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Kandinsky at Art Gallery of NSW
Photographs: Supplied/AGNSW | Vasily Kandinsky 'Blue mountain' 1908–09 / Kandinsky with his painting 'Dominant curve (Courbe dominante)', Paris 1936, photo: Boris Lipnitzki / Vasily Kandinsky 'Capricious forms' July 1937

The colourful rebel of abstract art: Why Sydney’s Kandinsky exhibition is a big deal

We spoke to the New York curator behind the exclusive blockbuster show at the Art Gallery of NSW that has people talking

Alannah Le Cross
Written by
Alannah Le Cross

Do names like Piscasso and Monet ring a bell for you? Yes? What about Kandinsky?...  

If the latter doesn’t immediately conjure mental images for you, it’s time to change that. Lucky for us, the biggest exhibition focussed on the hugely influential artist to ever come to Australia is now open in Sydney, exclusively at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Simply titled Kandinsky, it’s on show until March 10, 2024.

“Recent research has shown that the most requested of all the pre-eminent figures of modernism is Vasily Kandinsky,” the Art Gallery of NSW’s director Michael Brand told a small crowd who gathered to preview the exhibition the other day.

Considered a pioneer of Western abstraction and European modernism, Vasily Kandinsky (1866-1944) was born in Moscow. He lived and worked all over Europe, his prolific career overlapping with World War One and the tumultuous years that surrounded it. However, his life could have gone a very different way – when he was approaching his 30th birthday in 1986, Kandinsky was offered a professorship at a university in Estonia (oh yeah, he possessed the equivalent of a doctorate in law and economics) but he turned it down, hopped on a train to Germany and pursued the life of a painter. 

Installation view of 'Kandinsky' at AGNSW
Photograph: Alannah Le Cross | Installation view of 'Kandinsky' at AGNSW

The more than 50 paintings on show at the Art Gallery of NSW – sourced from the collection of New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, which collaborated on the exhibition – showcase the beauty and intricacy of this work. Kandinsky’s art was influenced by Russian folk art, and more than likely informed by synesthesia, a rare neurological condition that he was known to have, which causes one to “hear colours” and “see sounds”.

Considered a shy and thoughtful man with a socialist streak, Kandinsky is the antithesis of the stereotypical, self-centred great male artist. “Kandinsky was unwavering in his desire to uplift humanity and in his belief in art’s capacity to transform self and society,” says Megan Fontanella, the curator of modern art and provenance at the Guggenheim Museum. 

“Lots of folks think they know Kandinsky because maybe they're familiar with his early expressionistic work, or they're familiar with his Bauhaus geometry. But a show like this really shows you the full of his career, and you see those recurrent motifs, and those threads that are pulled throughout,” says Fontanella.

Megan co-curated Kandinsky with Jackie Dunn, the senior curator of exhibitions at the Art Gallery of NSW. Fontanella came to Sydney to launch the highly-anticipated exhibition, and I picked her brain to learn more about this stunning show and the legendary artist behind it.

Curator Megan Fontanella on Kandinsky at the Art Gallery of NSW

Why do you think that people need to see Kandinsky’s paintings in person?

“Even the best high-resolution photography does not capture those exquisite colour passages, or the sense of depth. Kandinsky writes that he's very interested in this idea of bringing someone in and around a picture, even as he never moves beyond two dimensions.”

The colours in these paintings are gorgeous, I even dare say, modern-looking? What is special about Kandinsky’s use of colour?

“He was an amazing colourist. Kandinsky for me is a real “artists’ artist”, because he knows his materials, he deploys them confidently, and just goes for these colour passages that are surprising and exhilarating. When he was living in Paris in 1906-07, he would have seen the Fauves, and even showed at the same exhibition when the Fauves debuted. [Fauvism is a style characterised by strong colours and produced by a group of artists including Henri Matisse and André Derain.]

Definitely, something's in the ether at this moment, and artists are really deploying colour in bold and interesting ways. But I would argue that Kandinsky is really at the forefront in terms of and his commitment to that throughout his life, so that even the late works you have these really exquisite reds, and blues and greens.” 

Installation view of 'Kandinsky' at AGNSW
Photograph: Alannah Le Cross | Curator Megan Fontanella speaks at 'Kandinsky' at AGNSW

You’ve talked about how Kandinsky’s art was always best when he was working in a community with others. Can you elaborate on that?

“Kandinsky really was a polymath. We’re seeing his artistic practice, but he was also writing poetry, dabbling in stage composition, and thinking through all these other elements. That's because he was really a product of a time where there was all this really generative activity happening in Munich, the Bauhaus and so forth. So that's a spirit I like to hold close, that we're all better when there's more perspectives at the table. Two heads are better than one! Though that’s not to say he's not singular in what he's producing… Gosh, his work was made that much better by his conversations with all sorts of cultural producers – [like] composers, weavers, printmakers, and theatre folks.” 

What is your favourite fun fact about Kandinsky?

“So as a fellow cyclist, I think Kandinsky’s love for his bicycle really humanises him. He was of a generation in the early 20th century where bicycles were suddenly this form [of freedom], especially for women. You could move about, and dresses started being looser so you could actually ride the bicycle. Kandinsky and his then-romantic-partner, the incredible artist Gabriele Münter, would take these wonderful bike rides to the Bavarian countryside. So there's all these great photographs of him on his bicycle and finding great joy in being on the land.” 

Installation view of 'Kandinsky' at AGNSW
Photograph: Alannah Le Cross | Installation view of 'Kandinsky' at AGNSW

Do you have any advice for viewers coming to see Kandinsky at the Art Gallery of NSW?

“My number one tip is to embrace “slow looking” and “close looking”. Kandinsky is one who rewards you for that. I've been working with these paintings, hanging them, studying them, for almost 20 years now – and I can still find a passage I didn't quite notice before, or something that delights me, or astounds me, or lifts me up. He's an artist you can come back to again and again.” 

Kandinsky is showing at the Art Gallery of NSW from Nov 4-Mar 10. Tickets are on sale now over here (from $35, discounts available). You can save by purchasing tickets in a bundle for Art Gallery’s concurrent 2023-24 Sydney International Art Series Louise Bourgeois exhibition (Nov 25-Apr 28). An Art Pass also gets you access to the MCA's Sydney International Art Series exhibition featuring Tacita Dean.


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