The world reshaped

Art byJames Hall

The juvenilia of major modern artists can often be pretty awful, giving few pointers to their later brilliance. But there are many different kinds of awfulness. Jackson Pollock's early work is mostly dire, but it's dire in the most media-friendly of ways. His subject matter is diabolical (The Moon Woman Cuts the Circle), horny and scary (Naked Man with Knife). Early Pollock may sometimes be a pile of testosterone-fuelled bollocks, but if you've got a feature article to write, so much the better.

The juvenilia of Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), the Russian pioneer of abstract art, is awful in the least media-friendly of ways. It is decidedly wimpy. Take, for example, the blobby, neo-impressionist oil painting Russian Beauty in a Landscape (1903-04). It refers to a traditional song in which a bride sadly declares that she will hang her virgin's cap on a birch, knowing that the tree will soon be felled. Or how about the equally blobby The Arrival of the Merchants (1905), which depicts a crowd during the Middle Ages that has gathered around a merchant ship docked in a Russian port? These are the softest of soft primitivism: there's little to excite commissioning editors here.

Not surprisingly, there have always been critics who have been bemused and embarrassed by the perceived mawkishness and naffness of Kandinsky's early work. Some have even regarded the non-objective work from his great pre-first world war period, with its pulsating smorgasbords of colour and form, as equally tainted - almost as though he were the William Morris of abstraction. In 1911, when Kandinsky was living in Munich, the critic Anatoly Lunacharsky described him as "one of the worst of the worst . . . a person who is evidently in the last stages of psychic disintegration". After he had returned to revolutionary Russia, the artist El Lissitzky condemned him as an "antediluvian" anachronism at a time of "organisation, clarity and precision".

More recently and unforgivably, Kandinsky was excluded from a major survey show at MOMA, New York, "Primitivism in Modern Art" (1984), despite being the only modernist who was a trained ethnographer. Kandinsky's first major experience of folk art and culture came when he undertook a field trip to the Urals in northern Russia to study the Zyrian people. They lived in vividly painted houses and held a wide variety of religious beliefs. His report is still cited in ethnographic literature to this day. Thus his immersion in "old Russia" was real as well as imagined.

The question then arises: if Kandinsky was a trained ethnographer, why did he restrict his early pictures to such schmaltzy, implausible subject matter? I think he may have subconsciously emasculated and simplified his sources in order to give himself a freer rein. The softer the primitivism, the more malleable and vulnerable to transformation it seemed to be. The very first non-objective world could only be shaped out of the most soluble and passive of components. Hence, too, I think, Kandinsky's love of watercolour, which is being celebrated in a major exhibition at the Royal Academy. His reconfiguration of the world required, at least at the outset, materials and subject matter that were profoundly wet.

That said, Kandinsky came to feel that even the stoutest components of the modern world were in acute danger of meltdown. Like so many of his contemporaries in the period leading up to the first world war, he looked forward to an impending holocaust, seeing it as cleansing and cathartic. X-rays had been discovered in 1895 and radioactivity in 1896. He marvelled at them in his memoirs: "The disintegration of the atom was equal in my soul to the disintegration of the whole world. Suddenly the thickest walls fell. Everything became uncertain, wobbly and soft."

The marvellous thing about Kandinsky's best work is that disintegration goes hand in hand with reformation. The orchestration of line, shape and colour is managed with extraordinary panache. Things are only "wobbly and soft" in the sense that sinews are: every bit of the composition is suffused with a throbbing elasticity, a sprung rhythm. For Kandinsky, abstraction meant nothing less than the refinement and release of energy. These breathtaking works are some of the best things in modern art.

After the first world war, when Kandinsky went to teach at the Bauhaus, there was a loss of intensity, and his work became slick and saccharine. Although he increasingly used geometrical forms and ruled lines, there's no doubt that he was going soft. The schmaltziness is no longer energising; it is enervating. His last pictures are wet, wet, wet.

"Kandinsky: watercolours and other works on paper" is at the Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly, London W1 until 4 July