Wassily Kandinsky, Painting with Houses (Bild mit Häusern), 1909, oil on canvas,
98 x 133 cm, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam
Painting with Houses (1909) by Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky is one of the most colorful paintings in the collection of the Stedelijk Museum. It is also one of the most remarkable; this painting makes the sensation of Kandinsky’s first steps in his pioneering search for a freer, abstract painting almost palpable. After centuries in which painting was primarily the art of representation, what inspired Kandinsky – as one of the first – to strive for abstract, non-representational, art? He himself had several explanations.
In 1912, he described how he once entered his studio at twilight and, from the corner of his eye, glimpsed an unfamiliar, mysterious burst of color. As he drew closer, he saw that it was actually one of his own paintings, but placed on its side. The fact that a picture he at first failed to recognize held greater fascination for him proved, he felt, that realistic representation detracted from the independent action of the formal elements such as color, line, composition, and texture.
Wassily Kandinsky, Kochel – The Bridge, (Kochel – Die Brücke) 1902, oil on canvas,
30 x 45 cm, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
An experiment for readers, inspired by Kandinsky’s experience: does the work Kochel – The Bridge rotated 90 degrees, with less recognizable motifs, hold more surprises than in its normal orientation?
Wassily Kandinsky, Kochel – The Bridge,
rotated 90 degrees to the right.
Kandinsky believed that his task was to express spirituality through visual means. This aim correlated with his conviction that mankind was evolving to a higher spiritual level that would eventually overcome the materialism that dominated the 19th century. In many of his works, such as Watercolor No. 2 (1911-1912), Kandinsky used outlines or silhouettes of saints, trumpets, and horsemen that, without prior knowledge, are difficult or impossible to recognize. In the literature about Kandinsky, these are generally considered apocalyptic elements. Kandinsky repeatedly pointed to the decline of the “soulless material life of the 19th century,” in contrast to the “emergence of the spiritual-intellectual life of the 20th century” and the role of art in it. Encouraged by the spiritualist idea that the visible world is merely an external phenomenon, Kandinsky strove to make the invisible, visible.
Wassily Kandinsky, Watercolor No. 2 (Aquarell No. 2), 1911-1912, watercolor, gouache, and pencil on paper,
31,6 x 47,6 cm, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
Watercolor No. 2 has been associated with the ascension of Elijah. The blue undulating shape on the lower left is sometimes referred to as the water of the Jordan River, which parts to grant passage to the prophet Elijah. In the upper right-hand corner, Elijah ascends to heaven in a chariot pulled by three horses.
Art as an expression of the era
Initially, only colleagues and critics sympathetic to innovation took heed of Kandinsky’s work and theories. No wonder he doubted whether it was possible to create abstract artworks that were more than simply meaningless ornamentation. In 1912, Kandinsky wrote, “If, even today, we were to begin to dissolve completely the tie that binds us to nature […] we would create Works […] which would – to put it crudely – be like a tie, or a carpet.” Artists probably continued to pursue their experiments in the field of abstraction at least partly because of the feeling that they were charged with expressing the spirit of the times – a belief that originated in the theories of German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.
Hegel´s philosophy accelerated the emergence of non-representational art.
Hegel’s ideas about the spirit of the times became anchored in the thinking of progressive artists and their advocates. In connection with this zeitgeist, Kandinsky spoke of “inner necessity.” He was a proponent of the belief that the art of a certain era represents the primary expression of that era. This view sparked the notion that art is subject to inevitable change, and any criticism of it is clearly pointless. Furthermore, this belief in the spirit of the times implied an irrevocable notion of progress.
Wassily Kandinsky, Improvisation 33 (Orient I), 1913, oil on canvas,
88,5 x 100,5 cm, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
Music was the inspiration for Kandinsky’s visual language. Drawing on the prestige music enjoyed as abstract art due to its inherent immateriality, attention could be focused on the purely visual side of art, at the expense of the narrative element. The appeal of music lay in the ecstatic melodies, which painting could approximate by striving for the correct harmonic proportions. In his book On the Spiritual in Art (Über das Geistige in der Kunst) of 1912, the earliest comprehensive publication on abstraction in painting, Kandinsky offered his initial thoughts on systemization with a musical comparison: “Color (or form) is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.” The word “Improvisation” in the title of Improvisation 33 (Orient I) refers to a spontaneous musical expression.
The position of ‘Painting with Houses’ within Kandinsky’s oeuvre
There is a striking contrast between Painting with Houses and Kandinsky’s early work. Prior to 1909, the spatial effect in his paintings was always natural, with one viewpoint and a vanishing point perspective, as seen in Kochel – The Bridge (1902). In Painting with Houses, however, the left side of the image seems to fold forward, while the squatting figure with the red robe in the foreground is shown frontally. It is difficult to interpret the lower right-hand section as a wholly frontal rendering. It is impossible to say whether a number of passages in this section, which most closely resembles a terraced hillside (a motif that Kandinsky frequently used), depicts visible reality. In the past, this had always been the case in Kandinsky’s work. Here, color is used more generously, more vibrantly, and there are fewer attempts to mimic nature than in early Kandinskys. Painting with Houses is one of a series of landscapes with human, often fairytale-like figures. In this series it is one of the first with pronounced distortions and near-abstract elements.
In 1911, Kandinsky started making pairs in which the abstraction process spectacularly unfolds. These are works in which Christian motifs, such as the four horsemen and angels with trumpets of the apocalypse are continually pared down to outlines and silhouettes. The results shimmer, as in Watercolor No. 2 and Improvisation 33 (Orient I), but here the abstraction almost seems to follow a set procedure. In this respect, the reference to a musical improvisation in the title of the latter painting is a little misleading. In contrast, in Painting with Houses, the tilted, primitive looking row of houses and abstract color fields suddenly appear, apparently unplanned, their only preparation a preliminary sketch. The piece seems more closely related to the excitement of the painting on its side than to the pairs of 1911 and thereafter. Nonetheless, the motif and composition of Painting with Houses did not appear out of thin air.
Wassily Kandinsky, Study for Painting with Houses (Entwurf für Bild mit Häusern), 1909, brown ink and pencil on paper,
10,4 x 19,4 cm, Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich
In Study for Painting with Houses we see three figures in long robes – two of them squatting left and right and one standing in the middle –much more recognizable than in the painting.
The Influence of Folk Art
In 1913, when reflecting on his work, Kandinsky connected his pursuit of abstraction and his early interest in decorative folk art. He described spending time in the outlying northern Russian province of Vologda in 1889 where he fell under the spell of the richly colorful peasant interiors, interiors which seemed to dissolve in a blaze of color. Even the occupants wandered about, dressed like decorated Christmas trees. That must have been spectacular because, as a Muscovite, Kandinsky was accustomed to decorative abundance.
Contemporary artists, such as the German expressionists with whom Kandinsky associated after immigrating to Munich in 1896, evoked memories of folk and non-Western or ancient art in their work. Complete with perspectival distortions.
An interesting feature of Painting with Houses is that the image can be traced to a precise source. The row of houses and streets was inspired by a votive painting (a work in honor of the Virgin Mary, who protected the donors against the plague) in a church in the southern German town of Murnau. In 1908 and 1909, Kandinsky spent quite some time in Murnau and, in 1912, reproduced this votive work in the Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider) almanac, a book that he and his fellow artist, Franz Marc, compiled. In this book, he praises the votive painting for its “remarkable quality of compositional form” which, he asserted, was based on “modifications, interferences” and “substitutions,” necessary to make the “inner sound” of the objects perceptible. In other words, nature must be transformed and veiled in order to achieve expression or convey emotion. In actuality, the perspective in Painting with Houses is more realistic than you might think, as revealed by a picture of Murnau from the collection of Gabriele Münter, Kandinsky’s girlfriend at the time.
Votive painting, paint on panel, St. Nikolaus Church, Murnau
Murnau, 1909. Gabriele Münter- und Johannes Eichner-Stiftung, Munich
Could the picture have been a source of inspiration? Could the shadow in the lower right part of the picture have inspired Kandinsky to paint the dark squatting figure?
The Blaue Reiter was the first publication to devote equal attention to contemporary art and art from different parts of the world and different eras; the works were all illustrated and described according to what they expressed. The book set the trend for juxtaposing contemporary art with traditional folk art and non-Western art in art books and exhibitions. It was a convention that was eagerly picked up on. Also by former Stedelijk director Willem Sandberg, who linked it to expression, and thus complemented the stunning collection of expressionist works he acquired for the museum. Similarly distorted figures and heads with staring eyes in both expressionist art and ancient, non-Western, and folk art contributed to the idea that they appeal to us intuitively, that we instinctively understand them.
Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc, Der Blaue Reiter, Munich 1912,
Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
Psychology of expression and perception
However, the problem with expression is that an intense, immediate reaction does not guarantee communication. On the basis of perceptual psychology theory the art historian E. H. Gombrich has convincingly demonstrated that we should not consider the expressive qualities of colors or lines as absolute properties; our experience of them is subjective. If we interpret the composition lines in Painting with Houses as working to create a macabre atmosphere, we may no longer think so after seeing the votive painting that inspired it. When compared to this work, we will be unable to see Painting with Houses as macabre. Lines and colors can only correspond to a particular spectrum of feelings once they have been ascribed to a certain spectrum of possibilities. The artist can only convey a particular feeling or personal message if the viewer knows the possibilities available to the artist. In all other instances, the artist’s experience remains subjective and can only be felt by the artist. Transmission, however closely entwined with emotion, is ultimately based on knowledge. Nevertheless, there is no denying that much of that knowledge of drawing comparisons in painting is fairly obvious. Colors and lines can easily be compared in terms of scales ranging from cool to hot, sad to happy, and so on, thus infusing visual elements with a quasi-autonomous emotional value.
Thanks to our familiarity with works like Painting with Houses, in which expressiveness has a central role, we have learned to appreciate many of the expressive potentials of color and shape. Painting with Houses is both a rich composition of color fields and lines, and a fascinating cityscape with fairytale characters. The cityscape and the figures, along with the title chosen by the artist, guide our interpretation of this painting.
Painting with Houses and Improvisation 33 (Oriënt I) are displayed in gallery 0.3 at the Stedelijk Museum. Come and see it for yourself!
The Painting Restoration Department of the Stedelijk is currently examining Painting with Houses, along with the other expressionist paintings from the collection. The study includes examining any possible underpaintings and verso sides. Any new art historical information brought to light will be presented here: Click here.
Maurice Rummens is member of the Research Staff at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.
– Wassily Kandinsky, Über das Geistige in der Kunst, insbesondere in der Malerei, Bern 2009 (Munich 1912)
– id. en Franz Marc (eds.), Der Blaue Reiter; dokumentarische Neuausgabe von Klaus Lankheit, Munich 2006 (1912)
– Rose-Carol Washton Long, Kandinsky: The Development of an Abstract Style, Oxford 
– Peg Weiss, Kandinsky in Munich: The Formative Jugendstil Years, New Haven/London 1979
– id., Kandinsky and Old Russia: The Artist as Ethnographer and Shaman, New Haven/London 1995
– E.H. Gombrich, Kunst und Fortschritt. Wirkung und Wandlung einer Idee, Cologne 1978
– id., Meditations on a Hobby Horse and Other Essays on the Theory of Art, London/New York 1978 (London 1963)
– id., The Preference for the Primitive: Episodes in the History of Western Taste and Art, London 2002
– Willem Sandberg and Hans Jaffé, exh. cat. Moderne kunst nieuw + oud, Amsterdam (Stedelijk Museum), 1955
– Maurice Rummens, “Kandinsky’s ‘Painting with Houses’ and a votive panel at Murnau,” The Burlington Magazine 129 (1987) 1011, pp. 394-396.
On 19 December 1915 a now iconic exhibition opened in Petrograd, Russia. During 0.10: The Last Futurist Exhibition avant-garde artist Kazimir Malevich presented 39 entirely abstract paintings. The only known installation photograph of the 0.10 exhibition shows how Malevich transformed the gallery into what he deemed a Suprematist space. High in the corner of the room hung Black Square. Because the upper corner of a room was traditionally reserved for religious icons in Orthodox Christian homes, art critics of the day condemned his “arrogant” act, contending that it signified “the death of painting.” Black Square, a minimal composition painted with black oil paint surrounded by a white margin, proved to be Malevich’s most radical work.
In 2013 this famous corner and two walls, known from the only remaining installation photograph, are reconstructed at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam in the exhibition Kazimir Malevich and the Russian avant-garde (exhibition design by Marcel Schmalgemeijer). It includes 6 of the original paintings (including his 1929 Black Square version from Moscow) visible in the photograph from 1915. Graphic designers Mevis & van Deursen used the same photograph as the starting point of their poster design. From 19 October you can visit the Stedelijk and see this unique reconstruction of the famous exhibition with your own eyes!
The Stedelijk Museum has been open for more than six weeks now and some paintings have already been taken off the wall. Why is that? The curators have decided to use a dynamic display of the permanent collection. Vulnerable art works can be replaced when necessary, and parts of our collection can still go out on loan to other art institutions. The first exchanges are due to a loan request received from MoMA. Two works from the Stedelijk Museum collection will be part of the exhibition Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925.
Since not everyone has had the opportunity to visit the Stedelijk Museum since the re-opening, these exchanges have come quite quickly. Of course, we would not have done this if we couldn’t provide suitable alternatives. The two paintings by Kazimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian have been replaced with works from the same artists. The exchanges are therefore an enhancement to the permanent collection presentation, as they allow us to display the collection across its fullest width.
In addition to the circulation of works across the world, at the start of next year several parts of the collection will be replaced because of their light sensitivity. A large portion of the works on paper and the photography collection will be replaced by other works from the collection. For those who do not yet regularly visit the permanent collection presentation, this is a worthy reason to start doing just that, in order to see the new works on show.
As of now, Mondrian’s Composition: No. III, with Red, Yellow and Blue in room 5 and Malevich’s Suprematist Composition (yellow, orange and green rectangle) in room 9 are on display. Those who desperately want to see the Composition with Yellow, Red, Black, Blue and Gray (Mondrian) or Self-Portrait in Two Dimensions (Malevich) can satisfy their desires in New York from December 23 and on!
Having opened on the 23rd of September, we look back at some more of the preparations.
Various restoration projects have been undertaken over the past years, in order to ensure that the objects shown in the collection presentation are in their best possible state. In 2006 the monumental clock by Jan Eisenloeffel was restored by the metal restorer Michiel Langeveld. The bronze pedestal, the gilded zodiac symbols and the text line “Savour the day, live as the birds in the sky, and as the lilies in the field” have been returned to their former glory.
The ‘great copper clock’ by Berlage also underwent treatment and research.
Michiel Langeveld removed the tarnished layer of varnish, returning the contrast between the clock’s face and housing to its original state, as seen in recently discovered old photos. The mechanism was also treated; though the clock is once again in running order, it would have to be wound up everyday, which sadly is impossible in a closed display case. Instead, the hands have been set to ten o’clock. The children’s audio tour features a question in which children can test their clock-reading skills.
The various parts of the 1926 Harrenstein Bedroom by Rietveld – mentioned in our second blog about ongoing preparations – have been thoroughly researched in our depot over the past years by the furniture restorers Jurjen Creman (external Rietveld specialist) and Miko Vasques Dias. According to the research Rietveld seems to have reused some sections of the bedroom. After the bedroom had been assembled in the museum, the various parts were inspected and cleaned again by Miko. He also retouched the most obvious usage marks.
More objects received a final ‘finishing touch’ on location, right before they were placed in the display cases. Jewellery and cutlery received a final polishing in the jewellery gallery, where a working table was placed for this purpose.
Restorers Netta Krumperman and Marina van der Lecq polishing… >>
In short, all the objects have been returned to their best possible state.
Why not come and admire them in the museum?
The Design curators: Marjan Boot, Carolien Glazenburg, Ingeborg de Roode, Victoria Anastasyadis
Translation: Azinta Plantenga
We’re so sorry! This post is available in Dutch only.
The New York-born Kelly connects American and European art in a very interesting way. His large formats are typically American, but he also adapted very intensive European influences while in Paris between 1948 and 1954. Black with White Bar II from 1971 is an example which bears some of these traces.
In this painting, a plain white painted canvas and a flat black painted canvas come together. Or is it really more of a wall ornament? Kelly himself expresses it in pictorial terms. The edges of the two canvases replace painted contours, he says. Not unlike the cutout shapes of Henri Matisse’s La perruche et la Sirène (1952-1953), the large paper cut-out in the collection of the Stedelijk.
Beginning in 1950, Kelly found real separations more interesting than those simulated in paint. Thus, he anticipated the so-called minimal art of the 1960s. My painting is nothing else than what it is, he says, a painted surface and a support, color, and mass.
With its preference for deep blacks, bright colors, and intense white, Kelly follows in the tradition of Matisse and sets himself apart from the majority of the Abstract Expressionists, his contemporaries. According to Kelly, they clouded their colors by mixing and wet-in-wet painting.
Maurice Rummens, Member of the Research Staff at the Stedelijk
The knife rests being studied in the depot by, from left to right, Victoria Anastasyadis, Marjan Boot, Azinta Plantenga and Pram Pramudji from Depot Services.
The collection presentation will show around 2000 objects from the design collection. These of course need to be accompanied by information, in the form of about 800 object labels. In order to complete this momentous task, over the past few months we brought in the help of Roos Hollander, Azinta Plantenga and Jadwiga Peters. The titles, designers, producers and dates were checked using literature and information from designers and experts. This meant that our temporary colleagues were often invisible, hidden behind stacks of books or in the depot investigating the actual objects.
Examining marks on the metal vases by Claudius Linossier
Research confirmed the majority of the existing data, but also came up with some surprises. Sometimes we were disappointed by the research when it revealed that the items were not as old as thought, as we prefer to own early editions. And sometimes the research resulted in interesting new information, as in the case of a set of carved wooden knife rests from the early twentieth century. The maker was previously unknown, but after combing through the archives a letter from the artist Agathe Wegerif came to light, sent to David Cornelis Röell, then director of the Stedelijk. In it she mentioned the 12 knife rests that were made for her by the famous artists and architects: Theo van Hoytema, Lambertus Zijl, H.P. Berlage and K.P.C. de Bazel. The Applied Arts Curator Marjan Boot could then link each piece to the right artist.
Signatures on one of the knife rests
Another great find was the name of the designer of a poster advertising a modern decorative arts exhibition in Leiden, held in 1897. The poster was recorded in the museum collection as ‘artist unknown’ for a century, until it was selected to feature in the poster gallery around the old museum building’s monumental staircase. After some good detective work the designer turned out to be J.G. van Caspel (1870-1928), one of the most important poster designers during the late 19th and early 20th century.
Weekly meeting to discuss object labels with, from left to right, Roos Hollander, Margreeth Soeting from Documentation & Research, Jadwiga Peters and Azinta Plantenga
A small army of 12 restoration specialists have looked into all the materials and techniques used in the objects. Because design encompasses a multitude of materials and different types of objects, the expertise of various specialists was needed: for ceramics, glass, textile, wood, paper, jewellery and furniture. In the past materials and techniques were often not recorded with the same precision as they are today, so a thorough review was due. Knowing which materials and techniques were used can be essential for understanding certain objects. Despite the limited space on the object labels we have tried to include as much information as possible.
Roos with a stack of books
Streamlining all the gathered information and ensuring the information on the different objects is consistent is the task of the curators, the Documentation & Research department and the Project Bureau. Afterwards the labels need to be designed by the graphic designers Mevis & van Deursen. Decisions must be made on how to present the information on the various types of objects: with a label on the wall or in the cabinet? Printed on white paper or on a transparent sheet? With or without a number near the objects? The choices have been made; now all that remains is the actual production.
Yes, it is certainly no simple task. And when it is all finished we too might barely be able to believe how much work went into this.
The Design curators: Marjan Boot, Carolien Glazenburg, Ingeborg de Roode, Victoria Anastasyadis
Translation: Azinta Plantenga
The Stedelijk Museum has been collecting design since 1934. The decorative arts, graphic- and industrial design collection now holds around 70.000 objects (more than three-quarters of the complete Stedelijk collection). When the museum reopens in September this collection will be placed in a permanent presentation for the first time in the museum’s history. A selection of around 2000 objects will be distributed over 13 rooms covering an area of 900 m2 (half of the old museum building’s ground floor).
The presentation is essentially chronological running from around 1900 to the present day, with each room representing its own theme. To ensure the presentations prepared by the curators have the desired effect (in terms of the proportions, colours and number of objects to be displayed) they spent months making off-site trial presentations in the depot.
With the help of colleagues in the depot, the planned presentations were replicated as accurately as possible. As the intended display cases and platforms were not yet ready, this was initially undertaken with trestle tables and by colleagues carefully holding up the various objects.
Whilst virtual designs are useful, nothing can surpass seeing the objects placed together in real life. Sadly, this often means that many objects don’t make the final cut; a typical case of ‘kill your darlings’, but this can not be avoided. Further selection – often based on further research – usually results in an improvement of the presentation.
The curators know exactly what the result will look like. You, on the other hand, will have to wait till the end of September.
Ingeborg de Roode, Carolien Glazenburg, Marjan Boot, Victoria Anastasyadis
Translation: Azinta Plantenga
The Stedelijk’s restoration department is currently at work on three paintings by Marc Chagall: Self-Portrait with Seven Fingers, Motherhood and La Synagogue de Safed. The first two date from 1912-1913, when Chagall was living in Paris. They were exhibited at the Stedelijk as early as 1914 and bought immediately afterwards by an Amsterdam-based collector called Willem Beffie. In 1930 he sold them on to a collector called Regnault, who gave them to the Stedelijk on long-term loan. In 1953 the paintings were acquired by the Dutch state and they are now the responsibility of the cultural heritage department (Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed or RCE). The two pictures are therefore ‘old friends’ of Stedelijk Museum visitors and deserve to be cherished. Now, therefore, almost a century after they were created, they are under restoration, together with Chagall’s 1931 painting La Synagogue de Safed (property of the Stedelijk Museum).
Self-Portrait with Seven Fingers shows Chagall in his Paris studio. At top left, a window affords a view of the Eiffel Tower. At top right, there is a glimpse of Chagall’s birthplace, Vitebsk. Chagall depicts himself as an artist, holding a palette dotted with real daubs of oil paint. Like the rest of the painting, the palette was covered with a layer of varnish. This was applied during a previous restoration, when the painting was also relined.
In places, the wax-resin compound used at that time to apply the new canvas to its back had worked through to the front of the painting and was visible over the paint layers. Both the varnish and the patches of compound had darkened and dulled over time, concealing Chagall’s brushwork. The removal of the varnish layer and patches of compound has revealed the painting’s original bright colours. The palette has been restored to its original brilliance and Chagall’s subtle variations between matte and glossy brushstrokes can once again be appreciated.
The two other paintings are undergoing more limited restoration: flaking paint is being consolidated and surface dirt removed.
Alongside the restoration, research is also being done to improve knowledge of Chagall’s painting materials. A better understanding of these will enable the Museum to conserve the paintings better in future.
Restorer Stedelijk Museum