Letters from Ukraine: 14/5/22 – Kandinsky

Working in Odessa, George Gittoes is surprised to hear the local arts community's proud identification with Kandinsky – and is encouraged to reflect on his own practice of painting in the context of geopolitical crises.

When I was out painting Z the Defiler as an action in the Greek Square, Odessa, with poet, Viktor Solodchuk we were visited by a highly esteemed art teacher, Igor Nosok. Igor has taught here for fifty years and is loved by all the Odessan artists I have met.

I had overheard Igor mentioning Kandinsky to Hellen. (Hellen who shoots and directs our filming solo, when I am unable to hold one of the cameras.) Hearing the name Kandinsky got my attention and I turned away from my drawing. Kandinsky had a huge influence on my development as an artist.

I walked over to Igor, rested my arm on his shoulder and said, “I studied Kandinsky at university and read his book Concerning the Spiritual in Art. He and other Russian artists were very important to me when I was young.”  I was quickly made to realise I had put my foot in my mouth by saying “Russian artists.” I was instantly chastised by Maria Galina (a famous science fiction writer who was translating for Hellen): “No not Russian artists but Ukrainian, from Odessa.”  Odessans are proud to own Kandinsky and from what Maria and Igor then told me, the cultural identity of contemporary Odessan art needs to claim Kandinsky as Odessan and Ukrainian. 

I found this very confusing. I have always seen Kandinsky as uniquely Russian and now I was being told this is wrong, that he is Ukrainian. I know Kandinsky’s life story as well as I know that of Van Gogh or Gauguin. He was born in Moscow in 1866 but his family, who were merchants, moved to Odessa where he spent his childhood from the age of six to thirteen. He was a student at the Grekov Odessa Art School. He did not initially see himself being an artist. He left Odessa and went to the University of Moscow to study law and economics. He taught law in Moscow. He did not start painting until he left Russia for Munich at the age of thirty, studying art there. The first World War had him return to Moscow in 1914, where he was influential in developing a new kind of revolutionary art, but his spiritual ideas did not fit with communist realism, so he returned to Germany in 1920 and taught at the Bauhaus from 1922-33. When the Bauhaus was closed by the Nazis, who labelled his art as decadent, he left for France for the war years, becoming a French citizen, and died there in 1944. 

Yesterday, we drove to the shopping mall which was bombed a few nights ago, on 9 May. On our way, Viktor excitedly pointed out of the car window “That is Kandinsky’s art school, if you like we can stop and go inside?” I could have thought that Kandinsky had taught art there, but I knew he did not. It may have been the school he went to as a junior student before leaving for Moscow to study law, but he never taught art in Odessa. I would have liked to see inside the school but knew the afternoon light was going and we would not have time to film the bombed buildings if we made this stop. 

Once we arrived at the huge COSY shopping mall, I felt like I had been transported back to the kind of detestation I had seen in Irpin where a similar COSY mall had been destroyed. Rows of burnt shopping trollies and blackened buildings with pieces of clothing caught on twisted metal and moving in the breeze like ghosts. I picked up a piece of melted metal shaped like an eagle or angel and offered it to Viktor, but his face twisted as he looked at it and he said, “No, throw it away, I cannot touch it.” Earlier he had explained that when he was in Moscow, many avant-garde Russian artists were into destruction as a style of art: “They destroyed many things, it was like a prediction of what they are now doing to Ukraine.”

I did one year at the University of Sydney before travelling to New York where I decided to give up university studies and become an artist. Like Kandinsky, I was initially interested in studying law as I had enjoyed being first speaker in our high school debating team. For the first time, that year Sydney University offered a unit in Fine Art History under the internationally acclaimed art historian, Professor Bernard Smith. Bernard, who had been affiliated with the Australian Communist Party, recruited a young firebrand lecturer, Terry Smith. Terry promoted leftist communist ideas and was a devout atheist like his fellow lecturer Donald Brooke. It did not impress Terry that I chose to do a paper on Kandinsky and his theoretical book Concerning the Spiritual in Art. We were expected to give a short talk on our papers to the full student group, but my talk tuned into a debate and heated clash with Terry. I expounded on Kandinsky’s mystical beliefs and linked them to my own. In colloquial terms Terry “spat the dummy,” and lampooned my every word mercilessly. It was that conflict that made me feel uncomfortable with continuing at university. Kandinsky was at the heart of my decision to become an artist. To the disappointment of my parents, I gave up any idea of following a safe career in law. 

When we arrived in Odessa, our nextdoor neighbour, George, explained to us that half the population of Odessa had been pro-Russian before the war and elected a pro-Russian mayor. This support had dropped to only 10 percent after people have witnessed murders and destruction the Russians have done in Irpin, Bucha, and Mariupol. In Kyiv, where most people do not speak Russian, but only speak Ukrainian, there was no sense of support for Russia. Everyone remembered the high price they had paid for freedom during the Euromaidan 2013-4 protests where many had died to maintain independence from Russia. We encountered no sympathy for Russia at all in Kyiv.  

Was Kandinsky Russian or Odessan Ukrainian?  This question has no logical answer – Kandinsky was born in Moscow but spent seven years of his childhood in Odessa. My friend the poet Viktor Solodchuk was born in Odessa but spent ten years in Moscow, where he tells me he found his voice as a writer. Viktor, now, describes Russians as Orcs and Putin as the embodiment of evil. Viktor’s twenty-four-year-old son is fighting the Russians at the frontline of this war, and is prepared to die for Ukrainian independence from Russia.

This Odessa conundrum has a personal link to when, at eighteen, I decided to take the road suggested in Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art and plot a mystical course rather than be converted to the Marxist views of Terry Smith and Donald Brooke.  

I had two books with many illustrations of my art on a table for people to check out while I painted with Viktor. I watched as Igor Nosok, the teacher who loved the ideas of Kandinsky, flipped through it and I wondered at what I have become. I embraced Kandinsky fully at eighteen and could not wait to see originals of his work from the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, in her spiral museum (designed by Frank Lloyd Wright) in New York. My work reflects the horrors of all the wars I have witnessed of humanity enduring against evil. It is figurative and has none of the musical beauty of a Kandinsky abstract. Kandinsky lived through the First World War, the Russian Revolution years, the rise of Nazism in Germany and the Second World War, but this is not reflected in his art. Here I am, in his childhood Odessa, a place of beaches, sunshine and magnificent architecture, painting about Russian Orcs destroying peace and beauty and lead by an incomprehensibly evil villain. It feels like living through World War Three. In a few weeks I am planning to have an exhibition of the work I have created in Ukraine at what remains of the destroyed House of Culture in Irpin. I would like to be hanging works as beautiful as Kandinsky’s abstract, butterfly-wings, paintings but the works I have created are as disturbing as the building they are being hung in. That is the other contradiction Odessa and Kandinsky have troubled me with – I am saying it is important to create in the face of destruction and I believe that is what I am doing, and I am still a mystic, but I doubt whether Kandinsky would approve of what I will be showing in Irpin.

I have never been in a community that uses the word mystical or mysticism as much as here in Odessa. I am leaving Odessa today with the feeling that what defines the people here as Ukrainian, rather than Russian, is mystical. There is no other way of explaining it. In the fight against the marshalled forces of Putin’s darkness the people of Odessa are with the forces of Light.

The news today is that the Ukrainian army has pushed back the Russian army from Kharkiv, something that seemed very unlikely a week ago.


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