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Different Modernist Trajectories: Schoenberg, Kandinsky, And The Blue Rider At The Jewish Museum

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Schoenberg, Kandinsky, and the Blue Rider
Jewish Museum
1109 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10128; (212) 423-3200
Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday: 11 a.m. to 5:45 p.m.; Thursday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 3p.m.
$10 adults; $7.50 students and seniors, children under 12 free; Thursdays 5 to 8 p.m.; pay-what-you-wish.
Until February 12, 2003

 

Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) and Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) were two of the most
important modernist artists in the early twentieth century. Kandinsky has been justly credited with the invention of non-objective abstract painting, while Schoenberg took music to what may have been its most radical frontier, atonal composition. Each contributed highly original creations that permanently influenced Western culture for the next century. In 1911, their paths crossed, and an influential friendship began that lasted for the next twelve years, ending in 1923 over the issue of Judaism. The current exhibition, Schoenberg, Kandinsky, and the Blue Rider at the Jewish Museum expertly traces this brief but fascinating artistic relationship.

On January 2, 1911 Kandinsky, along with fellow Expressionist painters Franz Marc, Gabriele Munter, and Alexi von Jawlensky, attended a concert in Munich of Schoenberg’s compositions, including Second String Quartet (1907-08) and Three Piano Pieces (1909). It
amounted to a pilgrimage of radical artists to hear the latest in modern music. They weren’t disappointed. Franz Marc wrote an artist friend exclaiming, “Can you imagine a music in which tonality (that is, the adherence to any key) is completely suspended? I was constantly reminded of Kandinsky’s large Composition, which also permits no trace of tonality.”.

Kandinsky was similarly moved and immediately made two small drawings that quickly transformed the concert hall stage into an abstract composition. The next day, he painted Composition III (Concert), possibly as a direct reaction to the quiet and purposeful dissonances of Three Piano Pieces. Within two weeks, he wrote to Schoenberg to discuss their common artistic interests.

Composition III (Concert) marks the genesis of their friendship. The bold integration of fields of primary reds, yellows and blues are interrupted by dissonances of nervous black lines, suggesting at times figures or trees before they dissolve into abstraction. Kandinsky wrote in
1912 in On the Spiritual in Art, “Color is a means of exerting a direct influence upon the soul. Color is the keyboard. The eye is the hammer. The soul is the piano, with its many strings.” Similarly Schoenberg wrote, “Dissonances are only different from consonances in degree; they are nothing else than more remote consonances.” One of the many pleasures of this exhibition is that the Jewish Museum has provided free headsets (sponsored by Mayor Bloomberg) that allow one to listen to the music and view the artworks simultaneously to fully appreciate the intimate relationship.

Much to his surprise, Kandinsky discovered that Schoenberg was somewhat of an artist himself, albeit a self-taught amateur. Schoenberg had been making paintings and drawings; self-portraits, portraits, set designs, fantasies and nightpieces since 1908 and in October 1910, had his first exhibition of forty-two paintings. His work is deeply introspective, echoing
explorations into the unconscious that Freud had begun in his revolutionary Interpretation of Dreams in 1900.

Typical of many contemporary Austrian Expressionists, color is used to express his psychological state. Red Gaze (1910) expresses Schoenberg’s belief in “the instinctive nature of the unconscious, unhampered by all that was acquired through taste, education or skill.” The harrowing gaze, typical of many of his self-portraits, becomes a premonition of the abyss of war and revolution that Europe would be plunged into in a few short years.

Schoenberg only painted between 1908 and 1911, a period in which he first introduced and explored atonality. The intense hostility of critics and the public to his music may have influenced his interest in this totally different medium. As a visual artist, his work is limited, even though Kandinsky was impressed enough to invite him to exhibit with the new group of radical artists.

It was the first Blue Rider exhibition. The museum has assembled a handsome selection of paintings and artists that were in the first exhibition, including the Guggenheim’s Yellow Cow (1911) by Franz Marc. The Blue Rider group, although never a formal movement, was extremely influential as a proponent of Expressionism, abstraction and the use of symbolic color in early Modernism. Schoenberg’s inclusion is an important indication of how seriously he was considered by fellow modern artists.

Schoenberg had converted to Protestantism at the age of 23 because of his “profound identification with German culture, especially the music of Bach and Brahms.” His path of apostasy would be abruptly blocked by events of the 1920′s.

After the Blue Rider exhibitions, the idealism and hope of this generation could lead to such exclamations as, “Schoenberg’s music leads us into a new realm, where musical experiences are no longer acoustic, but purely spiritual. Here begins the ‘music of the future.’” (Kandinsky, On the Spiritual in Art. This idealism was abruptly shattered by World War I in 1914. For eight years, Kandinsky and Schoenberg lost touch. In the 1920′s, they both resumed their artistic work, respectively pushing the boundaries of modernism. Kandinsky’s work became less lyrical and more formalistic and geometrical, while Schoenberg developed atonalism into the radical twelve-tone method that elevates dissonance into a fully structured musical aesthetic.

In 1923, Kandinsky invited Schoenberg to teach in Weimar where the artist was involved with the new Bauhaus movement. Schoenberg, under the impression that Kandinsky had made anti-Semitic remarks, harshly refused, declaring, “It cannot be. For I have at last learnt the lesson that has been forced upon me during this year, and I shall not ever forget it. It is that I am not a German, not a European, indeed perhaps scarcely even a human being but I am a Jew. I give up hope of reaching any understanding. It was a dream.”

Kandinsky offered a denial and affirmation that, “I love you as an artist and a human being. I think least of all about nationality – it is a matter of the greatest indifference to me.”  Nevertheless, the relationship was effectively terminated by Schoenberg. Here the exhibition rather sadly ends. 


The story, however, does not end there. A detailed reading of the excellent catalogue reveals much more. Ten years later, Kandinsky fled the Nazis to France where he spent the war, dying right after the liberation of Paris in 1944. His radical early abstract work, deeply influenced by his own musical ideas and the compositions of contemporary composers, including Schoenberg, is ensconced in the canons of the greatest early modern paintings. While he was artistically eclipsed by the brasher and ultimately more recognizable work of Picasso, he remains a seminal source of modernist creativity.

Schoenberg’s contribution would take a different path. He observed postwar anti-Semitism as early as 1921, and one might assume an artistic reaction with composition of Die Jakobsleiter in 1922, even though the catalogue states that his “first artistic exploration of his Jewish identity” began with Der biblische Weg (The Biblical Way) in 1927. He wrote the libretto for the groundbreaking opera Moses und Aron in 1928, and completed the first and second acts in 1932 just before he fled the Nazis in 1933.

On his way to American exile, Schoenberg reconverted to Judaism in Paris, with artist Marc Chagall as a witness to the ceremony. The wayward son had returned to his people, a great modernist composer found in Jewish motifs a fruitful source of his creativity.

Kandinsky still provides an essential foundation for our visual culture, liberating us with the very music of the visual experience. Similarly, in a struggle of a totally different nature, Schoenberg’s pioneering musical explorations and singular use of Jewish subjects, especially in the seminal opera Moses und Aron, establishes a life-giving inheritance for Jewish composers.
We are the inheritors of both traditions.

Richard McBee is a painter of Torah subject matter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at www.richardmcbee.com.

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About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com


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