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‘Everything is mine, except the form’

Wassily Kandinsky, 1911, Reiter (Lyrishes), oil on canvas, 94 x 130 cm,
Wassily Kandinsky, 1911, Reiter (Lyrishes), oil on canvas, 94 x 130 cm,
Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Unless one counts the first cave artist who scratched an arrow on a rock with a stick, recorded history tells us that it was Wassily Kandinksy in 1910 who made the first abstract painting.

Telling Kandinsky's story is Milwaukee Art Museum’s show of his work. He started with only a slight suggestion of landscape. But it wasn’t about the land. It was about the natural forces behind the land - its flow and energy.

Kandinsky believed that abstraction is the great storyteller and that color creates what he called a “corresponding vibration in the human soul.” Unconcerned about representing the visible world, Kandinsky sought to reflect that part of life beyond the observable, the life that lies beneath the seeable, but which is no less real: the underworld of feeling.

Such a world can be said to play a large role in human drama. For that reason, he didn’t like to title his works beyond such words as “Composition” and “Improvisation.”

So while Kandinsky’s art appears as if it were about nothing in particular, it’s about many things. As he has famously said, “A circle in a painting can have greater significance than the human head, and the acute angle of a triangle meeting a circle produces an effect that is no less powerful than the finger of God touching Adam’s finger in Michelangelo.”

Given all the appropriating that artists indulge in nowadays, like Koons and Hirst and - lest we forget, Mike Bidlo, who copied Picasso paintings out of a book, saying, "Everything is mine, except the form” - the Kandinsky show in Milwaukee is a relief, don’t you think?