Byline: Merle Ginsberg

How many artists not only know what their greatest works are, but know it before they begin them?
Vasily Kandinsky designated 10 paintings, which he called his “Compositions” (influenced by his love of music), as his most important works. The first three in the series were de -stroyed in Germany during World War II, but for the first time, the other seven (and their subsequent sketches) are on display at the current show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
“It shouldn’t always be the critics who decide what is most important in a body of work,” offers Magdalena Dabrowksi, MoMA’s senior curator of drawings, who put together the historic Kandinsky show, entitled “Kandinsky: Compositions.” “Artists have a certain program — emotional, intellectual — and they are very well able to evaluate if their pictures solve the problems they want solved. Kandinsky was a most intellectual artist; he came to painting later in life, after he studied law and traveled the world. But he never allowed his spiritual side to be overwhelmed by the intellectual. He knew the “Compositions” were to be his most important works.
Dabrowski spent a very brisk two years importing the works from private collections in Russia and Germany, as well as various museums, and met with a lot of obstacles. It took a lot of persuasion to get some owners of private collections to part with their sketches or paintings, even for just six months.
“The reason we wanted to put them together was to see them as a sequence,” she says. “It’s amazing how much you learn that way. The first seven works were created in a very, very short span of time — between 1910 and 1913. Then there is a lapse of 10 years, and there’s ‘Composition Eight.’ Then he makes ‘Composition Nine’ in 1936. And in 1939, he creates ‘Composition Ten.’
“They were for him important statements about his spiritual development, which came from his Russian upbringing and Russian mysticism. But they also show his development from figurative to abstract painter. You see him begin to abandon the figure, then go back to it, then move ahead to the geometric shapes and color.”
While the show is an obvious lure for art scholars, it has also drawn big crowds of people who simply love Kandinsky. Perhaps they aren’t aware of the painter’s interest in “synaesthesia” — the crossover of the senses, such as the “sound” of a color — or haven’t read his treatise “On the Spiritual in Art,” and maybe they don’t even know the significance of a yellow triangle or blue circle in a particular work. “I think they’re very drawn by the various levels of meaning they can draw on themselves,” says Dabrowski, who studied art in her native Poland, then France, then got her doctorate at the Institute of Fine Art in New York.
“There’s a slew of interpretations of Kandinsky’s work besides his own, whether you see in terms of narrative, color or form. Kandinsky is a very sensuous artist; that’s what attracts people to him. The scholars know that ‘Composition Five,’ which is already fairly abstract, has a theme of resurrection. But it’s not mandatory to know the iconography.”
This is a short run for what could be an unusual opportunity: to view the Compositions all in one place. The paintings will be at MoMA until April 25, then move on to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art until the summer. After that, they will wind their way separately to their respective homes.
“All the curators told me I’d never assemble them all,” says Dabrowski. “Working under pressure makes you more efficient. There were a few sketches I still could not get the private collectors to release to us. But I’m still enthusiastic about it. I hope I’ve translated my enthusiasm through the show.”