Discovering Kandinsky’s ethnographic art

Kandinsky ethnographicEvery now and then I like to pick up books “blindly”—choosing them for their cover, title, or shape. This has certainly brought boring books back home, but also deep and unexpected findings. My most recent “blind pick” was a book I borrowed from my school’s library, titled Kandinsky and Old Russia (Yale University Press, 2012). What I didn’t notice then, as I quickly skimmed through my options, was the author’s specific discussion. Thus, sitting in my living room that evening, I was thrilled to discover the subtitle: “The Artist as Ethnographer and Shaman.”

Peg Weiss (the author) explains that Kandinsky was the only trained ethnographer among the modernists. While he tried to avoid psychological and ethnographic readings of his art in the beginning of his career, Kandinsky fully embraced these elements as part of his artwork later in life. While I’ve only read the book’s introduction, it seems clear that Ms. Weiss is interested in exploring how the painter’s ethnic Russian heritage continuously influenced his paintings in order to reveal “the continuity and coherence of his iconography from beginning to end.” This was not an easy task. Weiss explains how people’s concern with modernity not only

obscured the true complexity of the artist’s development, but worse, it obscured its inherent continuity expressed both in formal stylistic terms…and, far more significantly, in terms of iconographic content and meaning. At the same time, this “formalist” approach also conveniently ignored such early paintings as “Song of the Volga” and “Motley Life” [featured below]. Together with a number of other works often referred to as the “Russian paintings,” these works often remained somewhat of an embarrassment, given short shrift in an art historical literature concerned more with the Western idea of “abstract painting” than with the visual evidence of Kandinsky’s lifelong commitment to his Russian heritage that sustained the continuity of his entire life’s work.

Kandinsky ethnographic 3Weiss’s book is appealing to me because it offers an insight into Kandinsky’s heritage as an ever-present part of his artistic work. Through his paintings, she says, Kandinsky hoped to blur the artificial borders between folk art, children’s art, and ethnography (which were identical to him) and what was commonly deemed “Art” in the West. His main interest was not formal resemblances, but internal coherence.

The last lines of the introduction offer an engaging transition to the following chapters:

The story told here begins with an expedition into the “wilds” of northern Russia, to the edge of Siberia, in the latter decades of the nineteenth century, and ends in the rarefied atmosphere of a Parisian studio just before the end of World War II. Paradoxically, the further removed the artist was in time and place from his roots, the more that heritage came to dominate his imagination. The brash young man who once had written: “Psychology, archeology, ethnography! What has art to do with all this?” was not the same man who in his last months painted such unabashedly “ethnographic” works as “The Arrow” [featured in the cover of this post] and “The Green Bond.” Yet they were, in fact, one and the same. Ethnography inexorably knit together the young and the old in ways the former could not foresee. The ethnographic experiences of his youth left an inedible imprint on the artist’s mind and provided an inexhaustible source of inspiration and imagery.

Having moved from Mexico to the U.S., and finding it ever more important to remember my culture, I sympathize with the author’s proposal that distance forced Kandinsky into a more ethnic art. As the painter once concluded in an essay in 1939: “Ask yourselves, if you like, whether the work of art has carried you away to a world unknown to you before. If so, what more do you want?”

—Alexia Raynal, Zeteo Deputy Editor

Kandinsky ethnographic 2

To read more posts in the fields of children and childhood by Alexia Raynal, visit her ZiR page here.


Motley Life (middle), 1907, Bayerische Landesbank, on permanent loan to the Städtische Galerie in Lembachhaus, Munich.

The Arrow (bottom), 1943, Basle, Offentliche Kunstsammlung Basel, Kunstmuseum

Kandinsky portrait, credit unknown

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