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Rethinking Kandinsky

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Rethinking Kandinsky

The Guggenheim website suggests one way to view Vasily Kandinsky: Around the Circle: “Kandinsky’s work unfolds in reverse chronological order, starting with his late-life paintings and proceeding upward along the Guggenheim’s spiral ramp.” So let’s start with “Ribbon with Squares”(1944), with its wheel, ribbon, and ladder suspended against a deep purple background. Next, we get to “Dominant Curve” (1936), in which a larger green, red, and white ribbon encloses a brown and yellow centered form. Walking on, we arrive at “Upward” (1929), wherein the right half of a face set in a dark blue background recalls some works by Paul Klee, Kandinsky’s colleague at the Bauhaus. Going further up, how different is “Blue Circle” (1922), in which a triangle, a trapezoid, and a whole variety of other forms float in from the blue circle. And then there’s “Black Lines” (1913), a field a rounded green, blue, red, and white shapes linked by thin, jagged black lines. Next comes “Sketch for Composition II” (1909-10); Kandinsky is backing into abstraction in this high-pitched landscape of a horse and rider, and numerous other figures. And we get to “Group in Crinolines” (1909), depicting a group of men and women wearing high hats, in a pastel-colored scene that Marcel Proust might have described. The show concludes at the top of the ramp with some of his early landscapes from 1905. 

Unusually at such a retrospective, viewers can place the works in some sort of visually obvious chronological order. But it’s not easy to reconstruct the development of Kandinsky’s career, or understand the significance of the individual paintings. Until fairly recently, the works of Kazimir Malevich, Vladimir Tatlin, and the other pioneering Soviet abstractionists were relatively inaccessible, and the important Swedish painter Hilma af Klint was totally unknown. But Kandinsky has long been extremely well known in New York; the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, forerunner of the Guggenheim Museum, which now owns 150 of his works, opened in 1939. And so it’s reasonable to ask what may be learnt from this show of 80 paintings from that collection.

Vasily Kandinsky, “Three Sounds” (Drei Klänge) (August 1926), oil on canvas, 23 5/8 x 23 1/2 inches. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection, by gift 41.282 (© 2021 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris)

As the catalogue indicates, Kandinsky had a complicated career. Born in Moscow in 1866, he studied Central Asian ethnography and law in Russia before he moved to Western Europe in the early 20th century, living and working there (primarily Germany) until the Great War. It’s important, as art historian Reinhard Spieler has noted, that after a brief, unproductive stay in Paris, circa 1907, Kandinsky chose to paint in Munich. That’s where he formed the Expressionist art group Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) — and where he avoided having to deal with cubism. Then, immediately following the Russian Revolution of 1917, and after some frustrating art-world administrative work in 1921, he returned to Germany, where he played an influential role as a teacher at the Bauhaus. When Hitler came to power, in 1933, and closed that school, Kandinsky moved to Paris, where he died in 1944, just after the Allies liberated the city. 

Kandinsky’s decisive leap forward, in which everything changed in his painting, came around 1910, when he moved into abstraction. After that, it’s not visually obvious from this show how he responded in his art to his movements from Munich to Moscow and back to Germany, and finally to Paris. Kandinsky had a veteran pedagogue’s passion to explain himself. His collected writings on art come to 900 pages. Viewing the show “around the circle” we see how, as he explains in this literature, he abstracted art from nature, removing by stages the figurative allusions of his landscapes. A great amount of his writing motivates that movement by describing the expressive significance of colors. Yellow, for example, “is the typical earthly color […]. When made colder with blue it takes on … a sickly hue.” Hence his interest in synesthesia, as well as in the parallels between painting and music. Kandinsky befriended composer Arnold Schoenberg, recognizing that by dismantling traditional musical structures, atonal music faced some of the same concerns as did his elimination of figurative subjects. He also identifies in his writings the expressive qualities of the other “essential, eternal, immutable language of painting,” what he calls form. This theorizing justified his development of abstraction. If the essential elements in painting are color and form, then what follows is that figurative subjects are dispensable. If you reverse directions at the Guggenheim, and walk down the ramp, then you can watch that process, as you see the gradual elimination of representational elements. 

Vasily Kandinsky, “Blue Mountain” (Der blaue Berg) (1908–9), oil on canvas, 41 3/4 x 38 inches. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection, by gift 41.505 (© 2021 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris)

In Paris, the theorizing associated with Henri Matisse and Fauvism on one hand and Cubism on the other moved in quite different directions, yet neither led directly toward abstraction. And so, in retrospect, it’s unsurprising that Kandinsky didn’t remain there. He was interested in what the catalogue calls “mystical anarchism,” a very Russian “notion of spiritual and ethical transformation” that was not closely tied to practical political action. That said, my sense of the challenges faced by this show are clearly stated by Sean Scully (Abstract Painting, Art History and Politics. Sean Scully and David Carrier in Conversation, 2021):

Kandinsky’s landscape paintings leading into his abstract paintings and his circular paintings were works of pure radiant genius. What I cannot get interested in are those paintings that look like they’re made of Greek hieroglyphs. They actually cannot be decoded. 

Look back at “Several Circles” (1926), in which one large and numerous small circles are suspended on a gray background. Here we have a drop-dead gorgeous, lucid image. The problem with Kandinsky’s other abstractions that I have described is that they don’t offer enough immediate visual information to “crack” his expressive code for color and form. In an extended 33-page text, “Reminiscences/Three Pictures” (1913), Kandinsky provides an elaborate account of three paintings, none of them unfortunately in this show. He describes childhood experiences, recounts his education, and elaborately theorizes these works. If so much information is needed to identify their expressive content, then it’s obvious that the pictures don’t effectively communicate on their own.

Kandinsky in front of his painting “Dominant Curve” (Courbe dominante, 1936) in 1936 (Photo: Bibliothèque Kandinsky, Centre Pompidou, Paris. © Lipnitzki/Roger Violett/Getty Images)

Maybe making this demand is unfair, especially for those, like myself, who don’t know much about his upbringing in the Russian Orthodox Church and the influence of its visual culture on his artwork. It surely is possible to appreciate the play of color and form in these pictures without asking for their meaning. And so, we certainly can enjoy them without accepting Kandinsky’s own obviously badly dated account of his achievement. But what are we then missing? This ambitious exhibition asks that we rethink the achievement of a canonical abstractionist, whose concerns now seem very far from the present. It will be most interesting to see how artists respond. Fortunately we have months to visit and revisit. 

Vasily Kandinsky: Around the Circle continues at the Guggenheim Museum (1071 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan) through September 5, 2022. The exhibition was curated by Megan Fontanella, Curator, Modern Art and Provenance.

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Red Cross implores hackers not to leak data for 515k “highly vulnerable people”

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Red Cross implores hackers not to leak data for 515k “highly vulnerable people”

RED CROSS HACK —

Hack on Red Cross storage contractor follows a separate hacking incident last year.


People in Red Cross vests walk along a dirt street.

The Red Cross on Wednesday pleaded with the threat actors behind a cyberattack that stole the personal data of about 515,000 people who used a program that works to reunite family members separated by conflict, disaster or migration.

“While we don’t know who is responsible for this attack, or why they carried it out, we do have this appeal to make to them,” Robert Mardini, the director-general of the International Committee for the Red Cross, said in a release. “Your actions could potentially cause yet more harm and pain to those who have already endured untold suffering. The real people, the real families behind the information you now have are among the world’s least powerful. Please do the right thing. Do not share, sell, leak or otherwise use this data.”

Wednesday’s release said the personal data was obtained through the hack of a Switzerland-based subcontractor that stores data for the Red Cross. The data was compiled by at least 60 different Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies worldwide. The ICRC said it has no “immediate indications as to who carried out this cyber-attack” and is so far unaware of any of the compromised information being leaked or shared publicly.

Those affected had used Restore Family Links, a service the Red Cross operates in cooperation with the Red Crescent to reunite families. On Wednesday, the site was down. The Internet Archive last updated it on December 27, raising the possibility of the breach occurring a few weeks ago.

The release provided few details about the attack. It’s not clear if it was done by profit-motivated ransomware criminals, nation-state hackers, or others. Over the past few years, a rash of ransomware breaches has hit healthcare providers, forcing them in many cases to reroute ambulances and cancel elective surgeries. In 2020, the ICRC helped lead a coalition that called on nations around the world to crack down on cyberattacks involving hospitals and healthcare providers.

Last September, the ICRC confirmed it was on the receiving end of a hack the previous April that compromised login credentials and other data that could be used to target agencies within the intergovernmental organization. The earliest known date the hackers obtained access to the UN’s systems, Bloomberg News reported, was April 5, and the hackers remained active through at least August. The breach came to light when private researchers noticed login credentials for sale on the dark web.

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The real-life gentleman pirate behind HBO Max’s new series Our Flag Means Death

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The real-life gentleman pirate behind HBO Max’s new series Our Flag Means Death

Everybody say Arrgh! —

“It’s swashbuckling! Let’s have fun with it!”


A nervous man in 18th-century garb.

Enlarge / Rhys Darby stars as gentleman pirate Stede Bennett in the upcoming HBO Max comedy series Our Flag Means Death.

It’s no secret that Ars staffers are big Taika Waititi fans. He always brings his distinctly quirky sensibility to his projects, from What We Do in the Shadows, Wellington Paranormal, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, to JoJo Rabbit, Reservation Dogs, and Thor: Ragnarok. After filming wrapped on Thor: Love and Thunder last year, Waititi somehow found time to develop a new period comedy series for HBO Max.

It’s called Our Flag Means Death, and HBO just dropped the first teaser. The series is about an aristocrat who abandons his comfy life to become a “gentleman pirate.” Even better: the main character, Stede Bonnet (played by Rhys Darby) is based on a real person who sailed with the infamous 18th-century pirate Blackbeard (played by Waititi in the series).

The real Stede Bonnet was born on the island of Barbados in 1688 to a wealthy English family and inherited a 400-acre estate when his father died in 1694. By some accounts, he was a bookish sort, and his early life was unremarkable. He married, fathered three sons and a daughter, and briefly served in the military as a major, although there is no record that he engaged in active combat.

But at 29, Bonnet experienced some kind of midlife crisis and decided to abandon his family and become a pirate, even though he had zero experience with ships and sailing. Apparently, he was fed up with his wife’s nagging, or as one account put it, he became disillusioned with the “discomforts he found in a married state.” Most pirates seized their ships; Bonnet was a man of means, so he hired a local shipyard to build him a 60-ton sloop with 10 guns. He dubbed the ship Revenge and hired a crew of more than 70 men. Bonnet actually paid the men regular wages rather than splitting plunder with them like a normal pirate.

Bonnet's motley crew is ready to loot and plunder.

Enlarge / Bonnet’s motley crew is ready to loot and plunder.

YouTube/HBO Max

Given Bonnet’s lack of experience, much of the day-to-day sailing operations were handled by his quartermaster and officer, and he doesn’t seem to have won much respect from his crew over the course of his short pirating career. (In fairness, piracy was a dangerous profession and few pirates lived to a ripe old age.) The piracy went well at first: the Revenge captured and plundered some half-dozen vessels between spring and September 1717. But a battle with a Spanish man-of-war left both Bonnet and the ship in a bad way, although both ultimately escaped.

The Revenge next limped into port at Nassau in the Bahamas for repairs, which is when Bonnet met Blackbeard, aka Edward Teach. Given the disabling nature of his injuries, Bonnet ceded command of the Revenge (temporarily, he thought) to Blackbeard. For the next few months, they plundered a lot of ships, and Blackbeard seized and took command of a 200-ton vessel called La Concorde, which he renamed Queen Anne’s Revenge.

Eventually, Bonnet’s frustrated crew deserted him and joined Blackbeard in the spring of 1718, and Blackbeard betrayed Bonnet, placing one of his own henchmen in charge of the Revenge. By now, Bonnet longed to retire from the pirate life, and he actually received a pardon from the governor of North Carolina on condition that he renounce piracy forever. Bonnet tried to keep his promise, but food became scarce right as the Atlantic hurricane season was in full swing, so he resorted to piracy once again under the alias “Captain Thomas.” He gave Revenge a new name, too: Royal James.

Taika Waititi co-stars as Blackbeard.

Enlarge / Taika Waititi co-stars as Blackbeard.

YouTube/HBO Max

All the battles once again took their toll on Royal James, and after it was repaired, Bonnet decided to moor in the Cape Fear River to wait out the hurricane season. News of his presence soon spread to the relevant government authorities, sealing the gentleman pirate’s fate. Bonnet and his men put up a fight against Col. William Rhett’s naval forces, but they lost, and the entire crew was arrested on October 3, 1718. Bonnet was convicted and eventually hanged (after briefly escaping and being recaptured) on December 10, 1718. All told, Bonnet’s life as a pirate lasted less than two years. Then again, if he had just stayed in Barbados and lived out a life of quiet desperation, we likely would not know his name.

Bonnet’s mentor, Blackbeard, didn’t fare much better. In November 1718, just one month before Bonnet was hanged, Teach and his crew engaged in a fierce battle with a small group of sailors led by Lt. Robert Maynard. Eventually, Teach found himself surrounded by Maynard’s men, one of whom slashed him across the neck before the rest of the crew joined in the attack. When Maynard examined the body, he found Teach had been shot five times and cut some 20 times. His head was placed on a pole in Chesapeake Bay for several years to serve as a warning for other pirates.

Based on the teaser for Our Flag Means Death, the series is unlikely to attempt much in the way of historical accuracy, which is the right decision. Tonally, it evokes something along the lines of Hulu’s extraordinary period comedy series, The Great, which takes historical characters and facts and embellishes them, complete with the odd deliberate anachronism. (The credits for The Great claim the show—just renewed for a third season—is “an occasionally true story.”) The Great is a high bar to clear, but this is Taika Waititi we’re talking about, and we have faith in his idiosyncratic vision. We’ll definitely be tuning in.

Our Flag Means Death debuts on HBO Max in March.

Teaser for HBO Max’s new original comedy series, Our Flag Means Death.

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Google brings Android games to Windows in limited (very limited) beta

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Google brings Android games to Windows in limited (very limited) beta

Why these countries? —

Only users in Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong have access to a beta signup.


Google's Windows Android app store.

Enlarge / Google’s Windows Android app store.

Google

As it announced in December, Google is bringing Android games to Windows. The project is simply called “Google Play Games,” and the Windows version is now open for beta sign-ups. The catch is that Google Play Games is getting a very limited distribution: you’ll need to be in Korea, Taiwan, or Hong Kong to sign up.

If you manage to get in the beta, Google says you’ll be able to “play a catalog of Google Play games on… Windows PC via a standalone application built by Google.” The company says, “We’re excited to announce that some of the most popular mobile games in the world will be available at launch, including Mobile Legends: Bang Bang, Summoners War, State of Survival: The Joker Collaboration, and Three Kingdoms Tactics.” Games that use the Google Play Games cloud to store achievements and progress will be able to have their progress synced across PC and mobile (and Chrome OS, of course).

As for why this is happening, it’s probably in response to Microsoft’s plan to bring Android apps to Windows 11. Microsoft teamed up with Amazon to bring the Amazon App Store catalog to Windows, and now Google is bringing its Android game catalog along, too. This is only games though, not any other type of app. Games have an easier time scaling on bigger screens, but I can still think of some normal apps which might be useful on a PC.

Google’s blog post doesn’t go into how Google Play Games works yet. Is it Android emulation, something based on Microsoft’s Windows Subsystem for Linux, or streaming? Google is launching pages for the beta sign-up and a developer site, which will hopefully have more information.

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