Megan Fontanella is considered a global expert on European painter Vasily Kandinsky, curating as she did the highly regarded 2021–22 exhibition of his work at the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum in New York, where she has worked for 19 years.

Despite – or perhaps because of – her history with the groundbreaking modernist, she describes her excitement in recently watching Kandinsky’s precious paintings emerge from the packing crates at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) in preparation for the upcoming exhibition Kandinsky.

“I know these works very well now, but as they’re going onto the wall it is so uplifting, there’s something so jubilant in these wonderful colours and forms, and even with paintings I know very well I find myself seeing new passages. There’s something very compelling in his work,” Fontanella tells Broadsheet.

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Part of the Sydney International Art Series and curated by Fontanella in conjunction with the AGNSW’s Jackie Dunn, Kandinsky features more than 50 works from the Guggenheim and from the AGNSW’s own collection in the most comprehensive exhibition of the Russian artist’s work seen in Australia.

In a wide-ranging discussion about Kandinsky and his ongoing influence, Fontanella is quick to reject the most common label associated with the artist: that he was a pioneer or creator of abstraction.

“Abstraction had existed in diverse world cultures for centuries; he was not the inventor of abstraction, I think that’s a misnomer,” she says. “What he did do in terms of pushing the envelope in abstraction among European modernists, when it was very much of interest, was using [abstraction] as a medium through which to explore the psychological effects of colour, the emotive response we can have to art. So abstraction became a very useful language for him.”

Kandinsky was born in Russia but was ultimately transnational, living in various parts of Europe. His life and work are punctuated by distinct periods of place and genre, although a clear thread of his belief in the transformative power of art is a constant.

Born in Moscow in 1866, he trained as a lawyer and became an associate professor of law at Moscow University, despite showing interest in painting and colour as an adolescent. He later moved to Germany where he studied art and exhibited in Munich. He was soon influenced by Monet and impressionism, jugendstil (the German equivalent of art nouveau), pointillism and the vibrant colours of fauvism, and began exhibiting and travelling extensively before settling in Bavaria with German painter Gabriele Münter. It was a time when his style moves from the representational (Blue Mountain, from 1908–09, with its distinct mountain, horses and riders) to abstraction (Painting with White Border, from 1913, where the horse is now just a gesture; both are highlights of the AGNSW’s exhibition).

In 1914, with the eruption of World War I, he was considered an enemy alien and quickly forced to flee, ultimately landing in Moscow, which would also become difficult under Bolshevik rule; it was a time of malnutrition and lack of artistic productivity. His return with new wife Nina Andreevskaya to Germany, and the progressive Bauhaus school where he taught, sees his work marked by geometrical grids, triangles and circles, the compositions ordered and balanced. Again, he was forced out of Germany in 1933, this time by the Nazi party. He left for Neuilly-sur-Seine in France. This would be the final period in Kandinsky’s personal and artistic life, when his output became prolific, his art taking a bold new direction in upbeat, biomorphic shapes evoking larvae and plankton. He died in 1944 aged 77.

“It’s always very important to tell the comprehensive story of Kandinsky’s work and life, and we’re extremely privileged to be able to do so with the Guggenheim’s holdings,” says Fontanella, explaining that the museum’s first director, artist and art advisor Hilla Rebay, encouraged Solomon R Guggenheim to begin collecting Kandinsky’s work and meet the artist at the Bauhaus in 1930, resulting in more than 150 works entering the museum’s collection. Today it’s one of the largest collections of Kandinsky’s works in the world.

Included in the AGNSW’s exhibition are the gallery’s own study for Painting with White Border, Composition 8 (1923), Dominant Curve (1936), and Landscape with Rolling Hills (1910), which Fontanella describes as “a wonderful gem”.

“Together these works tell a persuasive story of an artist who was constantly reinventing himself, even though there are threads pulling through.”

Almost eight decades after his death, Fontanella believes Kandinsky’s work still has contemporary resonances.

Even in his late work Kandinsky, who had just left Nazi Germany in 1933 and endured several difficult years, imbues “a sense of buoyancy, of hope, of transformation and transcendence”, she says. “And I feel those are things that continue to speak to us today. He was very committed to the exploration of his craft, to break that wall, try to bring you in. There’s a lot to find connection with.”

Kandinsky runs at the Art Gallery of New South Wales from November 4, 2023 –March 10, 2024

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