Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) was born in Vienna. I don’t suppose his Jewish parents were very pleased when their son converted to Lutheranism as an adolescent in 1898, but perhaps he felt his career would get established more quickly if he was no longer Jewish.
Schoenberg, Self Portrait 1911
Arnold Schonberg Centre, Vienna
Andrew Patner and Benjamin Ivry have been my wonderful guides in this post. Patner said a legendary encounter between the composer Schoenberg and the Russian-born painter Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) began when Kandinsky and other members of a Blue Rider-like artists’ circle attended a concert of Schoenberg’s music in January 1911, in Munich. Kandinsky was sympathetic - he was looking to free visual art from formal strictures similar to those that Schoenberg was rebelling against in music. In fact Kandinsky was so moved by the concert that he created one of his best known paintings, Impression III Concert.
Soon Kandinsky poured out his soul in a letter to Schoenberg. He started an exchange of passions and fraternal affection that characterised the intense friendship between these two men. Kandinsky saw Schoenberg as providing a parallel key in music to his own efforts in art. Schoenberg, a part-time artist, joined the Blue Rider Group. It was a golden opportunity to show his paintings at the first Blue Rider exhibition, which of course included some Schoenberg paintings. Their correspondence and exchange of books, photographs, cards and sketches continued, sometimes daily, until the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Schoenberg returned to Vienna and joined the Austrian army. Kandinsky returned to Russia.
By then something had gone terribly wrong. The Bauhaus, led by German architect Walter Gropius, attracted progressive artists, architects and designers. Yet an anecdotal new historical study from Knopf, “The Bauhaus Group: Six Masters of Modernism” by Nicholas Fox Weber, showed that many of the avant-garde artists were sadly traditional in their anti-Semitism.
Kandinsky, Impression III Concert, 1911
Städtische Galerie Munich
Kandinsky returned to Germany and joining Walter Gropius at the Bauhaus in Weimar in 1922. Although I don't believe this for a moment, Gropius supposedly wrote to his mother: “The Jews, this poison which I begin to hate more and more, are destroying us. They are the devil, the negative element.” His colleague Wassily Kandinsky, blatantly wrote in 1923 to Jewish composer Arnold Schoenberg, “I reject you as a Jew,” when Schoenberg asked for explanation of reports that Kandinsky “sees only evil in the action of Jews and in their evil actions only the Jewishness.”
Schoenberg had heard about Bauhaus' supposed anti-Semitism through Gustav Mahler’s widow Alma, a woman who herself had problematic views about Jews. When Kandinsky attempted to revive his friendship with Schoenberg, inviting Schoenberg to take over the music academy in Weimar in April 1923, Schoenberg answered with two blistering letters outlining his deep anger. Repelled by the Bauhaus’ anti-Semitism, Schoenberg refused any official role in that organisation. There may well have been anti-Semitism throughout all of Germany, but Kandinsky (and ? Gropius) were reflecting a personal, vindictive world view.
Following the rise of Nazism, Schoenberg returned to Judaism in a Paris synagogue in 1933, standing alongside Marc Chagall. He wisely got out of Europe as soon as he could, emigrating to the USA in 1934. In July 1936 Kandinsky did try to re-establish contact with his old mate Schoenberg. Writing from Paris to Schoenberg in California, Kandinsky recalled the vanished epoch of the 1910s as a beautiful time. Shoenberg died in California in 1951, aged 76.
One sentence stands out for me. Celebrations of the Bauhaus design movement would be incomplete without Nicholas Weber’s reminder that the most advanced thinkers can also harbour primeval stupidity. Kandinsky? Probably. But Gropius? I don’t believe it for a moment.
I wonder if the exhibition catalogue for “Schoenberg, Kandinsky and the Blue Rider,” is still available. The fine exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York in 2004 displayed many important works — 60 paintings, by Kandinsky, Schoenberg and others, as well as rare documents, letters, photographs and musical manuscripts.