Schoenberg Suffuses Blue Rider Exhibit, But Kandinsky Should

Like so many other avant-garde groups that set the pace of artistic innovation in the early decades of the 20th century, the artists associated with the Blue Rider group in Munich in 1911-12 were emphatically international in background and outlook. The group’s greatest talent and principal theorist, Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), was a veteran of the Russian avant-garde who had already exhibited in Berlin, Dresden, Moscow, Paris and Vienna before settling in Munich. His mistress, Gabriele Munter (1877-1962), was a Berliner who had been a pianist before turning to painting under Kandinsky’s tutelage. Alexei von Jawlensky (1864-1941), another Russian, was much influenced by Matisse, whom he had met in Paris in 1905. Franz Marc (1880-1916), a native of Munich, was also influenced by Matisse, while August Macke (1887-1914) found greater inspiration in the chromatic invention of Robert Delaunay’s Orphic Cubism. Marc and Macke both perished in the First World War, by which time the Blue Rider group had ceased to exist as an identifiable influence on the international art scene.

These are the principal painters in the exhibition Schoenberg, Kandinsky and the Blue Rider , which has now been organized at the Jewish Museum. This is an exhibition that boasts many splendors, but it’s not to be mistaken for a definitive retrospective of the Blue Rider’s achievements. This show is both something more and something less than that, for, as its title indicates, the exhibition accords to the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) far more attention than is customary in exhibitions of this sort. As a consequence, the representation of Marc and Macke-two of the most accomplished painters in the Blue Rider-is reduced to a bare minimum, and we are given rather too many of Schoenberg’s paintings. Only Kandinsky is given his due.

While it’s true that Schoenberg was a painter as well as a composer-and a painter, moreover, who exhibited his work in the first Blue Rider exhibition in 1911-his presence in that show clearly had more to do with Kandinsky’s high regard for his music than with the composer’s gifts as a visual artist. Indeed, Schoenberg’s finest paintings-mostly portraits and self-portraits-have little, if anything, to do with the radical aesthetic innovations we associate with the strongest of the Blue Rider masters. As a modernist composer, Schoenberg was undoubtedly a genius, but as a modernist painter he was an amateur-at times an inspired amateur, if you like, but an amateur all the same. It’s only in his most accomplished portraits-of which the undated portrait of the composer Alban Berg is, in my opinion, the finest-that he can be said to have met a professional standard. (And even that portrait is a highly conventional picture.) The bulk of Schoenberg pictures in this exhibition-and they bulk very large-are of interest more as biographical-historical artifacts than as works of art.

Fortunately, the organizers of the show at the Jewish Museum have cleverly arranged for visitors who wish to sample Schoenberg’s music to do so in the exhibition by listening to the audio guide without disturbing others who are not so inclined. The hardcover catalog of the exhibition, itself a volume certain to remain a standard reference work on the Blue Rider for a long time to come, also contains a CD recording of these musical performances-one of which is Glenn Gould’s performance of the Three Piano Pieces, Op. 11. I thought this was a beautiful piece, beautifully played, but I also think it was a bad idea to make music a part of this exhibition-or, for that matter, of any other art exhibition.

To what extent the atonal music of Schoenberg and his circle may be said to constitute a parallel or counterpart to the Abstract Expressionist paintings of Kandinsky, or the Figurative Expressionist paintings of Marc, Macke, Jawlensky and Munter, is a matter I shall leave to the music critics to determine. All that can be said for a certainty is that it was Kandinsky who broached the notion of such a parallel on his first encounter with Schoenberg’s music, writing to Schoenberg to express his admiration and his feeling of artistic kinship with it. He also produced a marvelous painting to commemorate the experience- Impression III (Concert) (1911), which is featured in the current show and reproduced on the cover of the catalog.

It is one of the curiosities of the Blue Rider story that Kandinsky remained the only painter in the group who was a dedicated abstractionist. In this respect, he remained a prophet without influence in his own inner circle. As a theorist, however, he was more successful, for his treatise On the Spiritual in Art (1911)-although written to link the aesthetics of abstraction to the occult theories of theosophy-exerted a considerable influence on artistic thought even among artists who were not themselves abstractionists, and it is still today one of the classic texts of modernist art.

Schoenberg, Kandinsky and the Blue Rider remains on view at the Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Avenue, through Feb. 12, and will not travel.

Schoenberg Suffuses Blue Rider Exhibit, But Kandinsky Should