As part of a joint project between the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the Guggenheim in New York, a sizeable collection of Russian artist Vasily Kandinsky’s work has found a home in AGNSW’s latest international exhibition. Stretching from his early fauvist-inspired works to his later abstractions, the exhibition is fairly trim on biographical information. Although the works shown are considered some of his best, there is a lack of vitality as seen in AGNSW’s previous exhibitions such as 2022’s Matisse: Life and Spirit and 2018’s Masters of modern art from the Hermitage.
Art in isolation is easy to describe, art in concert is far harder. This was the sense I had when gazing at In the black square (1923). In those rare moments of connection with a particular work where I was able to step in and ‘take a stroll’ within, as written on one of the plaques within the exhibit, I found a fulfilment to which I imagine Kandinsky desired. On leaving the painting, however, I found little else in the way of satisfaction. By positioning Kandinsky’s works in conversation mostly with themselves (and a room of work by Damon Lazaro), the exhibit evinces a view of art that remains painfully stuck in its outdated little world.
Perhaps it was that I saw how the sausage was made that I felt a little disturbed. Witnessing the creatives behind the exhibition mill around, listening to the curator repeatedly ask someone on FaceTime if they’re “fired up” about the show, it all undid the precious detachment that exhibitions like this require. The art gallery is either by design or necessity an isolating place. It is in this building that I can witness the painstaking work of hundreds of artists over dozens of mediums without ever speaking to the creator of a single one. Through crossing the gallery’s threshold we submit ourselves to the purveyors of taste and engage in the agreement that is art valuation. And so there felt a disconnect. While Kandinsky’s art is truly striking, placing them in a show curated this way felt lacklustre. The artist’s influences of spiritualism, folklore, and synesthesia, while mentioned throughout the exhibit, are not provided the context or weight that they deserve, instead relegated to the shadowy metaphors of second-rate symbols a la the ‘Orient’ born from the late 1800s.
Of course, visual art is a visual medium, but to discuss the origins of Kandinsky creative impulses in such vague terms feels like a missed opportunity to truly look at art as art is created. By tightening our view of Kandinsky so as to only focus on the art as it is seen and obscuring the world in which it was made, we incur what John Berger calls a “double loss”. Through mystifying the past (which, regardless, is still present), works of art become “unnecessarily remote” islands to which we must hop to-and-fro, with this mystification also depriving the viewer any ability to administer their own conclusions to Kandinsky’s art. There is no challenge here, nothing rough to come up against. The current on which the viewer is pulled through the exhibit is what you would expect from Sydney’s major art gallery, soft, reliable, and elitist. In a context of such minimal information, artistic interpretation is reserved for only the most learned, or the least self-conscious. The average person does not belong here. Berger writes: “The majority take it as axiomatic that the museums are full of holy relics which refer to a mystery that excludes them: the mystery of unaccountable wealth.”
Maybe this view is too malicious. Maybe it’s not so bad that the exhibit glosses over Kandinsky’s time with the Komi people, a marginalised ethnic group in Russia with whom Kandinsky lived with and studied before his career in painting. I haven’t read his biographies, perhaps this experience was simply a footnote. But I do think it pertinent to note the sidelining of influences that stray from the western-canon’s norms, as well as to criticise the continued lionisation of the male painter as a stand-alone figure, beset by no social or cultural influences beyond other painters (often other men). It might be pertinent that the curator, Megan Fontanella, focuses primarily on late 19th and early 20th-century “dealer networks and collecting patterns.” Less relevant and more humorous, the third paragraph of the AFR’s review of this exhibit makes sure to list the astronomical prices of the artworks on display, so be sure to check that review out to get a vibe of what professional art writers seem to actually care about.
Ultimately, the exhibition’s fear of connecting the artist to their own personal history in a way that’s genuinely meaningful is not a heavy-handed decision, but a lazy replication of what we see throughout the entire field. What’s on offer here is art at its most dizzying height. If you like Kandinsky and you’ve been waiting to see his works in person, I’d say it’s worth it. I must admit, the paintings are great pieces of work, and apparently his best, but if you hold a view of art that lands closer to John Berger’s and the hunger for Kandinsky isn’t there, I’d safely recommend skipping this one.