An Avant-Garde Original

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At the dawn of the 20th century Russian-born artist Wassily Kandinsky discovered the aesthetic and emotional power of non-representational art through imaginative forms of vivid, glowing colors. Working on the threshold of abstract art, Kandinsky (1866-1944) became its leader and trailblazer, inspiring scores of painters to follow in his footsteps. Although Kandinsky lived most of his life in Germany, between 1898 and 1921 he made frequent trips to his native country and participated in Russia's artistic and cultural life. The works he produced during that period, which accentuate the power and depth of the early abstract art, are now part of the "Kandinsky and Russia" exhibition, on until June 12 at the Fondation Pierre Gianadda in Martigny, Switzerland.

Also shown are paintings by other artists of the Russian avant-garde in the first two decades of the 20th century, among them Kasimir Malevich, Natalia Goncharova, Ilya Machkov, Ivan Klyun, Robert Falk and Aritstarkh Lentulov.

Kandinsky's works, most of which are on loan from the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, illustrate the artist's transition from figurative to abstract, and reflect his remarkable ability to express his passion, curiosity and perception of the world through mysterious forms, shapes and patches of vibrant color.

Of the 40 works shown, his most famous one is Composition VII, painted in 1913. Its creation required more sketches, studies and related works than any other of the artist's paintings. A complex work of extraordinary intensity, it appears at first to be unstructured, but a sense of direction emerges, bringing together various elements and forces through lines, forms and colors that seem to be in constant motion. Composition VII is considered to be one of the first creations of pure abstraction, marking Kandinsky's break with representational art. Left behind in Russia at the time of Kandinsky's departure in 1921, the painting needed restoration and reframing before it could be exhibited abroad.

It was this need for an overhaul that brought Composition VII to the Fondation. The museum's founder, Leonard Gianadda, had the foresight in 1994 to pay an undisclosed amount for the work's renovation, thus ensuring that the painting would one day be shown in Martigny. It was not the first time Gianadda had made such a gesture. At the beginning of the 1990s, he paid $400,000 to restore seven panels made by Marc Chagall for the Jewish Theater in Moscow. The renovated panels were shown for the first time outside the painter's native country during the "Chagall in Russia" exhibit held at the Fondation in 1991.

Gianadda, who founded the museum in 1978 in memory of his late brother, Pierre, says he always follows his own taste and instinct when planning an exhibit. "I would not show an artist, no matter how popular, if I did not feel personal affinity for his work," he says. "This museum is a reflection and expression of my own vision."

The vision began in 1976 when the museum's cornerstone was laid on land surrounded by hills and sloping, terraced vineyards. Gianadda, an engineer, was about to construct an apartment building when he discovered the remains of a Gallo-Roman temple on the lot. He decided it was appropriate to commemorate the find by designing a stone, cement and wood structure that would become Martigny's cultural hub, offering art exhibits and concerts to the town's 14,000 residents. At the time, there was no highway leading to the Alpine town some 80 miles east of Geneva. "You had to be a little crazy to believe this idea would work," Gianadda admits. "But what makes us unique is the off-the-beaten-path aspect, as well as the museum's personal touch and human dimension." Over the years the Fondation's eclectic art exhibits — including Gauguin, Picasso, Manet, Degas, Matisse, Miró, Schiele, Modigliani and Szafran — attracted 4.6 million visitors, half of them from abroad. The Gauguin exhibit alone drew over half a million visitors during a six-week run in 1998. The museum also houses a permanent exhibition featuring Picasso, Van Gogh, Cezanne and Toulouse-Lautrec, a collection of Gallo-Roman artifacts and a display of antique cars, as well as outdoor sculptures, including ones by Rodin, Miró, Cesar, Arp and Moore.

"My goal has never been to educate people about art, but rather to bring something worthwhile into their lives, to present as wide a range of artists, periods and styles as I could," Gianadda says. Organizing two or three annual art exhibits, as well as concerts, including recitals by Mstislav Rostropovich, Itzhak Perlman and Cecilia Bartoli, on a $4 million budget — only 27% of which is subsidized by private and government donations — is a challenge, Gianadda says, but this has not stopped him pursuing his aim of "bringing quality and credibility" to the museum. His longtime dream of organizing a Van Gogh exhibit will be realized on June 21 with the opening of a show featuring almost 100 works by the artist. He is also preparing an exhibition, to begin on May 20, commemorating the 200th anniversary of Napoleon's journey through the Alps. "I can't say that this museum is a dream come true because 22 years ago I didn't dare to have big dreams," he says. "At that time I couldn't imagine showing even one Van Gogh painting, much less the 100 I will have now. It's true that this place is a miracle, but one that happened through sheer determination, perseverance and hard work."