Judge Victor Valdivia frequently wishes life itself were more abstract and less linear.
"A picture has to resound and must be bathed in an inner glow."—Wassily Kandinsky
For an artist whose influence was so profound, Kandinsky (1866-1944) was in many ways a late bloomer. He did not begin his adult life as an artist; after studying law and economics, he didn't pursue a career in art until he was 30. Even then, his earlier paintings were frequently pleasant but faintly derivative of his influences like Monet. It wasn't until 1913 that he pioneered the style that would influence artists for a generation: abstract painting. Using colors and shapes instead of lines, Kandinsky began to make paintings that suggested ideas instead of depicting reality. He wrote a seminal essay, "On the Spiritual in Art," in which he proposed startling new visual theories. He followed it up with a series of paintings titled "Improvisation," considered amongst the first abstract works, which helped define a new way for artists in the twentieth century to view painting. For the rest of his artistic career, he helped redefine art for a generation of artists, both as an innovator and as an instructor at Germany's famous Bauhaus school. By the time of his death in 1944, he was considered one of the most important artists of his time and his influence resonates to this day.
This is the story that Wassily Kandinsky wants to tell. It doesn't quite tell it as thoroughly as it should have, however. Director Andre S. Labarthe (the former editor of Cahiers Du Cinema) has a tendency to overemphasize fancy camera tricks and pretentious declarations. There is a recurring gimmick of the camera zooming in on certain paintings and an equally irritating gimmick of repeating a passage of Kandinsky's that refers to "the man who walks" (a patron at an art gallery). This wouldn't be so notable except that it wastes valuable time that should have gone to discussing more substantive matters. In particular, how Kandinsky made the transition to abstract art isn't discussed very well. You'll get more information from the booklet packaged with the disc than from the documentary itself. It also shortchanges some fairly significant biographical details on Kandinsky, making him seem more of a remote and intangible figure than he should be. It would have been interesting if Labarthe had uncovered information that would humanize Kandinsky, making it easier to understand the emotional depth behind his sometimes impenetrable art, but instead Labarthe settles for superficial artsy touches that add little to our understanding of Kandinsky's life.
Where the documentary goes right is in letting us at least see most of Kandinsky's best-known paintings. You'll get in-depth views of some of his most famous works, including "The Blue Rider," several of the "Improvisation" series, and "With Black Arch," the painting pictured on the front cover of the DVD. The documentary also gives a good summary of Kandinsky's years at the Bauhaus, where he was a respected and influential instructor until the Nazis came to power and forced the school to disband. If anything, though it isn't so good at giving personal information on Kandinsky's life, the documentary does do an excellent job of summarizing how notable events, such as World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the rise of Nazi Germany, affected Kandinsky's work. It also provides a welcome reappraisal of Kandinsky's later paintings done in Paris in the last years of his life. Dismissed as lightweight imitations of his earlier and bolder work, the documentary argues convincingly that they are accurate reflections of Kandinsky's emotional state. In his twilight years, in fading health and trapped in Nazi-occupied Paris, Kandinsky decided to forgo audacious experimentation in favor of taking pleasure in the sheer joy of simple self-expression. At least, as an artistic and professional assessment, this documentary is worth watching.
It's for that reason that this DVD is worth a look for admirers of Kandinsky's work. Labarthe's directorial affectations can be deeply tiresome but there's no denying the skill with which he presents and examines Kandinsky's art. Viewers who are not as familiar with Kandinsky's life, though, might want to do some prior research (see Accomplices section) before viewing it.
Technically, the DVD is acceptable. The visual transfer isn't great—it's grainy and murky and while the images of the paintings don't suffer too much, the remaining incidental footage is sometimes painful to watch. The Dolby stereo mixes are all adequate. There are no extras, apart from trailers for other Arthaus Musik DVDs.
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