Untitled (Composition)

1818 (February)

Accession year 1970

Ink and watercolour on paper, 24 x 31 cm
Signed and dated on the front, bottom left: monogram “K / II 18”; dedication and signature with date on the front, bottom right: “Dem lieben Herrn Baehr zum Andenken an Moskau / Kandinsky / Nov 18”

Collection Fondazione Francesco Federico Cerruti per l’Arte

Long-term loan Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli-Turin

Inv. no. CC.24.D.KAN.1918.A117

Provenance: Ludwig Baehr (1918-); Galerie Otto Stangl, Munich (1962-); Kornfeld und Klipstein, Berne, Moderne Kunst des neunzehnten und zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts: Teile der Sammlungen B. von S., Dr. H. G., Kommerzienrat M. H., G. von E., und weitere Bestande aus verschiedenen schweizerischen und auslandischen Privatsammlungen, 17-19 June 1965 (no. 443, p. 56, pl. 40, b/w ill.); Galerie Berggruen, Paris; Leonard Hutton Galleries, New York (1969-); Galerie Motte, Geneva, Vente aux enchères publiques. Tableaux modernes, 12 June 1970 (no. 94, p. 83, col. ill., with incorrect dimensions 16.5 x 26 cm).

Exhibitions: Munich 1962 (p. 4, ill., no. 1); New York 1969b (p. 36, ill., no. 27); Turin 1971b (p. 190, ill., with the title Composizione, dated “November 1918”, incorrect dimensions 16.5 x 26 cm).

Bibliography: Barnett 1992-94, vol. I, p. 430, ill., no. 492; The Cerruti Collection 2019, p. 72, ill.

This small gift from one artist to another tells the story of an entire thread of modern art in Western Europe.

Ambivalent little upward strokes resemble steps up to the sky, or part of a mysterious staff in a musical score.

The “accountant” Francesco Federico Cerruti loved to remind visitors to his villa in Rivoli that this little watercolour and ink painting on paper, produced by the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky in Moscow in February 1918, after his Blaue Reiter period, was the first work he ever purchased. It used to hang in the basement of his villa, on a load-bearing pillar, almost as if to physically indicate that it was at the foundation of the collector’s entire future life. Over the years to come, Cerruti went on to acquire three further works by Kandinsky.

Measuring the same size as the page of a book, this small work has a lot to say if we are ready to look at it and listen to it. Seemingly modest, it is an extraordinarily significant work as regards its provenance, the artist’s career and even the development of the history of art in the 20th century. It features shapes transformed by black lines into vital, radiant, tremulous and vibrant beings, as if they were in motion or sonorous. They are elements of an abstract world, which seems to allude to the real world in every moment: a tightly knit cellular microcosm of ameboid forms, observed through the lens of a microscope or, on the contrary, a profound macrocosm, with a curved horizon, as if looking at the planet from a satellite (satellites, that did not exist at the time), a sky brought to life by asteroids, clouds, planets and flying objects.

Meanwhile, ambivalent little upward strokes resemble steps up to the sky, or part of a mysterious staff in a musical score (Kandinsky synaesthetically associated sounds, shapes, colours and spirituality, just like the Theosophists, to whom he was close from 1909 onwards). Born in Moscow in 1866 as the son of a tea merchant, Kandinsky completed a brilliant degree in law and economics. He taught at the university, but resigned at the age of thirty after a brief period as artistic director at a publishing house, something that indicated his rejection of a “normal” middle-class life and institutional thought. He left for Munich, the birthplace of the Jugendstil, where he met other exiled Russian artists, including Alexej von Jawlensky, and founded the Phalanx group: a phalanx of artists, a school of art, championing a new sensitivity, in opposition to what they saw as old-fashioned views on art. Before Kandinsky, art was figurative. However, he decided to leave representation aside in the quest for an art capable of directly conveying an inner necessity and to give it a visible form.

This complete innovation paved the way for Abstract Expressionism and Art Informel, which developed after World War II, all the way through to the art of today based on giving shape to inner experiences, perhaps through installations and other languages. In the Cerruti watercolour, the curved line could also represent the eyeball, whose physical components are responsible for optics and vision, including inner vision. Kandinsky seeks to give visible shape to the invisible vibration of the soul, which is similar in nature to music. The figures in the small watercolour are enigmatic: childhood consciousness that lingers in the adult and the enigma of existence, which would also prove a central theme for Cerruti. In August 1914, at the outbreak of World War I, Kandinsky was expelled from Germany and returned to Moscow, where he found himself in financial difficulty and did very few oil paintings. He primarily produced works on paper, including studies (specifically, for Weisses Oval, 1919) and inner exercises processing the instability of life during the period of the war, the Russian revolution and the death of a child at the tender age of two (when this work was being painted, Nina was pregnant). The painting could also allude to the emotional and psychological experience of this world in turmoil, and its abstract forms almost induce us to hear the clangour of the bombings and explosions. During that period, despite living in poverty, Kandinsky contributed to the development of art in Moscow, together with the minister in charge of the People’s Commissariat for Education (Narkompros), Anatoly Lunacharsky.

However, a certain Ludwig Baehr, a painter and former German official who worked with the German embassy in Moscow, with the task of fostering cultural relations between the two countries, met Kandinsky and encouraged relations between him and artists in Germany. Once the new Bauhaus school had been founded, Walter Gropius – with Baehr as the go-between – invited Kandinsky to teach there for six months in 1921. The artist never again returned to Russia. The small watercolour in the Cerruti Collection contains a dedication: “To dear Mr Baehr in memory of Moscow / Kandinsky / Nov 1918”. The drawing was a gift to his new friend, who took it West with him. Following Baehr’s death, it re-emerged on the market in Munich in 1962, going to the Berrgruen gallery in Paris and the Hutton gallery in New York in 1969, before appearing on loan from Cerruti himself after the purchase at an auction of the Galerie Motte in 1970 – in the exhibition on Der Blaue Reiter at the Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna in Turin in 1971. This small gift from one artist to another tells the story of an entire thread of modern art in Western Europe.

[Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev]