Tensions calmées, a modern masterpiece from 1937 encapsulates Wassily Kandinsky’s extraordinary vision which continues to have a profound influence on generations of artists that have followed. No artist played a greater role in the development and emergence of abstraction than Wassily Kandinsky.
In 1964, Sotheby’s held a historic auction of 50 paintings by Kandinsky from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. This major work was among those in the landmark sale and is now returning to Sotheby’s for the first time in over half a century, having remained in the same family collection, unseen by the public, ever since.
Solomon R. Guggenheim, to whom this painting once belonged, was an avid admirer of Kandinsky, acquiring his first painting by the artist in 1929, and meeting him the following year at the Dessau Bauhaus. Thereafter, in the course of a friendship that was to last a lifetime, Guggenheim acquired no fewer than 150 works by the artist, displaying them initially in the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, which he opened in New York in 1939. They went on to form the core of the collection of his eponymous museum designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, who shared Kandinsky’s belief in the spiritual quality of art, and whose extraordinary creation was in part inspired by Kandinsky’s works. Shining an illustrious spotlight on Kandinsky in America, while at the same time providing the funds Kandinsky needed to settle in Paris and power forward his career, Guggenheim also promoted his artist-friend with a series of exhibitions across the country, including the memorial exhibition organised after Kandinsky’s death in 1944 in which Tensions calmées was included.
As the father of abstraction, Kandinsky started a line that would define twentieth-century art through artists such as Kazimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian, the Abstract Expressionists Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, and Gerhard Richter.
Painted in 1937, Tensions calmées illustrates an important chapter in the history of twentieth-century art and reveals Kandinsky at the height of his powers. The artist had broken new ground with a lyrical form of abstraction infused with musicality, on his discovery that colour – when disassociated from representational concerns – could become the principal subject of a painting.
In 1933, Kandinsky moved to Paris and the complex abstraction compositions he painted in the city during the 1930s – Tensions calmées chief amongst them – are considered the culmination of his artistic ideals in which art aspires to the condition of music.
Taking his cue from musical composition, Kandinsky determined that every colour corresponded with a particular emotion or ‘sound’, writing in Concerning the Spiritual in Art: ‘Colour is the keyboard. The eye is the hammer. The soul is the piano, with its many strings.’ The imagery of Tensions calmées evokes the elegant clefs, notes and bars of sheet music whilst a curved arabesque reminiscent of a violin scroll emerges in the right of the composition. Yet the musicality of the painting is borne of the artist’s orchestration of the composition as a whole, rather than its individual parts, resulting in a symphonic majesty in which the many visual elements are brought together in harmony.
For the auction in 1964, the Guggenheim took great care in selecting the best examples of the artist’s work from a collection that comprised multiple masterpieces from the key periods of Kandinsky’s career. The sale was unique in offering most collectors their first opportunity to acquire a major painting by the artist – before this, the vast majority of his works could only be seen in museums in Russia, the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus in Munich and in the collection of the artist’s widow, Nina Kandinsky.
Tensions calmées will be travelling from Dubai to Hong Kong and Taipei for public exhibitions, and will star in Sotheby’s livestreamed Modern & Contemporary Evening Sale in London on 29 June this summer, when it will be offered with an estimate of $25-35 million (£18-25 million).