Modern to Contemporary: Jackson Pollock and Vasily Kandinsky

Modern to Contemporary: Jackson Pollock and Vasily Kandinsky

Art history is cyclic, and many stylistic and technical elements travel from one epoch to another, creating various chains of influences of definite artists or art directions on the other ones. Modern and contemporary art absorbed different art concepts from various cultural periods and combined them with other fields of human activities, such as Philosophy, Math, Physics, etc.

To compare modern and contemporary art, it is necessary to choose artists and examples of their works and evaluate each one. This paper aims to compare work with the painting Improvisation No. 30 (Cannons) (1913) by Vasily Kandinsky to Jackson Pollock’s painting The Key (1946).

At first view, both works seem similar, as if they were painted by one person in one period of life, but to look more properly, they represent different aims, concepts, and philosophy, even if they contain similarities in color, composition and some technical elements. To make a valid comparison, it is important to consider all the means of comparison, such as individuality of artists, their influences, teachers, art direction, and life conditions. It will explain main ideas and conceptual frames of their art pieces. Technique, colour use, geometry, and composition play important role in comparing abstract art as well.

To begin with, Kandinsky is a born-Russian painter, who denied his law teacher’s career in Moscow and moved to Munich to study art. There he joined a Theosophical group, which was a background for his spiritualistic direction in art. When the World War I broke out, he moved back to Russia, but there, he could not accept art theory and Communist movement dictated. Thus, he came back to Munich and lived there till the Nazi takeover in 1933. Then, he moved to France, where he lived until his death. His early works (as he started painting at the age of 30) were mostly landscapes with definite objects, containing folk elements of Russian life discourse.

However, being more famous as an art theorist than an artist, he was sure that art was a reflection of artist’s soul, but not a depiction of the outside world. He often compared the personality of an artist, in reference to his works, to details of musical instruments. In his book Point and Line to Plane (19), he mentioned that during his trip around Europe, he was highly influenced by impressionist art. Color became the main feature of his works in the 1910s.

According to Kandinsky’s prehistory, the work Improvisation No. 30 (Cannons) was completed during so called Blue Rider period (1911-1914) of Kandinsky’s development, and contains influences of European impressionism and theosophical understanding of soul. It is full of color and tough lines, some of which are blurry, while others are well-defined. In addition, the title of the work is borrowed from musical theory: improvisations with numbers are features of composers’ works, which means that the painting was influenced by the theory of music.

Speaking about Jackson Pollock’s The Key (see fig. 3), one might admit that he was famous for his “drop paintings” , in opposite to Kandinsky’s geometrical images. Pollock is an important figure in the history of the American art and he challenged the Western approach to it. He was influenced not only by the expressionist art and abstractionism, but also surrealism, Mexican muralists, etc. Besides, Pollock suffered from alcoholic addiction and bipolar disorder, which could influence his work as well. He started painting at an earlier age than Kandinsky, but he had a great modernistic background. While Kandinsky was a theorist, Pollock invented many brand-new techniques in art processes.

Pollock’s painting The Key prefigured for his drop paintings, as it refers to his Accabonac Series of paintings. The Key is considered to be a quazi-Surrealist painting. It suggests expressive abstract landscape with exact color of each abstract object. The main concept of the work is its emergency and process of creation, but not a composition, as it was in Kandinsky’s work.

Kandinsky used to paint with academic approach, but preferring his own theory of art and abstraction. His Improvisation No. 30 is oil and canvas painting, imaging an abstract swimmy landscape with human silhouettes and definite frames of cannons, marked with black lines . The composition is accurate and planned before the process of painting: Kandinsky would make sketches and drafts before he started working on original paintings.

Meanwhile, Pollock painted his The Key with oil and linen on the floor of his bedroom, as he always did. In addition, it was painted from all sides of the linen to represent the chaotic process of artistic thinking, expression, action, and its change. He did not use drafts. He often said that his paintings were unexpected, but successful and harmonic if he did not loose unity with his painting while working.

The idea of Kandinsky’s work was inspired by the year-long talks about the war, which was about to start. The painting is a kind of prediction, where the landscapes, crowd of people, and leaning houses are indistinct, while the cannons burst into the painting with black tough lines. The painting was an expression of the artists' feelings about these talks, his soul vibrations. The title “improvisation” expresses its abstract emotion, and it is far from the objects it depicts, as it is more musical than visual.

Pollock’s aim was to represent the process of painting, but not the reflection of his thoughts. It includes different emotions in their metamorphosis. Its title The Key may be considered as an outburst of artist’s evolution above himself and the whole American art.

This painting was the key to the new American art, influenced by European modern art and rethought through the prism of Pollock’s experiments with techniques.

The painting includes abstract objects, which are not as fluent as at the Improvisation: they are spontaneous and unconscious. There is no central idea or object which may catch the sight of viewers, so that the glance wanders all over the painting to follow its from-all-sides process of creating . It is much messier than “Improvisation” because of Pollock’s technique of painting on the unstretched linen and because of his concept of free creating, pure painting, and chaos.

Common feature of both pieces is their closeness to wars – prediction of the World War I in the first case and post-World War II mood in the other case. The war found its reflection in expressive manner of color use with prevalence of dark colors and broad geometric lines. The war discourse of both paintings is a part of superpersonal unconscious. It appears as cannons and changing reality of buildings and people images in the Improvisation No. 30. They symbolize fear in front of the unknown and terrifying expectation. In case of The Key, there is nothing objective to represent the war: it appears in the chaos and darkness of the artist’s mind. It is not only Pollock’s worldview, but something that reflected on the whole generations to stay with them even in peaceful periods.

The common point of both paintings is the 20th century war discourse from its prehistory to its outcomes. Prehistory is conscious anxiety. It has non-predictable way of progression and results but hints on what can happen. Improvisation No. 30 (Cannons) provides those hints with misty sunless images. The Key is an extension to the same

feeling. Anxiety of Pollock in this picture is heavier; it is not as sleepy, as in Improvisation No. 30. Color is more confident, but unconscious at the same time. The Key is a symbolic concept of psychological outcome of senseless wars of the 20th century. It shows mind metamorphosis of the entire generation. However, the confidence and disability to stop the sight on any object provides viewers with intention search for the “key,” which is the hope for improvement and development.

Both artists had a common aim – to create something new in art and to develop art itself, but they had different methods of reaching their goals. Kandinsky developed the composition and harmony, while Pollock experimented with materials, techniques, and chaotic painting. One can understand this from the above mentioned pictures. The secondary aims of those paintings were different. Kandinsky reached the expression of his idea orienting on the feelings and emotions, trying to reflect visually but using sound theory for its explanation. He wanted viewers to percept the painting the way he perceived his idea of the painting.

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