre Georges Pompidou and Munich’s Stadtische Galerie, the exhibition will present nearly 100 paintings in a full-scale retrospective of Kandinsky’s career. The exhibit runs from Sept. 18 through Jan. 13, 2010.
Mary Manion is associate director of Landmarks Gallery and Restoration Studio in Milwaukee, Wis. A columnist for Antique Trader since 2006, Manion is a member of the New England Appraisers Association.