Special Exhibition
9 March – 28 May 2000

Christian Meyer: Concept for the exhibition "Schönberg, Kandinsky, Blauer Reiter and the Russian Avant-garde – Art belongs to the unconscious"

"Every formal procedure which aspires to traditional effects is not completely free from conscious motivation. But art belongs to the unconscious!" wrote the painter-composer Arnold Schönberg to the music enthusiast-painter Wassily Kandinsky early in 1911. From this meeting of like spirits sprang the friendship of two men who, shortly before, had expanded the boundaries of traditional music, left behind representational art, and dissolved perspectives. Kandinsky, who felt that his work was significantly influenced by Schönberg’s, made him a present of a collection of woodcuts, made him a member of "Der Blaue Reiter" and enabled him to give a guest performance in St. Petersburg, at which the composer himself conducted his symphonic poem "Pelleas und Melisande."

This intellectual relationship lasted life-long, but this intense personal contact lasted only for three years. In 1914 Kandinsky returned to Moscow and Schönberg joined the Imperial Army. Schönberg’s twelve-tone method and Kandinsky’s strictly formalistic Bauhaus style of the 1920s were created at the same time, but independent of each other. Letters written up to the 1920s, as Schönberg in Los Angeles and Kandinsky in Paris had reached the goal of their life’s journey, and a chance meeting in Pörtschach on the Woerthersee in 1927 were of a personal nature. A suggestion of Kandinsky’s should be mentioned, that Schönberg should take over the direction of the music school in Weimar, in order to be closer to the Bauhaus movement. Schönberg achieved this in the spring of 1923, two years after he had had to find another place for his yearly summer holiday, as Jews were not wanted at Mattsee, in the province of Salzburg, and apparently he had been told of antisemitic tendencies at the Bauhaus, particularly mentioning Kandinsky by name. Kandinsky was stunned at Schönberg’s negative answer, and particularly his reasons for it. Schönberg’s farsightedness apparent in these letters was confirmed when the National Socialist catastrophe happened.

Kandinsky’s road to abstraction begins in 1908/09, in the landscapes such as Murnau and Kochel, in which strong colors and geometric forms as structural elements gain in importance, whereas the necessity for naturalistic representation loses its meaning. The first "Compositions" and "Improvisations" are produced, and lead finally to "Impression III (Concert)," which Kandinsky sketched in the very night he heard the concert, as already described – a work in which a large black patch recalls the lid of a concert piano, a few outlines are to be seen in the audience and in the orchestra, whereas a powerful "sounding" yellow area dominates the picture. Schönberg’s step towards free tonality is achieved at the beginning of 1911 at the same time as Kandinsky’s development of abstract art. Even if – or maybe because – both these first letters radiate strong conviction even overflowing happiness, the relief about an interdisciplinary companion takes on historical dimensions after every innovation. Both artists went their own way and relied on their own powers. Their further development though – in Schönberg’s case as in "Pierrot lunaire"(1912), and in Kandinsky’s in the later "Improvisations" and "Compositions" – is accompanied by regular assurances of mutual esteem, and encouraged by the immediately intensive exchange of letters, which led to the first personal meeting at the Starnberger Lake in the late summer of 1911, and in later years revealed, besides the diversity of insights into music and fine arts, the ideas behind the theoretical writings and stage experiments which were in the course of creation.

Parallels in the artistic development do not apply only to the works of Schönberg and Kandinsky, they are also to be seen in the composers and students of the "Viennese School" and in members of the "Blaue Reiter." Alexej von Jawlensky and Gabriele Münter used color as a structural element, Alban Berg and Anton Webern used tone colors to form variations. A similar situation in the Russian avant-garde, to which Kandinsky still had contact during his time in Munich, bears witness to the "Explosion in Art" after 1900, which could not be contained by national boundaries. It was tempting to show further aspects of Schönberg’s and Kandinsky’s intellectual relationship with significant companions of that time, from Jawlensky and Münter, Berg and Webern, from Burljuk and Kulbin to the composers Roslawetz and Herschkowitz, to the painters Ender, Filonow and Malewitsch who all had one thing in common: the desire to directly express what they felt.

The exhibition at the Arnold Schönberg Center describes, in concentric circles, the inner relationship of music and painting, of tone color and color tones, of Schönberg and Kandinsky. Its nucleus is formed by the meeting of the two men "unconsciously" in the impression of the Schönberg concert in Munich as it appears in "Impression III (Concert)" and in the immediately far-reaching aesthetic exchange. An examination of the artists’ group "Der Blaue Reiter" and their works during this decade lays a first path around this nucleus, other works, especially Kandinsky’s in the 1920s, form a second path, parallel to the development of Schönberg’s twelve-tone method. Related to this are the first signs of Malewitsch’s supremacy as well as the structure of the Russian avant-garde, also characterised by an inter-disciplinary understanding for art and an openness to the "unconscious," altogether forming, with a cross-section of Schönberg’s art, further levels from which this objective phenomenon can be observed. This journal and the Schönberg Center exhibition would not be able to follow the relationship between Arnold Schönberg and Wassily Kandinsky in such detail if it were not for a concurrent symposium (with the title "Schönberg and Eastern Europe"), two dozen concerts, lectures and a workshop (in collaboration with the Tschaikowsky Conservatory in Moscow) which are recreating the "World of Colour," acoustically and in spirit.

"Dissonant Painting" was the original working title of the journal and exhibition around Schönberg and Kandinsky. Contributions from Christopher Hailey and Esther da Costa Meyer show aspects of dissonance in music and painting after the turn of the century. After lengthy discussions it was decided not to choose a title which could cause confrontation among participants, as an overall title for the exhibition. The exhibition at the Arnold Schönberg Center, now with the title "Schönberg, Kandinsky, Blauer Reiter and the Russian Avant-garde" is based on contemporaneous painting and music. It reveals analogies astounding to composers and to painters, in this way describing what is impossible to describe with the traditional vocabulary. The main objective of this examination is not to prove the direct influence of a piece of music on a particular picture (this is only unequivocally possible in the case of Kandinsky’s "Impression III"), or vice versa. Rathermore, the works chosen make clear the ability of these artists to produce modern works years, or even decades, before the dissolution and reconstitution of society and politics. Schönberg’s theory that art belongs to the unconscious appears to be the key to the visionary power of the works shown, and is a challenge to the artist as well as to the viewer to look into the future beyond the beginning of the new century.