Text by Deanna MacDonald
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Today, considered a central figure of 20th-century art, Kandinsky spent most of his early career searching for his artistic voice. It wasn’t until 1908, when he was a 42-year-old art professor in Munich living with a former student, the artist Gabriele Münter, that Kandinsky had his first artistic breakthrough. He and Münter began to spend time in Murnau, a village near the Bavarian Alps, and the area’s bucolic beauty became an inspiration for both of them. The exuberant Picture with Archer dates from this period and it suggests everything Kandinsky would become as an artist.
It is a heady mix of nostalgia, excitement and promise. Evoking the romantic atmosphere of a dream or folk tale, the scene is set in an abstracted landscape of multi-hued mountains and trees with a small house and an onion-domed tower. In the left foreground stand a cluster of men in Russian dress and, adding a dash of chivalric drama, to the right is a galloping horse and rider, who turns and points a bow at some unseen target.
In this painting Kandinsky merges the natural splendour of the Murnau countryside, the influences of Bavarian folk art (particularly glass painting) and his own memories of the iconic art of his native Russia with a palette of vibrant hues. The intense colour was partially inspired by the Fauves and other French artists who he and Münter had encountered while living in Paris from 1906–07, and in part by Münter herself, who favoured high colour, rough brushwork and unusual viewpoints. While still figural, Picture with an Archer points towards abstraction with its patchwork of masterful colour and pulsating energy, creating an effect almost like music. And indeed, within a few months of completing this canvas, Kandinsky would be the first modern artist to paint an entirely abstract work.
From the time of this painting, Kandinsky stripped away descriptive detail, reducing forms and figures to calligraphic lines and colour. Kandinsky often spoke of painting like music (he was greatly influenced by the avant-garde composer Schönberg) and believed re-occurring motifs, even abstract ones, and brilliant colour could trigger emotion (or as he put it, an ‘inner sound’), just as a piece of music does. In abstraction, Kandinsky felt art could put aside material concerns and reveal a spiritual truth, which would be more powerful for not being tied to reality. For Kandinsky, painting thus became a sort of music for the eyes.
The horse and rider motif was one that Kandinsky came back to again and again. The theme was inspired by St George, the heroic Christian saint often depicted killing a dragon while on horseback, who was a central character in both Russian and Bavarian folk art. For Kandinsky, the rider symbolised his own crusade against conventional values and his belief that art could lead the way to spiritual renewal. The rider first appeared in Kandinsky’s art in Russia at the turn of the century and was a reoccurring motif in his Bavarian landscapes from around 1909–10. The theme would become central to the group Kandinsky founded in 1911 with Franz Marc: Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider). And indeed, the horseman was incorporated into the cover designs of Kandinsky’s theoretical manifesto On the Spiritual in Art (1911) and the Blue Rider Almanac (1912).
1909 Pablo Picasso: The Factory, Horta de Ebro, St Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum
1909 Gustav Klimt: Judith II (Salome), Venice, Galeria d’Arte Moderna