Kandinsky was the foremost pioneer of abstract art. The Klänge woodcuts marked a milestone in his early search for abstraction and represent his magnum opus in print.
One of the great livres d’artiste of the 20th century, Klänge combined 38 eccentric prose-poems with 56 woodcuts, made not as illustrations but companions to the text. The poems he had begun around 1909-10, the woodcuts as early as 1907.
By 1911 Klänge was nearly complete and in need of a publisher. When a deal with a Russian friend failed to materialise, Kandinsky turned once more to Munich, where he had lived and worked since 1896, and Reinhard Piper, whose press had published his most important works. They agreed on an edition of 300 signed and 45 unsigned copies, priced at 30 marks. In the terms of their contract, dated September 1912, Kandinsky was asked to foot all production costs. This was a grand project, the content as radical and challenging as could be: Piper was convinced he had a failure on his hands.
Klänge translates to ‘Sounds’, making it a title of many meanings. Kandinsky was famously synaesthetic, a condition in which the senses cross- communicate: he would see colour when he heard sound, and envied music as least representational of all the arts. But there were also the abstract ‘sounds’ of the poems, the repetitions that turned intelligible words into pure noise.
In Kandinsky’s trailblazing leap into the abstract (what he called ‘concrete’ art) Klänge was the critical stepping stone. Here visual and verbal abstraction merged: what Kandinsky did with words – repeating them, juxtaposing them nonsensically, scattering them with anarchic punctuation – was his method in the woodcuts too. He disguised and at times altogether abandoned pictorial objects in his search for deeper meaning.
With Klänge, Kandinsky discovered in abstraction not an escape from life and Nature but their recapitulation in bold, new terms. He believed that hidden within the material world was an inner spirit; it was only by going beyond straightforward representation that an artist could reveal it. And in the woodcut, where the wood grain forces the hand toward simplification, he had the perfect medium. As he excised the surface of his woodblocks, he felt he was lifting the ‘black hand laid over the eyes’ of the masses.
Klänge became the paradigm of Kandinsky’s desired ‘synthesis’ of the arts, and in the woodcuts themselves there was plenty to synthesise: biblical and folkloric imagery, rustic decorative patterns, even the Theosophical mysticism that obsessed Kandinsky in this ‘period of creative genius’. And so, alongside the Improvisations and Compositions, vignette versions of his own paintings, there are images from the nativity to the apocalypse, of Moses and the Red Sea parting, of knights of the Order of St George – and, bolting from print to print, the horse and rider, Kandinsky’s symbol of spiritual, cosmic exploration.
True to the publisher’s expectations, Klänge was a commercial flop and sold fewer than 100 copies in its first year. Today, its images are celebrated as prophetic, abstract masterpieces – images that define not just this most important chapter of Kandinksy’s career, but an astonishing decade of art history.