Text by Deanna MacDonald
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Today considered a central figure of 20th-century art, Kandinsky spent most of his early career searching for his artistic voice. It wasn’t until 1908, when he was a 42-year-old art professor in Munich living with a former student, the artist Gabriele Münter, that Kandinsky had his first artistic break-thought. He and Münter began to spend time in Murnau, a village near the Bavarian Alps, and the area’s bucolic beauty inspired both their work. For Kandinsky it was a time of intense artistic activity and immense originality. Painting landscapes began to free him from the figurative world and moved him ever closer to abstraction. The exuberant Landscape with Tower dates from this period and it reflects everything Kandinsky was and would become as an artist.
With a palette of vibrant hues and expressive brushwork, Kandinsky transforms an industrial scene – the tower of the Pantl brewery in Murnau, seen on the left – into something from a romantic dream or folk tale. The brewery’s red roof and high tower seem more like a fairy tale castle than a factory. The abstracted multi-hued landscape vibrates with colourful energy with white clouds floating in a violet sky, fields of yellow and red and green trees moody with shadow. The painting merges the natural splendour of the Murnau countryside with the influences of Bavarian folk art (particularly glass painting) and Kandinsky’s memories of the iconic art of his native Russia, resulting in a scene that is a heady mix of nostalgia, vigour and promise.
The intense colour was partially inspired by the Fauves and other French artists whom Kandinsky and Münter had encountered while living in Paris from 1906–07, and in part by Münter herself, who favoured high colour, rough brushwork and unusual viewpoints. While still figural, Landscape with Tower points towards abstraction with its patchwork of masterful colour and pulsating energy, creating an effect almost like music.
And indeed from this time, Kandinsky’s style became increasingly abstract and expressionistic as he stripped away descriptive detail, reducing forms and figures to calligraphic lines and colour. Within a few months of completing this canvas, Kandinsky would in fact become the first modern artist to paint an entirely abstract work.
Kandinsky often spoke of painting like music (he was greatly influenced by the avant-garde composer Schönberg) and believed reoccurring motifs, even abstract ones, and brilliant colour could trigger emotion (or as he put it, an ‘inner sound’), just as a piece of music does. For Kandinsky, painting was a sort of music for the eyes and with Landscape with Tower the viewer can feel the colourful primal rhythm of a seemingly fixed landscape.
In the move towards abstraction, Kandinsky felt art could put aside material concerns and reveal a spiritual truth, which would be more powerful for not being tied to reality. It was this belief – that art could lead the way to spiritual renewal - that informed Kandinsky’s entire career. The year after he completed this work Kandinsky, along with Alexei Jawlensky and Marianne Werefkin, created the Neue Künstlervereinigung München (New Artists Association of Munich) with Kandinsky as its president. The group’s prospectus stated: ‘We start with the premise that the artist, in addition to the impressions which he receives from the outside world, from nature, is constantly accumulating experiences from an inner world…’.
1908 Gustav Klimt: The Kiss, Vienna, Österreichische Galerie, Belvedere
1908 Pierre Bonnard: The Box (La Loge), Paris, Musée d’Orsay
1908 Piet Mondrian: The Red Tree, The Hague, Gemeentemuseum