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Current time:0:00Total duration:5:15

Kandinsky, Improvisation 28 (second version), 1912

Video transcript

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 that title because it's not the title of something that's being represented it's the kind of notation that a composer uses 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 as candidates be doing that well because he's composing here he's composing with form but this is still rooted in the stories of the Bible and of his particular historical moment 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 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 it's something that Kandinsky was very interested in the idea that there could be a kind of crossing of the senses 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 Schoenberg 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 20th century and I see something atonal I see something difficult here what would this painting sound like for me would sound like and he would sound like chaos it would sound like a very dangerous but also brilliant moment we have brilliant color a kind of hazy atmosphere through which that color pops we have these black diagonal lines that crisscross with each other that almost feel like weapons moving through space 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 20th century Russian history is filled with political chaos 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 right so one might not call this painting an abstract painting but call it an abstracted painting so therefore we should still be able to recognize some elements of the natural world 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 the upper right I seem to see a mountain with some buildings on it maybe with chimney stacks or perhaps a church on a hill an ideal city kind of heavenly Jerusalem 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 so it makes sense that we have a battlefield forces at war 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 going to be washed away in the lower-left you have a great flood you have whay this idea of the way in which God in the Old Testament had wiped man from the earth except for Noah and his family just above that wave cannon were being fired the atmospheric effect almost reads like the smoke on a battlefield down at the bottom art historians sometimes recognize the mains 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 overlapping meanings referencing the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse but also the idea of redemption this was also utopian 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 many artists at this time in the early 20th century had a sense that the artist could play an important role in the new civilization that was going to emerge in the 20th century so here we have a painting that is using color in a radically new way this is color for its own sake not to mimic not to describe we have 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 is absolutely new you