What Did Kandinsky Write on His Paintings?

When you look at a painting by Kandinsky, what do you see? In this video, we get the rare chance to view the artist’s work through the eyes of Gillian McMillan, Associate Chief Conservator for the Collection at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Examining his paintings with a microscope, she uncovers hidden clues about the artist’s process: “You can see . . . pinholes where the center compass went into the surface when he drew these little tiny circles,” she notes.

On the occasion of the Guggenheim building’s 50th anniversary, the museum hosted an exhibition dedicated to Kandinsky’s work, and honoring his important role in the museum’s history. Here, McMillan and Tracey Bashkoff, Senior Curator, Collections and Exhibitions, share insights on the artist’s development and the often intensive planning that went into his practice. Bashkoff points to the themes that can be seen throughout his oeuvre: “The horse and rider, the apocalypse, the landscape, his use of geometry, his use of scientific imagery—all of these are apparent at different moments in his career.  . . .” McMillan discusses the importance to conservators of understanding the structure of a painting, and explains how, with infrared, they are able to see notations in German under the paint on Sketch for “Composition II”: he wrote “colorful” in an area featuring brightly colored forms, and “red” in a section painted in that hue. Says Bashkoff of McMillan’s work, “We get a look into his whole procedure . . . and that sheds light on our art-historical research, as well.”

To learn more about Kandinsky’s practice, view his work in the museum’s Collection Online, and stop by the museum in New York to see Kandinsky in Paris, 1934–1944. On view through April 23, 2014, the exhibition examines the last 11 years of the artist’s life.