Editorial of May 14th 2009

Elitza Dulguerova
the store : Negotiating exhibition value at the time of the russian avant-garde(1)


Olga Medvedkova kandinsky in 1901, or the critique of critics

Seminar of May 14th 2009
Olga Medvedkova holds a doctorate in History and Civilization from the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS). Since 2001, she has been a researcher at EHESS’s Centre d’études des mondes russe, caucasien et centre-européen (CERCEC), where she directs a joint research project on the Architectural Library of Peter the Great. From 2004 to 2007, she was in residency at the French National Institute of Art History, where she developed a catalogue raisonné of the architectural books in the Jacques Doucet Collection. In 2007, she defended, at the University of Paris IV, her habilitation to direct research: Architectures imprimés : la circulation des livres d’architecture dans l’Europe du XVIIe et du XVIIIe siècle. She has been a CR1 researcher at the French National Center for Scientific Research’s (CNRS) André Chastel Center since 2008. Her book Jean-Baptiste Alexandre Le Blond, architecte. De Paris à Saint-Pétersbourg (Paris: Alain Baudry, 2007) won the Marianne Rolland Michel prize. She edited the collective volume Bibliothèques d’architecture/Architectural libraries (Paris: INHA-Alain Baudry, 2009). She is the author of more than thirty articles devoted to the history and theory of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century architecture, the most recent of which are: “L’édition des livres d’architectures en français dans l’Angleterre du XVIIIe siècle,” Claude Nicolas Ledoux et le livre d’architecture en français: Etienne-Louis Boullée, l’utopie et la poésie de l’art (Paris: Monum, 2006); “Un Abrégé moderne ou Vitruve selon la méthode,” Les Avatars de la littérature technique (Paris: Picard, 2008); and “La Maison de Glace ou architecture comme science expérimentale,” La science et l’enseignement de l’architecture dans les académies de l’Europe moderne, Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2008). Her other field of research is Russian art. She is the coauthor of L’art russe (Paris: Mazenod, 1991) and of Histoire de Saint-Pétersbourg (Paris: Fayard, 1996). She is interested, quite particularly, in the theory of the avant-garde, which she has taught for many years, in particular at EHESS. Her Kandinsky, le peintre de l’invisible, has just been published by Gallimard (Paris: Découverte).
kandinsky in 1901, or the critique of critics

The Scientist-Artist

        A former law student at the University of Moscow and a young anthropologist-scientist, Kandinsky quickly revealed himself as the strategist for the cause of modernism. As early as 1901, he opened up a veritable campaign he would lead his whole life long. The goal of this campaign was to protect modern creative activity by abolishing or circumventing such cultural institutions as the Exhibition, the School, and the Press, which were opposed to it while exercising their right of judgment, jury, expertise, and critique. In order to subordinate this cultural machine to the service of the artist, one had to “occupy” these strategic points. The poster for the first exhibition of Phalanx--the association Kandinsky founded and presided over in Munich, which organized from 1901 to 1904 twelve exhibitions and which was also a school where Kandinsky taught--perfectly reflects the offensive character of his strategic endeavor.
        The need to develop such strategies was no doubt in large part tied, in Kandinsky’s case, to his late entrance into the field of painting. How could someone who began to study painting at the age of 30 and who began to show his work at the age of 35 rapidly construct an artistic career within a sociocultural paradigm that was, if not fixed, at least highly structured? Certainly not by waiting for this paradigm to react to his appearance and to make a place for him “naturally”!
        Unlike numerous “professional artists” who spent years in apprenticeship and who trod the beaten path of exhibitions and competitions, Kandinsky thus prepared from the start to skip those steps. For this, he possessed other weapons than most artists had: on the one hand, an economic base--guaranteed by the fortune of his father, who was sympathetic to his choice--that was broad enough for him not to have to sell his works; on the other hand, a highly-structured way of thinking, a dual (Russian and German) cultural background, and an ability to write in both languages, too. In order to win recognition for the “value” of his artistic work, he adopted, in tandem with these elements, a strategy differing from that of the art market, whose goal was recognition from potential consumers and from the public in the broad sense. But what kind of recognition then mattered for Kandinsky? From what kind of audience was he seeking to command respect for the value of his works? And through what means did he think that he might attain that goal?
        One of the ways to reexamine this question is to come back to the beginning and reread some of the first texts--nay, the very first text--published by Kandinsky, which appeared in 1901. For, it is here, in a “youthful,” not already settled form and through what manages to slip out therefrom, that one can discover, more easily than in later texts, some of his ambitions and strategies.

The False Critic

        It was in 1901--the date when, in Munich, he created his association called Phalanx--that Kandinsky began to exhibit his works in Russia. His first appearance on the Moscow arts scene occurred as part of the Eighth Exhibition of the Moscow Society of Painters, where he presented sixteen of his canvases. And yet this debut was not noticed at all by critics. The name Kandinsky is not mentioned in any articles devoted to that exhibition. Kandinsky reacted to this silence with an article that appeared on April 17 and 19, 1901 in the Moscow newspaper Novosti dnja (News of the Day). This first text the artist devoted to the question of art--previously, he had written only “scientific” texts--bears the significant title Kritika kritikov (The critique of the critics).(1) We should be aware by now that Kandinsky was starting an offensive not against an indictment of his work, but against the silence with which it was greeted. He was not personally being blamed for anything, but quite simply was ignored by critics.
        The article opens, indeed, with an attack, the tone of which Kandinsky borrows from the poem that heads up the text:

Es ist leicht, eine kluge Grimasse zu schneiden
Und ein kluges Gesicht
Und gewichtig zu sagen: Dies mag ich leiden
Und jenes nicht.
Und wiel ich Dies lieden mag so muss es gut sien,
Und jenes nicht --
Vor solchen Leuten musst Du auf der Hut sein
Mit deinem Gedicht!

        The choice of this poem written by Friedrich von Bodenstedt (1819-1892) is significant. The latter was as much a poet as a scientist, and quite specifically an Orientalist--that is to say, an ethnographer and anthropologist. He lived in Russia, in Moscow and Tiflis, had learned Russian, and became a translator of Russian poetry, in particular of Pushkin, into German. Thus, just like Kandinsky, von Bodenstedt was a man with a twofold vocation--scientist and artist--and a dual linguistic background. The issue of Kandinsky’s bilingualism is one of the most important ones we should inquire about, but we shall leave aside that question for the moment.
        What von Bodenstedt is indicting in his poem is to be found in a single word: imposture. The critic does not have true knowledge of the things he claims to be judging, though he mimics such intelligence by sporting grimaces of it (eine kluge Grimasse), and it is thereupon that he establishes his authority, which allows him to settle matters while rejecting all that goes beyond his understanding (Und jenes nicht) and thereby creating the very phenomenon of the rejected and the refused (jenes). It is on the basis of this argument about imposture that Kandinsky was also going to construct, like a good lawyer, his own accusation, by challenging the very principle of artistic criticism outside art.
        “In every field, one listens to and takes into account only the opinion of people who know their field in a practical or theoretical way, people who are called specialists. An honorable exception is made only for art and literature; in those fields, every Tom, Dick, and Harry can proclaim out loud, with confidence, some authority and a ‘grimace of intelligence’: ‘This is beautiful and that is worthless.’ Anyone who is desirous to see his ‘works’ printed and to be paid for them takes up his pen and writes whatever he feels like. His writings are read and he is called a critic. And if that person is especially free and easy, he begins to spout ex cathedra every sort of absurdity that comes to mind. And it is up to the public to ‘give the reader an ovation.’”(2)

The Public and the Crowd

        Supporting his argument with another quotation from von Bodenstedt, Kandinsky identifies this “public” with an “ignorant crowd.”
“Indeed, the crowd allows itself to be abused. But how could it do otherwise? In the fields of which it remains ignorant, can it do anything other than listen to a bold ignoramus who is spouting his spurious “truths” with such conviction and persuasiveness? And so I venture to ask the following simple question: Can one let every Tom, Dick, and Harry discuss things in the field of art?”(3)
        Kandinsky’s article is constructed like an exemplary indictment. He chooses his reader well, or, rather, he creates his reader. This reader who is going to answer his question and therefore decide, in a way, the fate of art does not belong to the crowd, which is “guilty” of ignorance. The reader is not necessarily a specialist of some sort, either, but, at least, a “man capable of reflection,” that is to say, a man endowed with common sense, like a juror. To answer the question posed, Kandinsky proposes that this man take into account the place and the role of art criticism. This place, as he defines it, is quite decisive: criticism serves as an intermediary between the artist and the public.
        The fact that art is made for the public or, at least, for a certain public, and that it is the public that assigns to art its value, in particular by buying it, is completely absent from Kandinsky’s logic. The notions of sponsor and market are totally excluded from his intellectual apparatus. Quite to the contrary--and it is hereupon that he builds his indictment--there exists and there has always existed, since the dawn of time (!), a deep divide between the public and artists, which is due to the fact that artists devote their lives to art and the public sees therein only one of the means to entertain and amuse themselves. The public is therefore hostile to art, by definition.
        This “bad” public is composed of all those who are not artists. The true public of painters is made up only of painters, the true public of sculptors is made up only of sculptors, and so on. Thus, in Leon Tolstoy’s essay “What is Art?” (1898), which is one of the most important manifestations of late nineteenth-century Russian art criticism, Tolstoy, not being a painter, could only reproduce, apropos of painting, the opinions of the ignorant crowd. It would seem, therefore, that only painters would be capable of “criticizing” painters, only musicians who could write apropos of music, and so on.

The Good Critic

        Now, there does exist, Kandinsky goes on to say, an infinitely small number of persons who are capable of understanding art without practicing it. The role of the critic is to communicate with this tiny group and to attempt to bring in new members by “giving sight to the blind.” But who is this critic who appears in Kandinsky’s writing as a thaumaturge? Is he himself an artist? Yes and no, answers Kandinsky. Yes, for, from the psychical and physiological point of view, he is constituted like an artist: he has the eyes and nerves that see and react in a special way to beauty. No, for he does not practice an art. Yet he is no less a specialist, for, out of love for art, he devotes his life not to the practice of art but to its study. The idea of vocation is very dear to Kandinsky: just as in the case of the artist, what he underscores here is the notion of sacrifice and of the time devoted to this activity. Another notion that is no less dear to him is that of knowledge (znanie) which the critic acquires at the end of this long sacrifice.
        In all eras, specialists defined in this way were the only ones who had the right to speak about art. But in the present era, writes Kandinsky, this rule has to be applied even more strictly, for this era is marked by a genuine change: “Suddenly, artists discover (otkryvajut) new fields of beauty in nature that their predecessors did not see, and, struck by their discoveries, they passionately try to extract these new pearls from the overall mass of nature, in order to show them to others.”(4) The role of the critic is to explain to others these new phenomena that have been discovered by artists.
        Having thus defined the nature and role of the art critic, Kandinsky then proceeds to prove the existence of certain “criminal” deeds. He “deconstructs” the articles of Russian critics by demonstrating, not that they are bad critics, but that they are not critics at all. It is, therefore, a case of imposture, of “kluge Grimasse,” of masks Kandinsky tears away, or else of the kind of royal nudity found in Hans Christian Andersen’s famous fairy tale, which Kandinsky mentions. This part of the article also provides a wealth of material for those who want to explore Kandinsky’s intellectual universe. But we shall stop here in order to offer a temporary conclusion.

The Scientific Model

        It seems clear that this first text published by Kandinsky should be considered an act of seizure of power that accords only to specialists or colleagues the right to pronounce upon the value of artworks and to communicate this judgment to a broader public, which is by definition hostile to art. Apparently determined by the Romantic paradigm, this construction corresponds, at the same time, to the model of scientific expertise. It is this scientific component of Kandinsky’s way of proceeding that is rarely taken into account, but that we would like to underscore.
        During the years preceding his choice to pursue an artistic career, Kandinsky was already totally invested on an emotional level in his scientific career. He describes his break with science in his Looks on the Past as an epistemological break, nay, an existential one, and as a loss of faith. This break was influenced by a discovery that, instead of assuring him of the progress of science, proved to him its thoroughgoing impoverishment.
        “The disintegration of the atom was the same thing, in my soul, as the disintegration of the entire world. The thickest walls were suddenly crumbling. Everything was becoming precarious, unstable, weak. I would not be surprised to see a stone melt into thin air before me and become invisible. Science seemed to me ruined: its most solid bases were but an illusion, a mistake by scientists who were not building their divine edifice stone by stone, with a calm hand, in a transfigured light, but were groping about in the dark, at random, in the search for truths, and in their blindness, took one object for another one.”(5)
        The poverty of science is therefore tied to its subjectivity, its character as a human endeavor. Ultimately, despite all the progress of science and technology, man is still seeking to know the world while having for an instrument of this knowledge only his own human nature, with all there is about it that is imperfect and limited. There is therefore no reason to confer upon science a higher value than that assigned to art. The truth sought by science and by art is the same Truth: “I recognized with time and very gradually that the ‘Truth’ in general, and more specifically in art, is not a given X, an imperfectly known, but immutable, magnitude; it is, on the contrary, a variable magnitude, animated by a slow and ongoing movement.”(6)
        The artist can hope even more to attain the Truth, because he is, more than a scientist, aware of his own limits.
        Now, in examining art from the gnosiological standpoint and in setting the search for the Truth as the goal of art, Kandinsky creates a bridge between artistic activity and science’s mode of operation. Replacing science with art while retaining Truth as the objective signifies replacing one form of science--in particular, an experimental science that deals with the study of the phenomenal world, which is observable with the help of ever more sophisticated instruments that are, however, still misleading since they are built by man--with another form of science, one that deals with other types of phenomena that are observable not with the aide of instruments but by man himself qua instrument capable of developing his sensitivity, his eyes and his nerves.
         In one case as in the other, value is nonetheless attributed above all to the act of discovery. It is precisely as discovery--and in conformity with all the criteria of experimental science--that Kandinsky describes, we have seen, the change in the art of his time: artists discover new phenomena in nature that were always there but that were not seen beforehand, and they attempt, with the aid of their art, to extract them from nature.
        Now, scientific discovery can be subject only to the approval of a single jury, that of “fathers” and “brothers,” of “colleagues,” and only then, and upon this sole condition, of society. Conversely, what is recognized within the milieu of specialists cannot be “criticized” or challenged by any public.
        It seems to us very clear (even though this has never been noticed before) that the discovery of abstraction in 1910 was orchestrated by Kandinsky on the model of scientific discovery, recognition of which appertains to the artistic community alone. This discovery is established (patented) in a series of texts published in the years 1911-1913--Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911/12), the articles in The Blue Rider (1911), and in Looks on the Past (1913, 1918)--in which Kandinsky not only himself explains his discovery but recounts the path that led him toward this revolution. Better put, what he does is describe his life as the straight path toward that discovery (which nonetheless occurred “by accidental”) by excluding from this construction every useless detail. While supplying a few additional precious details, the 1976 book by the artist’s widow, Nina Kandinsky, does no more than crystallize the image created by the artist himself.(7) Continuing Kandinsky’s own desire on this score, she insists quite specifically on the priority of his discovery, exactly as if it were a matter of the discovery of radioactivity.

Genius in Science and in Art

        In an apparently paradoxical way, the artist thus adopts experimental science’s own mode of operation, wherein discoveries are submitted to strictly internal expert evaluation. But can one go further than this simple statement of a paradox?
        In Looks on the Past, Kandinsky cites only a few names of those who influenced him on the path to his discovery. We therefore have to be all the more attentive to each of those names. Thus, while listing the sciences he studied at the university, he mentions “criminal law which particularly and perhaps too exclusively affected me on account of Lombroso’s theory, which was still new at the time.”(8) Without doubt, what Kandinsky is invoking here is the theory of Criminal Man (1876) by Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909), though it is difficult for us not to assume that he had also read the latter’s The Man of Genius (Genio e follia, 1864; 3rd edition, 1877)(9), translated into Russian by Tarnowski and Tehukinova,(10) who added some new material drawn from the history of Russian literature.
        As is well known, Lombroso’s genius is, as is the case with the criminal, a phenomenon of natural pathology, the physiological basis of which he describes.(11) In analyzing hundreds of “cases,” Lombroso draws up a “composite picture” of the genius that includes, for example, a diminutive body, rickets, emaciation or extreme slenderness, a peculiarly-shaped cranium, but also precociousness or retardation, stuttering, vagrancy, somnambulism, and so on, the most important characteristic being hyperesthesia--the abnormal physiological or pathological increase in visual acuity and in sensitivity to the stimuli of the other senses.

“If we investigate more intimately, with the help of autobiographies, the physiological differences that separate a man of genius from an ordinary man, we find that they consist in a morbidly exquisite sensitivity. . . . They feel and notice more things, with a greater intensity and with a stronger tenacity, than other men. . . . The infinitely small things, the accidents the vulgar do not catch sight of, or do not notice, are caught by them, connected in a thousand ways, to which the vulgar give the name of creation.”(12)

        Thus, the genius is a sort of machine produced by an accident of nature who becomes an instrument, par excellence, for knowing nature. Thanks to his extreme sensitivity, to his specially organized eyes and nerves, the man of genius produces discoveries. Discovering, seeing what others do not see, is his physiological function. It is of little consequence whether he would be a scientist or a painter. Lombroso’s genius is essentially an inventor, a discoverer, a creator of the new. In his Preface to the French translation of Lombroso’s book, Charles Richet summarizes Lombroso’s argument by employing the figure of Lavoisier: “He discovers very simple facts that thousands of observers had not seen, although they had passed in front of their eyes before having passed in front of Lavoisier’s.”(13)

        Numerous points in Lombroso’s model are to be found again in Kandinsky’s texts that appropriate his idea of “discovery,” the mechanism of which (the genius’s hyperesthesia) is similar in art as in science. According to Kandinsky, however, a similar mechanism is also to be found in the critic who, he too, must represent a form of pathology and must have eyes and nerves that differ from those of others, so as to be able to discover novelty, this time not in nature but now in art. In passing the test of experimental science, the romantic genius thus sheds his light upon the field of art criticism at the very moment that field was becoming professionalized.


1. Despite the publication of this article in both English (Kandinsky, Complete Writings on Art, ed. Kenneth C. Lindsay et Peter Vergo [Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982) and Russian (ed. N. Avtonomova, D. Sarabjanov, and V. Tourtchin [Moscow: Gileia, 2001]), this text remains quite underutilized by the authors of works devoted to the period before Kandinsky’s discovery of abstraction. See, in particular, the studies of Peg Weiss (1979, 1995), Jelena Hahl-Koch (1993), Igor Aronov (2006), and so on.
2. We are translating the text into French from the 2001 Russian edition, vol. 1, pp. 37-38 [translated, in turn, into English--Trans.].
3. Ibid., p. 38.
4. Ibid., p. 39.
5. Wassily Kandinsky, Regards sur le passé (Paris: Hermann, 1974 [1913 for the German edition, 1918 for the Russian edition]), p. 99.
6. Ibid., p. 123.
7. Nina Kandinsky, Kandinsky und ich, (Munchen: Kindler, 1976); French translation: Kandinsky et moi (Paris: Flammarion, 1978). This volume may be compared to some biographies of scientists, like the one about Marie Curie written by her daughter. See T. Swann Harding, “Science and Propaganda,” American Journal of Economics and Sociology, 7:4 (July 1948): 475-86.
8. Regards sur le passé, p. 95.
9. I have consulted the French edition L’homme du génie, translated on the basis of the fifth Italian edition by Fr. Colonna d’Istria, an agrégé in philosophy, and prefaced by Charles Richet, a professor in the Paris Faculty of Medicine (Paris: Félix Alcan, 1889).
10. Saint Petersburg, 1895.
11. Or, more precisely, a psychosis (an irritation of the cerebral cortex) that is due to degeneration (this degeneration possibly being progressive in character, as with the loss, in man, of the animal tail).
12. L’homme du génie, p. 37 [translated from French into English--Trans.].
13. Ibid., p. XIV [translated from French into English--Trans.].



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