Kandinsky, Malevich, Mondrian – The Infinite White Abyss is the first exhibition to explore the theme of white fields in the work of these three avant-garde artists. At the start of the last century, the three artists each developed their own path to abstraction. It was the idea of “white” that attracted their attention. For each of the artists “white” – material and immaterial at the same time – had become a potent symbol for a future world. It was a “silence full of possibilities”, as Kandinsky wrote in 1911. Over the years, there has been vivid discussion about colour in the oeuvre of Kandinsky, Malevich and Mondrian. At this very point it was time to have a closer look at the use of white, which played such an important role for the three artists and the understanding of their artistic and cultural legacy, both then and now.
How can we possibly understand the birth of abstract painting without knowledge of the period’s conceptions of terms such as matter and space, so central to the work of any artist? A key notion, long missing from cultural histories of this era, is that of the ether of space which was understood to bridge these two seemingly separate concepts—matter and space—and was at the heart of both scientific and occult understandings of the nature of reality in the early 20th century. By the time histories of abstract art were first being written in the 1930s and 1940s, however, the world of ether physics had been eclipsed by the popularization of Einstein and Relativity Theory, which had begun in 1919. Restoring Kandinsky, Mondrian, and Malevich to their early 20th-century contexts is vital to the history of the development of each of their styles and to understand the significance of these avant-garde pioneers.
Kandinsky’s, Mondrian’s and Malevich’s modes of artistic production are characterized by particular differences in form; however, in the case of all three artists, this is grounded in similar questions concerning contemporary science and occultism. Although they were operating in different locales, Russia, Germany, and Paris—for Kandinsky, the Netherlands; Paris for Mondrian; and Russia for Malevich—the information available to them on science and occultism, including Theosophy, was highly international. We wanted to present the remarkable artistic output of these artists and re-sensitise what the three artists have in common, which is so obvious to see and easy to overlook at the same time—the multifaceted examination of the color white.
For the exhibition, we assembled a selection of works by Kandinsky, Malevich and Mondrian from the second and third decade of the 20th century, when the use of “white” had the most evident significance within the artists’ painted and written oeuvres. In the chronology of our presentation each work refers to crucial aspects in the discussion of the white and can be understood as essential evidence commenting on the exhibition’s central questions. It goes without saying that for instance Malevich’s outstanding Suprematist work, White Planes in Dissolution (1917/18) is one of the very central pieces for our argumentation, thesis and synthesis at once—for Malevich, a work in which the “limitless space through the indefinite white points to the universe.” For him, the “appearance of white is not generated by the pure principle of color, unlike its vibrations. It expresses something else. It marks his transformation during this epoch. His idea of color ceases to be colorful. It melts into one color—white.”
The exhibition design was of central relevance for us. Together with Berlin-based architect Thomas Stadler, we tried to create an exceptional room design that should satisfy the complex requirements of the works to be shown in a most egalitarian manner. In our open-plan room structure, articulated by freestanding walls, selected major works from the period 1911 to 1941 are presented in chronological order, tracing the preoccupation of the three artists with the colour white in three parallel lines of development. There is a separate wall for each image: thus, attention can focus entirely on the work and the differentiation of the white areas of colour, surface texture and material character, as well as on thematic relevance in the overall context of the composition. At the same time, when considering the design, the development process of the white surfaces in the work of each artist, as well as their particular handling of white, was taken into account. This makes it possible to compare the—at times—surprising concordances and analogies between the paintings of the three artists, as well as the crucial differences.
It was in 1919 when Kazimir Malevich articulated his famous words, which finally entered the history books as the “Suprematist Manifesto”. Its last paragraph reads: “I have broken the blue boundary of color limits, [...], I have beaten the lining of the colored sky, torn it away and in the sack that formed itself, I have put color and knotted it. Swim! The free white abyss, infinity, lies before you.” Malevich’s void is a construction where only the white noise of energy and dynamic rhythm all becomes perfectly quiet. In this context, his idea of absence can be seen as a most radical utopia. It was this very avant-garde spirit we aimed to take up in our exhibition design. References can be found in the examination of the light in Mondrian’s drawings but also in Kandinsky’s metaphor of the Russian steam bath where a man standing in the steam is neither close nor far, he is just somewhere. We had long discussions about the particular wall colour as we wanted to create a setting that would support the white used in the presented works. It took us a couple of tests with original works to finally identify the very shade of white, which suited most of the works.
While working on the exhibition it turned out that the contexts of the white in the work of all three artists were extremely complex. To reveal this complexity in the reference framework - the various cross-genre influences, and the fields of context and sources of inspiration forming the background against which the white areas in the work of the three artists are to be considered - we created four laboratories on the subjects of “occultism and science,” “color,” “film” and “architecture.” This expanded on historical sources along with theoretical and artistic discourses. The four laboratories represent certain aspects that were important in the context of Kandinsky’s, Malevich’s and Mondrian’s examination of “white”—often associated with the concept of the fourth dimension.
During the four years of preparation, we faced many challenges, which is all too understandable given the sensitivity and preciousness of the artworks. Moreover, these are highly sought after in international lending at a time when utopia—100 years since the rise of the avant-garde, and the centenary of World War I—has once again become topical. Bringing together this group of key works by Kandinsky, Malevich and Mondrian would not have been possible without the unique support of museums and collectors from all over the world who were convinced by our exhibition’s concept. Many colleagues accompanied the exhibition preparations with valuable information and were made available to us with advice and assistance. The generous commitment of the institutions and persons that finally made this project possible cannot be over stated.
Almost 100 years ago, Malevich, Kandinsky and Mondrian demonstrated the significant impetus art could give to society. Art opens new perspectives on the world and therefore, ultimately, can identify new ways of shaping this world—provided it is willing to deal with current affairs beyond its actual sphere of influence. Concepts of utopia today are more relevant than ever, and so are the artistic legacies of Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian. —[O]