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Modern and contemporary art

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(gentle piano music) - [Steven] We're at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City, we're looking at a painting by Vasily Kandinsky. This is Improvisation number 28 second version. It's interesting to start off by thinking about the title because it's not the title of something that's being represented, it's the kind of notation that a composer uses. - [Beth] Right normally in art history, we have paintings with titles of stories from the bible or from history or from mythology or landscapes that have the name of a place, but here we have Improvisation which is the name of a kind of musical composition. So the immediate question is why is Kandinsky doing that? - [Steven] Well because he's composing here. He's composing with form but this is still rooted in stories of the bible and of his particular historical moment. - [Beth] But he's clearly trying to associate painting with music, to suggest that like music, painting can signify, it can mean things it can take us places, without representing anything concrete. - [Steven] Actually he would go further than that and say that you could hear color, that you could see music, this idea which is called Synesthesia is something that Kandinsky was very interested in. The idea that there could be a kind of crossing of the senses. - [Beth] So looking at this he may have wanted us to actually hear something. And in fact we know that Kandinsky was very influenced by Arnold Schonberg, a turn of the century composer, who was jettisoning the familiar Western harmonies, to create a new kind of difficult atonal music for the beginning of the twentieth century. And I see something atonal, I see something difficult here. - [Steven] What would this painting sound like, for me it would sound like a cacophony, it would sound like chaos, it would sound like a very dangerous but also brilliant moment. - [Beth] We have brilliant color, a kind of hazy atmosphere through which that color pops. We have these black diagonal lines that criss-cross with each other, that almost feel like weapons moving through space. - [Steven] And it's appropriate that the analogy that you're drawing is one of war. This is 1912 it's just two years before the first world war begins and early twentieth century Russian history is filled with political chaos. - [Beth] We're clearly on the verge of abstraction and in fact when we first look at this painting it looks entirely abstract. That is, we don't immediately recognize, the things of the world. But this isn't what we would call a completely abstract painting. - [Steven] Right so one might not call this painting an abstract painting, but call it an abstracted painting. - [Beth] So therefore we should still be able to recognize some elements of the natural world. - [Steven] Kandinsky was concerned that if we could recognize things too clearly that our conscious minds would take over the interpretation and we would close off our emotional ability to respond to the pure color and form. - [Beth] In the upper right I seem to see a mountain with some buildings on it, maybe with chimneys sacks, or perhaps a church on a hill, an ideal city, a kind of heavenly Jerusalem. - [Steven] Kandinsky was deeply influenced by biblical imagery, and so even though this is a tremendously modern painting, it is still rooted in this ancient tradition of representing Christian stories. - [Beth] So it makes sense that we have a battle field, forces at war. - [Steven] In fact art historians have looked at these paintings as a kind of representation of an apocalypse, of a moment when the sins of the world are gonna be washed away. In the lower left, you have a great flood, you have a wave this idea of the way in which God in the old testament had wiped man from the earth except for Noah and his family. - [Beth] Just above that wave canons are being fired. The atmospheric effect almost reads like the, the smoke on a battle field. - [Steven] Down at the bottom art historians sometimes recognize the manes and the arcs of the necks of horses and we know that Kandinsky was really interested throughout his career in the idea of the horse and rider. Symbolizing a number of different things, having the overlapping meanings, referencing the four horsemen of the apocalypse, but also the idea of redemption. This was also a utopia. The idea that we could wash away the old world, a world that was about to be destroyed not only by the Russian revolution, but also by The First World War. Kandinsky at this moment was convinced that he could help lead that, at least in the visual realm. - [Beth] Many artists at this time, the early twentieth century, had a sense that the artist could play an important role in the new civilization that was going to emerge in the twentieth century. - [Steven] Here we have a painting that is using color in a radically new way. This is color for it's own sake, not to mimic, not to describe, we have a line that is being used for its own sake, lines that is abstractly moving across the surface to create a sense of rhythm, to create a sense of staccato. Musicality in this painting was absolutely new. (gentle piano music)
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