Kandinsky Cut Ties With Russia. So Did This Museum.

When the Hermitage Amsterdam cut ties with the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg in 2022, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it could have seemed like the Dutch museum was turning away from Russian culture, or even Russian artists.

After all, the Dutch museum had spent 15 years showcasing masterpieces from the Russian institution, with exhibitions devoted to the Hermitage’s founder, Catherine the Great, and the House of Romanov, as well as the blockbuster “Jewels! The Glitter of the Russian Court.”

But Annabelle Birnie, who runs the Amsterdam museum, doesn’t want anyone to be confused about the reasons for the split from its former exhibition partner. “Russian art was never part of the decision,” she said. “It was an economic boycott,” that “had nothing to do with the quality of Russian art and Russian artists,” she added.

Emphasizing this point is at least part of the reason the directors of the museum, which was renamed H’Art last year, decided to inaugurate its new identity on Wednesday with a retrospective of a Russian-born artist whose career was shaped by the forces of war and nationalism, and who also severed ties with his homeland: Wassily Kandinsky.

The show, which runs through Nov. 10, presents some 60 paintings by the artist, all but two of which come from the Pompidou Center in Paris, which owns a vast trove of around 1,300 items, including his artworks, archives and the contents of his studio, donated by his widow, Nina Kandinsky.

The Pompidou is one of three museums — along with the British Museum in London and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington D.C. — that have created a partnership with H’Art to loan art for its exhibitions.

Born in Moscow and raised in Odessa (then in Czarist Russia, now in Ukraine), Kandinsky left his homeland twice, becoming a citizen of Germany, but then returning to Russia, before leaving again and ending up in France.

The Pompidou’s Kandinsky collection covers his whole artistic life, from the moment he abandoned a law career at age 30 and moved to Munich to study painting up to his death in 1944. Those years were marked by the tumult of World War I, the Russian Revolution and World War II — all forces that buffeted Kandinsky’s career.

Along with several signature works that usually hang in the Pompidou, such as Kandinsky’s “Picture with a Black Arch,” from his Blue Rider period, and “On White 2” from his Bauhaus period, the show includes lesser-known early landscapes he painted on his travels in Munich, Venice, Tunisia and several Dutch cities.

It continues with his early groundbreaking abstractions, created in Murnau, Germany, as part of the Blue Rider movement, and moves on to his most famous abstractions that abandoned figuration entirely, including his final painting, “Reciprocal Accords” (1942), which hung at his funeral above his open coffin.

“What I like about his collection is that you can tell his life story with it,” Birnie said. “It makes him very human.”

One element that is missing from the narrative, however, is Kandinsky’s decade-long relationship with the fellow Blue Rider artist Gabriele Münter, his lover and artistic confidante, with whom he lived in Murnau.

The Pompidou’s trove of his personal artworks instead makes most reference to his life with Nina Andreevskaya, whom he met and married in 1916, when he went back to Moscow. World War I had forced Kandinsky to leave Germany, and he broke off with Münter, who was so upset that she refused to return his paintings. (The case later went to trial, and he got some works back.)

One particularly touching image is his 1917 painting, “Akhtyrka: Nina and Tatiana on the Veranda,” depicting his pregnant wife, with her sister, in their dacha, or country house, in Akhtyrka (now Okhtyrka, in Ukraine). The couple would soon have a son, their only child, Vsevolod, who died a few years later at age 3.

In 1922, the Kandinskys left Russia for Germany, so the artist could take a teaching position at the famous Bauhaus school in Weimar. The years that followed were some of his most productive; he created about 250 canvasses in the Bauhaus style.

But in 1937, the Nazis labeled Kandinsky as a “degenerate artist” and demanded 57 of his artworks be removed from the nation’s museums. He fled again, this time to France, where he and his wife lived out the war until just after the liberation. Kandinsky died that same year, three days before his 78th birthday.

His wife, who was about three decades younger, outlived Kandinsky by 36 years, and was the primary custodian of his collection. She was exceedingly selective when selling his art, only offering his works to respected collectors and museums, said Angela Lampe, the Pompidou’s curator of modern art and the curator of the H’Art show.

Nina Kandinsky also developed a close friendship with the art philanthropist Claude Pompidou, the wife President Georges Pompidou of France, and over the years, donated his works to the French state.

At the time of Nina Kandinsky’s mysterious death in Gstaad, Switzerland — where she was found strangled after a burglary — more than 1,000 artworks remained in her hands. Her will stated that all of the works should be bequeathed to France, along with the contents of Kandinsky’s Paris studio, including painting pallets, brushes and notebooks, as well as writings and even old spectacles.

That quite so much work by one of the world’s most renowned modernist artists had remained unsold reflects how much impact global politics had on Kandinsky.

During the years he lived in Russia, Kandinsky barely sold anything, Lampe explained. “He sold quite well in the ’20s in Germany, until he was classified as a degenerate artist, and then the German market didn’t exist anymore. The market for Kandinsky as a foreigner in France wasn’t great — it was more favorable for Picasso, for example.”

Kandinsky also preferred to keep a lot of his favorite paintings, she added.

“Some of these works were very important to him, so I think he didn’t want to sell them,” she said. “This gives us a rare opportunity to see the whole evolution of his career, of his trajectory, with quite a few really absolute masterpieces.”

Through Nov. 10 at H’Art, in Amsterdam; hartmuseum.nl.

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