Tate strikes gold

    I remember, as a fledgling art-lover, going around the art gallery in Palm Springs where every picture in the collection had been donated by a famous movie star. Echoing through the galleries was a ghostly commentary by Kirk Douglas. In front of a cosmic arrangement of dashing lines and glowing splodges, Kirk solemnly informed us: “This is Wassily Kandinsky. He took the subject matter out of art.”

    That was in the days when being the first abstractionist meant something important. Two huge cultural changes have engulfed us since. The first was the end of the war between figuration and abstraction. There used to be one; it used to feel critical.

    But once it began boring us, around the beginning of the 1980s, the issue became irrelevant. The other cultural development was the growth of a more adult art history, which realised that one person was unlikely to have invented abstraction. Indeed, we now know that weird occult artists in Scandinavia were painting pure abstracts by the middle of the 19th century.

    Thus, Kandinsky’s fame began slipping down the back of the sofa. Full marks, therefore, to Tate Modern for bucking the trend and for putting on the first significant Kandinsky exhibition of my lifetime. Another of his problems was his terrifying prolificness. Before he found his abstract self, he produced a mass of figurative paintings that are very Russian and difficult to like. After he found his abstract self, this same inability to turn off the tap afflicted his ending, which went on and on. But these two huge spoil heaps at either end of Kandinsky’s career are dealt with impeccably here. Kandinsky’s beginnings are summarised in just three fascinating paintings. And his endless end is avoided altogether by selecting 1922 as the show’s cutoff point. Everything about Kandinsky: The Path to Abstraction is perfectly judged.

    As it happens, I rather admired the tiny cluster of overtly figurative paintings with which the gates are opened to the path to abstraction. Kandinsky came late to art. Born in Moscow in 1866, the son of a wealthy Siberian tea merchant, he studied law, then faffed about, as the sons of rich Russian tea merchants do. When we encounter him here, he is already 40, and on holiday, again, capturing the higgledy-piggledy geometry of an Arab city in Tunisia with a painterly Lego of khaki and white bricks. It’s a lovely picture. Because the colours have been laid on in unmixed dabs to ensure maximum contrast, the white city seems to glow in the khaki desert. Clever.

    He studied art in Munich, a rather pompous mature student, you feel, whose age and financial independence gave him a conspicuous confidence. Kandinsky could not have arrived in Munich at a more propitious moment. German art was experiencing a spectacular liberation of its own. The French fauves, with their gaudy colours and extra-loose brushwork, were just being discovered. And this imported French fauvism was mating with the endemic German emotionalism to give us that most turbulent of isms: expressionism. It was right up Kandinsky’s street. His particular contribution to the conflagration was to make the fires fiercer still by pouring buckets of intense Slavic nationalism onto them. The second picture in the show features a flotilla of Russian boatmen in medieval costumes rowing across the Volga, singing as they paddle.

    The newly enraptured Kandinsky left his wife, of course, and took up with a young student, of course, and the next great sequence of paintings in the show takes us up to Murnau, in the Bavarian Alps, where he sets up house with his German girlfriend, Gabriele Münter. In real life, the fields, mountains, woods and valleys of Murnau were surely greenish and brownish. But in Kandinsky’s visions of them, they turn red and yellow and purple and orange. It’s as if Murnau has become a stained-glass window through which a divine midday sun is flooding. The ecstatic energy that fills these fiercely coloured landscapes conveys the sensation of being madly in love with Münter more accurately than it describes the mountainous beauty of Murnau. That was Kandinsky’s thing. He was trying to paint what he felt, not what he saw.

    The Murnau scenes are just beginning to be repetitive when the show moves on to its best stretch: that fascinating tipping point on the path to abstraction where the unrecognisable begins to overwhelm the recognisable. The collection of masterpieces that occupies the centre of this display has no starting place. By which I mean there is no single painting that can be called Kandinsky’s first abstract. Instead, the show appears to propose that none of his work is fully abstract, that he chose to disguise his figurative inspiration rather than actually to dispense with it.

    It’s a point made brilliantly with the juxtaposition on one dramatic wall of Cossacks, from 1910, which belongs to the Tate, with a painting from Rotterdam called Lyrically, from 1911. These two identically sized tributes to colour on the move should swap their titles. The Rotterdam painting could be called Cossacks, because it so clearly shows a mounted rider soaring across a wooded landscape; whereas the Tate’s gorgeous painting seems to be completely abstract, and would certainly suit the name Lyrically. A rainbow in the middle is the only instantly recognisable shape in it. But the clever juxtaposition encourages you to explore Cossacks further. And you soon discern the birds in the sky, the mountains in the background, the clashing horsemen, the castle on the hill. It’s as if you are looking at a pictorial puzzle of the sort that kids enjoy in books of eye-benders. See it the right way and it’s a dancing seal. Don’t see it the right way and it’s just dots, dabs, lines and splodges.

    It’s a trick Kandinsky pulls off again and again. And I would happily subscribe to the view that he never actually became a pure abstractionist. But these are art-historical niceties that become increasingly irrelevant as the show progresses. It doesn’t matter that the greatest painting in the show, the stupendous Composition VII, from 1913, which has come from the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, is apparently concerned with the big biblical moments of the flood, Genesis, the apocalypse. Covertly religious or not, it is one of the most astonishing pieces of tipping-point abstraction you will ever see. Ten feet wide, seven high, this huge and hugely busy painting darts hither and thither across the wall like a swarm of drunken hummingbirds. You can look at it for hours and still not focus on all its bits. A great expressionist is expressing his relationship to the cosmos. Awesome.

    The rest of the exhibition consists of more of the same. Gloriously so. Of course, there are variations in tone and busyness. The first world war certainly makes Kandinsky’s art darker. As an enemy alien forced to return to Moscow (there’s a delightful tale of him not taking any of his abstract paintings with him across the border, in case they were mistaken for enemy maps), he spends his second Russian period seemingly flitting from figuration to abstraction, as if it weren’t an issue for him, either. The final room contains a mercilessly small sample of his later works. It’s a perfect piece of editing, and a superb conclusion to the best exhibition at Tate Modern since the gallery opened.

    Dealing with the feeble Howard Hodgkin in the same article as the great Kandinsky feels sacrilegious. But the Tate has unveiled both retrospectives simultaneously, forcing us to compare gold with washing-machine fluff. The Hodgkin retrospective, at Tate Britain, is unviewable. The paintings are rough enough, but hanging them on scruffily ragged walls of ice-cream green and diarrhoea brown makes the whole thing look like a badly decorated wine bar.

    The ludicrous amount of time Hodgkin spends on his pictures — it took him three years to paint Venice in the Autumn, a picture the size of an exercise book, in which an area of red is topped by an area of black — must chiefly be spent wondering how he has got away with it all. My guess is that people like Hodgkin for the same reason they like sun-dried tomatoes and gazpacho. His art makes you forget you are in England. Only in England would a man be knighted for producing art that taps into the urge to move abroad.