Russian Folklore: An Everlasting Source of Influence

Through prints and tempera, Russian folklore lives on in Kandinsky's paintings, accompanying his imagination even outside Russia

Centre Pompidou

"The emergence of each work, as far as technique is concerned, is exactly the same as the emergence of the cosmos … With cataclysms that, thanks to the chaotic rumblings of instruments, end up creating a symphony known as the music of the spheres. The creation of a work is the creation of the world." (Looks on the Past)

Altrussisches (Old Russia) (recto) - Old Man with Beard(verso) Altrussisches (Old Russia) (1904) by Kandinsky, VassilyCentre Pompidou

Russian Scene, Sunday (Old Russia), 1903–1904

Tempera on cardboard, 9.1 x 21.5 inches
Pompidou Center, National Museum of Modern Art, Paris
Bequest of Nina Kandinsky, 1981

Kandinsky spent most of his life abroad. However, he never forgot his hometown. Moscow too is a city of wonder inspired by its shimmering and contrasting colors:

"The sun softens the whole of Moscow into a remarkable blur that makes one's soul and inner being quiver. Pink, mauve, yellow, white, pistachio green, and fiery red houses and churches, with lawns that are insanely green, trees that emit a deeper humming sound, or snow that sings in a chorus of a thousand voices, the allegretto of the bare branches, the unyielding, silent, red enclosure of the walls of the Kremlin, and finally, rising up above all of that like a triumphant and liberating cry of Hallelujah, the tall white column and solemn adornments of the Ivan the Great Bell Tower.

To paint this moment in time seemed to me to be like the most impossible and the most sublime happiness that a painter could experience." (Looking back on the Past) 

Russian Scene is not an attempt to imitate the reality of Moscow life. Like other works, it is a transposition of a folkloric scene blended with the colorful magic of stories and legends.

Lied (Song) (1906) by Kandinsky, VassilyCentre Pompidou

Lied (Song), 1906

Tempera on glossy cardboard, 19.3 x 26 inches, Pompidou Center, National Museum of Modern Art, bequest of Mrs. Nina Kandinsky, 1981 

It was against a backdrop of Parisian Russophilia marked by the art exhibits organized by Sergei Diaghilev as well as by the success of the Ballets Russes that Song was created in 1906 in Sèvres. 

During his stay in France, Kandinsky returned to painting with determination, using tempera on dark paper—a technique adopted in 1901 in the studio of Franz von Stuck—to glorify the folklore of old Russia. 

Also known as Song of the Volga and exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants in 1907, Song shows the extent to which German Jugendstil had influenced Kandinsky's early work, just as both Russian symbolism and popular art had. 

The result is a syncretistic iconography in which boatmen in Russian costumes embark upon Viking drakkars decorated with orthodox icons, with a backdrop in the distance that is reminiscent of an Oriental city around a mosque. 

More than a historical account, Kandinsky sought here to create an overall atmosphere steeped in mystery: the figures are not depicted individually, but rather dynamically in a group, giving pretext to an abundance of spots and lines with an enchanting tonality of color. 

 The colors are pure, shaped as mosaics that are set apart by black outlines created by leaving the background partially visible.

The bygone character of this distant past allowed Kandinsky to remain close to tradition while also being innovative on an artistic level. By leaving behind realistic models to accentuate the autonomy of color, the artist lyrically awakens the imaginary world of a forgotten Russia, which he was able to discover as a young ethnologist of peasant law during his travels in provincial Russia. 

In Looking back on the Past, he thus alludes to his study trip in Vologda: "I'll never forget the great wooden houses covered with sculptures. … They taught me to move within the painting, to live within the painting. 

I still remember when I was entering the room for the first time, I stood rooted to the spot in front of such an unexpected scene. The table, the trunks, the large stove, which hold an important place in the house of a Russian peasant, the cabinets, and each object were decorated across their entirety with multicolored adornments painted in broad strokes. 

On the walls, there were popular pictures, symbolic images of a hero, a battle, the illustration of a popular song. …
When I finally entered the room, I felt surrounded on all sides by the painting that I had infiltrated. …

It is through these impressions in all likelihood, and not otherwise, that what I wanted, the objective that I set for my own personal art, took shape in me." 

Die Nacht, great version (The Night) Die Nacht, great version (The Night) (1903) by Kandinsky, VassilyCentre Pompidou

The set of paintings created between 1902 and 1907, which Kandinsky called the colored drawings is full of nostalgia.

They conjure up the distant past, where figures mix with one another, figures from old Russia, from old Germany, or even from the Biedermeier period.

Folklore, as it was established in the medieval period, is transfigured there by portraying it in a naive way, a homage to popular imagery and to tradition, as well as by using a very colorful palette. 

Tunis, Küstenlandschaft II (Tunis, coastal landscape II) (1905) by Kandinsky, VassilyCentre Pompidou

During these nomadic years across Europe and North Africa until 1908, Kandinsky continued to demonstrate a dichotomy in his work.

He created a significant number of small oil studies, done in the open air with a palette knife in a post-impressionist style, while continuing to paint what he called his "colored drawings": multicolored scenes on a black background done in a pointillist style using tempera, which seem to be directly inspired by Russian stories and legends.

Leier (The lyre) Leier (The lyre) (1907) by Kandinsky, VassilyCentre Pompidou

Between Russia and Germany, having integrated into the avant-garde social circles of the two countries, Kandinsky thrived on both traditions insofar as he connected them together. 

Schalmei (Piper) Schalmei (Piper) (1907) by Kandinsky, VassilyCentre Pompidou

Folklore, traditional painting, and above all Moscow, which is for him the origin of the Russian soul, left a profound mark on his work. 

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