Finding Kandinsky

Kandinsky has been lost a lot in the last decade. He was lost in the closet at Grandma’s house. Then he was found a few years later in Paris, but there was a big gap of years in between.

Today he’s found again, framed, hanging on the wall in my living room. The mat on the inside of the frame is made of expensive white cloth with a visible texture. The frame is wide and thick, black with the look of leather. The interior canvas is a black field of paint on which bright, multi-colored amoebas, boats, radio dials, squiggles and ellipses rest against an invisible grid of flat black. The center shape is olive-colored and to me it looks like a boat dock. White lines crisscross the olive colored boat dock. Up close, pencil lines trail away from a few unfinished thin white lines of paint, like a sentence trailing off before reaching its period stop.

Max, my father, points to the olive dock and laughs. “It’s just like Kandinsky. It’s not even finished.”

The painting is a fraud, a copy, elaborately traced by first projecting the slide of the original onto the white canvas, then painstakingly coloring it in with paint, matching the colors, like a paint-by-number, the kind that came in a box in the ’60s with the paint colors preselected. My father used to paint those, too. He was used to the ritual.

Kandinsky was lost for a number of years and was never framed until I found him in my grandmother’s closet on a trip to see my father before he started dying, before we knew he was dying. At the time, I had eyes only for an old portrait of me – a portrait in pastels that I thought my mother had gotten when they divided the artwork as part of their divorce. I asked for it back and he said okay. I was afraid he would say no and so relieved when he said yes. I see now how selfish it might have looked to him, how selfish it was.

After he died, when I was asked to finish sorting his things and clear out Grandma’s house, I spied Kandinsky in the closet, dusty, tucked behind a wonderful hand-made wooden slat stool that folded up perfectly into itself and slid out to make an artsy modern seat. Dad made that, too, also from a pattern.

"Stabilite," Kandinsky copy by Max McLain

“Stabilite,” Kandinsky copy by Max McLain

I cleaned off Kandinsky, wrapped him in a towel, placed him gently in the back seat of my car and carried him home.

Since second grade, I remember my father’s vivid interest in art. A series of small books about painters arrived at our home on some predetermined schedule. There was Van Gogh, of course, Kandinsky and many others. The books were long since molded and discarded, but they came to mind when I saw another one of Max’s copies — an early Van Gogh, one most people would not associate with the thick layered paint of his later works – a man at his loom in dull browns and ochers. He also bought canvas copies of the typical Van Gogh paintings – “Starry Night,” “Sunflowers,” the usual.

Dad encouraged me to paint in school, even after the art teacher declared I earned an “A” only because of extra credit assignments. High school teachers bitter about their own career shortcomings can be so cruel sometimes. It matters not for this essay the cruel things we said about her, either. High school students, I see now, can also be quite cruel. But not my father. In this instance, this painting endeavor, he encouraged me.

I didn’t study with a real art teacher, just borrowed acrylic paints from Dad, bought canvas and started in on copying things I could handle – like Snoopy, sitting upright on his doghouse. Not too bad. Nothing original about it, but a lot of fun.

I got braver and more ambitious and when I was 14 years old, I painted a landscape from a photograph in my high school French book of a castle-like island, Mont St. Michel. I painted “en plein air” on the back porch of our rented house in Morristown in East Tennessee, the light nothing like France, but pleasant still. The painting was terrible, but caused me to study the place many hours. Years later, when I arrived in person, I felt like I already knew the feel of the stone in the buildings. The tap of my foot on the road leading up the hill sounded to me like an often-heard radio song. My shadow on the sand of the beach seemed like it had been cast there before. The trip there was far more fun than painting the image and the experience of the real island was far more rewarding because I had spent all that time studying the photograph.

            When I uncovered Kandinsky and restored him to the wall, it felt like the right progression of things. He sits there unfinished, a great conversation starter, the white lines across the flat olive dock never finished.

            Of course I wanted to tell people the origins of the painting, the artist-given title of the original Kandinsky. The framing of newfound Kandinsky was in 2007, or aught-oh-seven. The internet was just beginning to capture art images and make them easier to find. High def screens were not commonplace and the thrill of seeing something so close to a real painting pop up on your own personal computer screen was still real and fun for someone who spent their days not with sound or the visual arts, but with words on a screen.

            After work, after dinner with a friend, I would sit on the couch with my computer and scroll through Kandinsky images, trying to match the one on the wall with the little squares and rectangles of bright pops of paint on my screen. A cacophony of bright Kandinsky images clogged the internet. But no luck finding a match. It just wasn’t there. It drove my friends crazy, sometimes, so I stopped.

           Was this a lie Dad had told? That would be hilarious. I spent more than $100 getting the thing framed. Had he invented the whole charade? Taken an amoeba from a painting here and a dock and boat from another painting and added a broken up yellow fish hook from yet another painting and called it Kandinsky?

            Trips to the library to investigate in real books revealed nothing. No images that matched.

            Life went on and I set it aside. One more mystery from the man who never talked much about his feelings and told only the stories he wanted to tell.

            Then one day in an offhand conversation with my mother, she brought up the fact that I still needed to sort through more than 400 photograph slides stored in little metal boxes. They belonged to dad and she had agreed to store them for me, but now she wanted no more of it. It was time to sort and toss. This was something she was great at – sorting and tossing and cleaning and scouring and making sure to honor her mother’s strong belief that Godliness really was next to cleanliness. I resisted and put her off. Busy at work. Busy with my son. Busy, busy, busy. Please just keep them for a bit longer.

            I wasn’t too busy to agree to a trip to Paris with three friends, friends who counted on me to translate and curate Paris for them. Having worked for a short time in Paris in my early 20s and having visited numerous times in my late 20s, I really didn’t want to return to Paris – I was far more interested in southern France. But, I loved my friends and I was able to tack on a trip to Italy to the end of the trip. I said yes.

            We had a great time. The next to the last day we were there, everyone went separate ways to explore. None of their side trips were of great interest, so I decided to just hang out and people watch. I picked up a “Pariscope,” a well-known weekly magazine that listed every sort of event one could attend for the price of a ticket, from ballet to movies to music to art galleries. And there, listed in the heart of the flimsy magazine with the mice-sized print, a listing with new meaning: Bibliotheque Kandinsky, Centre Georges Pompidou.

Of course a library named Kandinsky would have an image of this piece of art. It must. I made my way straight there, had a small moment of distress when I

realized the library was not open to the public – and then huge relief when I talked my way into the library even without proper research credentials. Speaking French moderately well might have helped. And then there was the begging, too.

She was curious, too, but she left the catalogs with me and returned to her desk. After just a few moments flipping through images, I saw the familiar amoebas, the boat dock, the radio dials staring back at me from the black and white page. Their images as much a part of my childhood memory as two large green velvet-covered King and Queen chairs that landed in our living room in the 70s. Found again, Kandinsky.

This painting had been shown at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1966. And the mystery of the lack of its image appearing anywhere on the internet or in books about the artist was revealed. The painting belonged to a private collector in Germany. And it wasn’t painted on canvas or some other type of durable, portable surface. It was painted on glass and exhibited only once in the United States.

For the first time, I learned Kandinsky’s title:  “Stability.” I wonder if the artist enjoyed the irony as much as my father probably had, the irony of giving a fragile painting such a solid name, one that sounds more suitable for a sculpture of marble than art painted on glass.

I left the library feeling like my trip to Paris was no coincidence, a reward for my patience with friends and my persistent research.

A few years after the Paris trip, Mother finally persuaded me to sort the 400 slides – we searched and searched for the one color slide that Max made of “Stability” at the exhibit they saw together. It was nowhere to be found. More mystery.

For me the painting’s much more than a Kandinsky. It’s a Max Kandinsky, half-finished and more honored in death than in life.

– by Sybil McLain-Topel

©Sybil McLain-Topel and, 2013-2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without written permission from Sybil McLain-Topel is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, however, please give full and clear credit to Sybil McLain-Topel and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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