Pass Through: Expressionists at Tate Modern

A gallery is designed to pass through as if it might stand in for the imaginary staging of historical passage. They are invariably crowded places, so passage is often interrupted or straited rather than smooth and continuous. If it is sculpture, there is a circulation around it, as if to steal a better view or sequence of views, whereas painting or photography, it is invariably in front of and static. Installation is closer to an immersion into an overall visual event that unites the object of view with the viewing subject. Whatever the particularities of these encounters, the process of passing through collects this movement of bodies as they each negotiate the various spaces of which contain the objects of attention. When tiredness or thought process take over, then a sitting posture might be assumed on the benches provided. It is also noticeable that people whisper to each other when viewing the artefacts. Perhaps they are also sharing their thoughts with the artefacts. Rooms in exhibition often function like paragraphs within an essay. At times they provide for an unlocking of a drama or a culmination. This might be close to such a feeling of intensity that it stops one in their respective steps, as if time is subject to punctuation. Rupture and rapture might appear in alternating flux as a potential effect of these passages, but also boredom or distraction are also prevalent or even the dominant form of attention. Anyway, the rooms are still but at the same time everything moves as if charged by invisible energy. It might be described as a threshold state, consisting of movement from smooth to striated space. Described in other terms this shift might be filled by ripples, propulsions, eruptions, and even cancellations. No longer just a sequence in history, there is a sense of temporality been shaken up. The air is thickened by this, so it is no longer just like passing through time, but the experience of arrest of such a passage, or passage emptied of its habit, as if time might be pregnant with other trajectories.

Expressionists: Kandinsky, Münter and the Blue Rider installation view at Tate Modern 2024. Photo © Tate (Larina Fernandes)

The Blue Rider Movement was formed in and around Munich, out a confluence of friendships and shared preoccupations. Something was in the air, an air that was thick with currents, moving first one way, and then another way, but always within a multiplicity of currents. Painting could then capture the intensities that joined together the new configurations of space and time as part of this charged reality. All the elements were touched by circulation of the ‘yet to come’ which was dwelling within the invisibility of the collective imagination. New thought forms were starting to become actualised within a new continent of feeling. Lines appeared to curve, so demarcations were redrawn according to this principle. In turn spaces softened and became mutable. The idea of the spiritual manifested in part as a tenderness. The paintings of Franz Marc expressed the tenderness within the animal realm, the passage from the third to the fourth dimension was likewise a passage of tenderness. Painting then recorded feelings passing through all dimensions and relationships, but it was abstraction that became the root into the radiance of the idea that opened out onto the mutuality of all things. Within the philosophical matrix this would be termed as aesthetic monism, the world as a single substance. History consists of deductions and categories which generate representational forms of abstraction, whereas arts route into abstraction is that of an arrival of what is other than representation, or as a presentation of a speculative becoming. History is the sum total of all the facts that might be accrued whereas art is an intuitive synthesis of all the possible sensations that might have been presented. Art is this sense certainly has a history, but it is not able to inhabit the same orders of abstraction because art is not a pure object of knowledge affirming its own facts of existence. Therefore it can be claimed that history constitutes itself as the grain that art rubs up against, becoming in turn an irritant. That is why art has been subjected to so much fire within its history.

The relationship between history and art provides a rich tapestry of possible reflection. For instance, with the case of official portraits, state monuments, memorial sculptures, academic history painting, and other such inscriptive vestiges, the closer such entities are to being a marker of historical processes, the less aesthetic reflection appears to be in evidence. Equally the more that art displays autonomy, then the more the artefacts appear to be cut free from the grain or traction of time that we designate as historical. Modernist art has been particularly prone to themes such as fragmentation, haunting, ruination, abjection, alienation, abstraction, apocalypse, destruction as constellations that are formed as a counter point to any notion of history figured as a progression.

And so, we come to the room that is the culmination on this vision before the First World War was to bury it with the weight of exploded soil, ruins, and ashes. Cruel historical destiny: paintings far too delicate to arrest that. Who was it that evoked the image of soldiers taking copies of Holderlin’s poetry to read in the trenches? And so, sitting in that room with three Franz Marc paintings and four Kandinsky abstractions on the next wall, each in turn, making their promises to the yet to come. Harmonics, intensities, radiance, saturations, are all in circulation in these conjunctions. I wasn’t counting or marking my steps, but instead inclined to sitting down to collect the circulations absorbed into thought as it turns into a vapour. The room is full of this vapour, vapour in circulation, but also awaiting the silent weight of history to quell it. So much promised, so much lost. Northern Expressionism (The Bridge) provided a face (angst) for this shift in historical ‘coming to be’, whereas Southern Expressionism had no face with which to view it because of its desire to escape from gravity of representational schemas. History is the expectancy of death, whose face looks downwards. To be subjected to history is to look down and to feel its weight. It is true that art has an history, but it is a history that it is invariably attempting to resist or reshape. Sitting in that room is like feeling the weight of history in contrast to the light orientation of art as radically other. In turn we employ the metaphor of shadows and darkness in the aftermath of its relentless drive simply to exercise itself as force in order that the reiteration of history seeming to write itself as a mantra of truth.

Wassily Kandinsky, Improvisation Deluge, 1913. Stadtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus

We appear to be constantly being given over the theories of conspiracies and mutterings of paranoias about the dark state and this is perhaps more accurately a reflection of the seeming autonomy that resides within historical gravity. The theorisation of conspiracies of this or that brings with it a vestige of hope within the idea of human agency, when in fact it is more likely the result of its progressive descent. History finds its twin companion in disaster, which when coupled are a mere hop skip away from extinction and that is why art in order to be art should offer nothing to the figure that we call history, for to do so would be to implicate itself to a mode of instrumental reason which would place it outside of the orbit of the excess of poetic a-signification. It is not that we are in lack of representation, but that we are the very exposure of too much by way of it. Politicians embody this fault line of reason and are made vain because of it. Art it can be said provides nothing which can offer an alternative to this situation, it is after all the yielding to a form of radical passivity in the face of this condition. Its posture is neither that of a lecture, nor as a prayer, but is closer to sitting in a room whose offering might make us prone to wonder.

The term Abstract Expressionism was appropriated as a term for the New York School of painting in the post Second World War period. It was employed to emblemize aesthetic freedom, as opposed to the art of Social Realism which was said to stand for the repression of its other. The ‘Improvisations’ and ‘Compositions’ of Kandinsky opened out a sense within New York painting that was expressive of a purification of painterly gesture that excluded narrative traces. Yet this did not exclude references to beat and hip culture with its rhetoric of outsider poetics and it was this that added ambiguity to its status as assuming the mantle of the Modernist ideal. It was an appropriation of European aesthetic anxiety tuned to American energetics that drew upon cinematic like epic scale that in turn defined the look of this aesthetic. In contrast the Blue Rider Movement appeared domestic and intimate, almost delicate in its manner. The residue of spirituality within Abstract Expressionism in New York also stood in contrast with an aggressive way of finding a place within the urbanism of everyday life. Both movements were finally bathed partly in tragedy but their system of rhetorical address profoundly different, one touched by a reality of a war to come and one with a war expended, but one that continued in a new form for which it was indirectly co-opted into. No measure relating to such a relationship can be calculated but it remains a trace relationship or vestige of the otherness contained with a schema of art history bereft of the capacity to find adequate language for its passage into darkened poetics. The collection of Kandinsky painting in the Guggenheim Museum in New York stands as a testimony for a fascination with an early Modernity that desired another light or destination but was forced to negotiate the fractured space of aesthetic encounter in which abstraction was to pass into style or manner. Kandinsky stayed true to the memory of utopian poetics whilst living on with the reality of its loss of within imaginative reflection.

I was sitting in a room surrounded by paintings which ushered in this sequence of reflection. This is not a usual occurrence. A friend asked me if it might have induced tears, but I declined a direct answer, and instead stated that if it was the case, then the tears would be double, first as a subject facing itself, but the second time, as a subject losing the possibility of this. Maybe I sat for ten minutes, or even less than this. Who knows or cares? I was touched by the sense of being bereft of properly knowing what I thought or how I thought. One tear for that condition, and another tear for having felt that incapacity was a possibility.


In a sea of information, we might be moved by that which is able to dwell with this idea that there can be a bearer of non-knowledge capable of transforming relation. Both art and history appear to be adrift not only from each other but from their own sense of being completed figures. It is no longer just enough to mark this passage with the prefix of ‘post’.

Post-ness is still a dialectical figure of thought, even if it accepts the possibility of suspension or spacing rupturing continuity. Neither is this a sublime figure because contained within this would be a moral reflect capable of restoration. What is before and what is beyond no longer fits neatly into place, but they are within the circulations that are our lived complications. Sitting in the room, something is afforded by that, but I cannot name this, but does this imply a blank-ness that requires a desire for movement through this?

Perhaps I should concentrate on sitting better because with this attention might form itself with greater clarity.


Expressionists: Kandinsky, Münter and the Blue Rider
25 April – 20 October 2024
Tate Modern, London


Text by Jonathan Miles


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