Kandinsky: A Life in Letters, 1889–1944 by Jelena Hahl-Fontaine (ed), with Kate Kangaslahti - review by Rosamund Bartlett

Rosamund Bartlett

Yours Abstractly

Kandinsky: A Life in Letters, 1889–1944


Hirmer 344pp £29.95

By any standard, Wassily Kandinsky lived an unusual and dramatic life. He was born in Moscow in 1866. His
father was a prosperous merchant from eastern Siberia who imported tea from China via the border town of Kyakhta, while his mother came from a genteel family of Baltic German ancestry. Due to his father’s poor health, most of his childhood was spent in Odessa, which felt foreign to him and was not, in the 1870s, the cosmopolitan city it had once been and would be again. The young Kandinsky finally managed to return to Moscow when he was nineteen and became a law student. His interest in peasant law led to his involvement in the growing discipline of ethnography at Moscow University. In 1889, he undertook an expedition to a remote part of the northern Vologda province. A fascination with the customs and pagan beliefs of the Komi Finno-­Ugric ethnic minority that he studied would prove to be long-lasting. 

In late 1895, Kandinsky abandoned his academic career. Just over a year later, at the age of thirty, he began training as an artist in Munich. By 1909, he was a central figure in a new group promoting Expressionist ideas, but he broke with it in 1911, when he made the move into abstraction, outlining his reasons in his seminal theoretical treatise Concerning the Spiritual in Art. When war broke out in 1914, he was forced to abandon his activities with the flourishing Blue Rider movement, which had transformed sedate Munich into a centre of the European avant-garde, and return to Russia. He assumed a leading position in the radical new arts administration after the Russian Revolution, by which time he had lost his property and income, but was edged out in 1921 by militant Constructivists. He was fortunate after returning to Germany to be appointed to teach at the Bauhaus, which relocated from Weimar as a result of political pressures, first to Dessau, then to Berlin. In 1933, Kandinsky fled Hitler’s Germany to settle in Paris. He remained in Nazi-occupied France during the Second World War. He died a few months after Paris had been liberated in 1944 at the age of seventy-seven, having never stepped off his path of artistic enquiry or given up painting. 

Together with his experimental poems and stage compositions, Kandinsky’s numerous theoretical works, reviews and memoirs have been available to the Anglophone reader since 1982 in the two-volume Complete Writings on Art, edited by Kenneth C Lindsay and Peter Vergo. Most of the thousands of letters Kandinsky wrote in Russian, German

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