Guro and Kandinsky: Rethinking the Paths toward AbstractionTitle

Juliette Stapanian-Apkarian, Emory University

The stunning array of ventures into abstractionism by Russia’s early modernists includes paintings by Vasily Kandinsky and Kazimir Malevich, as well as the lesser known “Zorved” (“See-know”) artwork by Mikhail Matiushin. Although Matiushin was closely associated with the Russian Futurists, scholars like John Bowlt suggest that his abstract art may be tied more closely to Symbolist Kandinsky (1866-44) than to fellow Futurist Malevich. Curiously, however, much about Matiushin’s affinity with Kandinsky expressed as “Zorved” in 1923 appears to have been anticipated much earlier in the writing of Matiushin’s wife, Elena Guro (1877-1913). The only woman writer contributing significantly to early Futurist publications, Guro did not engage in much of the radical verbal experimentation of her colleagues. But close analysis of her writing in terms of analogues with the visual arts reveals her work to be a verbal “map” of revolutionary painterly trajectories. Like many Russian Futurists, Guro was both a writer and a painter, and the implications of inter-art negotiation in her work require further investigation (Banjanin, Povelikhina, Gurianova, Kovtun). Systematic exploration of relationships between Guro’s writing and Kandinsky’s art aids both in our understanding of the inter-art context from which “Zorved” painting emerged, and in our understanding of the complex interface between Symbolism and Futurism in paths toward abstraction.

Like Guro, Kandinsky was both a painter and a writer. Scholars have well noted the significance of Kandinsky’s “sound” poems to the Futurists, and to the shared Neo-romantic and Symbolist heritage of Guro and Kandinsky ( Ljungren, Wanner, and others). In a draft article about a 1905 exhibition in St. Petersburg, Guro makes specific reference to a picture by Kandinsky. Unable to verify the painting to which she referred, scholars have considered the picture“ lost” and not catalogued, or a verbal response by Guro “inspired” by the work of Kandinsky (Gurianova 1995, Wanner 2003). By deliberately approaching the draft article in light of Guro’s own creative work, I find that Guro effectively refers to a registered 1903 tempera by Kandinsky; and my paper utilizes aspects of this picture to launch an interdisciplinary dialogue between Guro as writer and Kandinsky as painter. My study addresses the importance of specific painterly techniques to both artists, as well as the role of landscape, toys, theosophy, and optics. I consider striking parallels in their manipulation of imagery, including the image of St. George in Kandinsky’s pictorial work and Guro’s verbal portrait of the Quixotic “Poor Knight.” My study places the knightly diagonal line pivotal to Kandinsky’s strategic move toward abstraction in juxtaposition with the “stripe” and bent line associated with Guro’s awkward hero. I then examine relationships between apocalyptic pictorial imagery of Kandinsky and the verbally constructed ecstatic imagery of Guro, their approaches toward organic “color forms,” and their ultimate belief in the healing power of art. My study concludes by projecting findings from the Guro-Kandinsky nexus into the later abstractions of “Zorved.”