artist canvas
Portrait of Wassily Kandinsky

Wassily Kandinsky

22.11.1866 Moscow - 13.12.1944 Neuilly-sur-Seine, France

Art history: Abstract art

Short information:

Wassily Kandinsky was a Russian painter and art theorist. One of the most famous 20th-century artists, he is credited with painting the first modern abstract works.

Biography of Wassily Kandinsky

Kandinsky was born in Moscow but spent his childhood in Odessa. He enrolled at the University of Moscow and chose law and economics. Although quite successful in his profession—he was offered a professorship at the University of Dorpat—he started painting studies (life-drawing, sketching and anatomy) at the age of 30.

In 1896 he settled in Munich and studied at the Academy of Fine Arts, Munich. He went back to Moscow in 1918 after the Russian Revolution. Being in conflict with official theories on art, he returned to Germany in 1921. There he was a teacher at the Bauhaus from 1922 until it was closed by the Nazis in 1933. At that time he moved to France. He lived the rest of his life there, becoming a French citizen in 1939. He died at Neuilly-sur-Seine in 1944.

Artistic Periods

The creation by Kandinsky of purely abstract work did not arrive as an abrupt change, but rather as the fruit of a long development and maturation of intense theoretical thought based on his personal experience of painting. He called this devotion to inner beauty, fervor of the spirit and deep spiritual desire inner necessity, which was a central aspect of his art.

Youth and Inspirations (1866-1896)

Kandinsky's youth and life in Moscow brought inspiration from a variety of sources. As a child he would later recall being fascinated and unusually stimulated by color. The fascination with color continued as he grew up in Moscow, although he seems to have made no attempt to study art. In 1889 he was part of an ethnographic group that traveled to the Vologda region north of Moscow. He tells in Looks on the past that he had the impression to move into a painting when he entered in the houses or the churches decorated with the most shimming colors. His study of the folk art in the region, in particular the use of bright colors on a dark background was reflected in his early work. Kandinsky would write a few years later that 'Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammer, the soul is the piano with the strings'.

It was not until 1896, at the age of 30, Kandinsky gave up a promising career teaching law and economics to enroll in art school in Munich. Also in 1896, prior to leaving Moscow, he saw an exhibit of Monet and was particularly taken with a depiction of a haystack which, to him, had a powerful sense of color almost independent of the object itself. He was similarly influenced during this period by Richard Wagner's Lohengrin (opera) which, he felt, pushed the limits of music and melody beyond standard lyricism.

Kandinsky was also spiritually influenced by H. P. Blavatsky (1831-91), the most important exponent of Theosophy in modern times. Theosophical theory postulates that creation is a geometrical progression, beginning with a point. The creative aspect of the forms is expressed by the descending series of circles, triangles, and squares. Kandinsky's book Concerning the Spiritual In Art (1910) and Point and Line to Plane (1926) echoed this basic Theosophical tenet.

Artistic Metamorphosis (1896-1911)

Kandinsky's time at art school was helped by the fact that he was older and more settled than the other students and he began to emerge as a true art theorist in addition to being a painter. Unfortunately very little exists of his work from this period, though presumably it was extensive. This changes at the beginning of the 20th Century and much remains of the many landscapes and towns that he painted, using broad swathes of color but recognizable forms. For the most part, however, Kandinsky's paintings did not emphasize any human figures. An exception is Sunday, Old Russia (1904) where Kandinsky recreates a highly colorful (and no doubt fanciful) view of peasants and nobles before the walls of a town. Riding Couple (1907) depicts a man on horseback, holding a woman with tenderness and care as they ride past a Russian town with luminous walls across a river. Yet the horse is muted, while the leaves in the trees, the town, and the reflections in the river glisten with spots of color and brightness. The work shows the influence of pointilism and works to blend back-, middle-, and foreground into a luminescent surface. Fauvism is also apparent in these early works. Colors are used to express the artist's experience of subject-matter--not merely to describe objective nature.

Perhaps the most important of Kandinsky's paintings from the decade of the 1900s was The Blue Rider (1903) which shows a small cloaked figure on a speeding horse rushing through a rocky meadow. The rider's cloak is a medium blue, and the shadow cast is a darker blue. In the foreground are more amorphous blue shadows, presumably the counterparts of the fall trees in the background. The Blue Rider in the painting is prominent, but not clearly defined, and the horse has an unnatural gait (which Kandinsky must have known). Indeed, some believe that a second figure, a child perhaps, is being held by the rider though this could just as easily be another shadow from a solitary rider. This type of intentional disjunction allowing viewers to participate in the creation of the artwork would become an increasingly conscientious technique used by the artist in subsequent years--culminating in his great "abstract expressionist" works of the 1911-1914. In The Blue Rider Kandinsky shows the rider more as a series of colors than of specific details. In and of itself The Blue Rider is not exceptional in that regard when compared to contemporary painters, but it does show the direction that Kandinsky would take only a few years later.

From 1906 to 1908 Kandinsky spent a great deal of time travelling across Europe, until he came to live in the small Bavarian town of Murnau. The Blue Mountain (1908 – 1909) painted at this time shows more of his trend towards pure abstraction. A mountain of blue is flanked by two broad trees, one yellow, and one red. A procession of some sort with three riders and several others crosses at the bottom. The face, clothing, and saddles of the riders are each of a single color, and neither they nor the walking figures display any real detail. The broad use of color in The Blue Mountain, illustrate Kandinsky's move towards art in which the color itself is presented independently of form.

The Blue Rider (1911-1914)

The paintings of this period are composed of large and very expressive colored masses evaluated independently from forms and lines which serve no longer to delimitate them or to bring them out but which combined between them, are superimposed and overlap in a very free way to form paintings of an extraordinary force.

The influence of music has been very important on the birth of abstract art, as it is abstract by nature and as it doesn’t try to represent vainly the exterior world but simply to express in an immediate way the inner feelings of the human soul. Kandinsky sometimes used musical terms to designate his works: he called many of his most spontaneous paintings "improvisations", while he entitled "compositions" others much more elaborated and worked at length, a term which resonated in him like a prayer.

In addition to painting Kandinsky developed his voice as an art theorist. In fact, Kandinsky is perhaps more influential on the history of Western art because of his theoretical works rather than his paintings. He helped to found the Neue Kunstlervereinigung Munchen (New Artists' Association) and became its president in 1909. The group was unable to integrate the more radical approach of those like Kandinsky with more conventional ideas of art and the group dissolved in late 1911. Kandinsky then moved to form a new group The Blue Rider (Der Blaue Reiter) with like minded artists such as August Macke and Franz Marc. The group released an almanac, also called The Blue Rider and held two exhibits. More of each were planned, but the outbreak of World War I in 1914 ended these plans and sent Kandinsky home to Russia via Switzerland and Sweden.

Kandinsky's writing in The Blue Rider Almanac and the treatise On the Spiritual In Art, which was released at almost the same time, served as both a defense and promotion of abstract art, as well as an appraisal that all forms of art were equally capable of reaching a level of spirituality. He believed that color could be used in a painting as something autonomous and apart from a visual description of an object or other form.

Return to Russia (1914-1921)

During the years 1918 to 1921, Kandinsky deals with the cultural development politic of Russia, he collaborates in the domains of art pedagogy and museum reforms. He devotes his time to artistic teaching with a program based on forms and colors analysis, as well as participating in the organization of the artistic culture Institute at Moscow. He paints little during this period. In 1916 he meets Nina Andreievskaia who in the following year, becomes his wife. In 1921 Kandinsky receives the mission to go to Germany to attend the Bauhaus of Weimar, on the invitation of its founder, the architect Walter Gropius. The next year, the Soviets have officially forbidden all forms of abstract art, having judged it as harmful for socialist ideals.

The Bauhaus (1922-1933)

The Bauhaus was an innovative architecture and art school founded by Walter Gropius. Its objectives included the merging of plastic arts with applied arts, reflected in its teaching methods based on the theoretical and practical application of the plastic arts synthesis. Kandinsky taught the basic design class for beginners, the course on advanced theory as well as conducting painting classes and a workshop where he completed his colors theory with new elements of form psychology. The development of his works on forms study, particularly on point and different forms of lines, lead to the publication of his second major theoretical book Point and Line to Plane in 1926.

Geometrical elements took on increasing importance in his teaching as well as in his painting, particularly circle, half-circle, the angle, straight lines and curves. This period was a period of intense production. The freedom of which is characterised in each of his works by the treatment of planes rich in colors and magnificent gradations as in the painting Yellow – red – blue (1925), where Kandinsky shows his distance from constructivism and suprematism movements whose influence was increasing at this time.

The large two meter width painting that is Yellow – red – blue (1925) consists of a number of main forms: a vertical yellow rectangle, a slightly inclined red cross and a large dark blue circle, while a multitude of straight black or sinuous lines, arcs of circles, monochromatic circles and scattering of colored checkerboards contribute to its delicate complexity. This simple visual identification of forms and of the main colored masses present on the canvas only corresponds to a first approach of the inner reality of the work whose right appreciation necessitates a much deeper observation- not only of forms and colors involved in the painting, but also of their relation, their absolute position and their relative disposition on the canvas, of their whole and reciprocal harmony.

In front of the hostility of the right political parties, the Bauhaus left Weimar and settled in Dessau from 1925. Following a fierce slander campaign from the Nazis, the Bauhaus closed at Dessau in 1932. The school pursued its activities in Berlin until its dissolution in July 1933. Kandinsky then left Germany and settled in Paris.

The Great Synthesis (1934-1944)

In Paris, he was quite isolated, since abstract painting, particularly geometric abstract painting, was not recognized : the artistic fashions being mainly impressionism and cubism. He lived in a small apartment, and created his work in a studio constructed in the living room. Biomorphic forms with supple and non-geometric outlines appear in his paintings; forms which suggest externally microscopic organisms but which always express the artist's inner life. He used original colour compositions which evoke Slavonic popular art, and which look like precious watermark works. He also used sand mixed with colour to give a granular texture to his paintings.

This period corresponds, in fact, to a vast synthesis of his previous work, of which he used all elements, even enriching them. In 1936 and 1939 he painted his two last major compositions; canvases particularly elaborate and slowly ripped that he hadn't produced for many years. Composition IX is a painting with highly contrasted powerful diagonals and whose central form give the impression of a human embryo in the womb. The small squares of colors and the colored bands seem to stand out against the black background of Composition X, as stars' fragments or filaments, while enigmatic hieroglyphs with pastel tones cover the large maroon mass, which seems to float in the upper left corner of the canvas.

In Kandinsky’s works, some characteristics are obvious while certain touches are more discrete and veiled; that’s to say they reveal themselves only progressively to those who make the effort to deepen their connection with his work. One should not be content with a brief and casual impression, or make a coarse identification of the forms used by the artist; forms which have been subtly harmonized and placed so as to resonate with the observer's own soul. His influence on other artists of the middle and late 20th century has been significant: for example, on the Belgian etcher Rene Carcan.

Kandinsky's Conception of Art

The Artist As Prophet

Writing that "music is the ultimate teacher," Kandinsky embarked upon the first seven of his 10 Compositions. The first three survive only in black-and-white photographs taken by fellow artist and mate, Gabrielle Munter. While studies, sketches, and improvisations exist (particularly of Composition II), a Nazi raid on the Bauhaus in the 1930's resulted in the confiscation of Kandinsky's first three Compositions. They were displayed in the State-sponsored exhibit "Degenerate Art" then destroyed along with works by Paul Klee, Piet Mondrian, Franz Marc, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cezanne, Ludwig Kirchner and other contemporary modern artists.

Influenced by Theosophy and the perception of a coming New Age, a common theme among Kandinsky's first seven Compositions is the Apocalypse, or the end of the world as we know it. Writing of the "artist as prophet" in his book Concerning the Spiritual In Art, Kandinsky created paintings in the years immediately preceding World War I showing a coming cataclysm which would alter individual and social reality. Raised an Orthodox Christian, Kandinsky drew upon the Biblical mythology of Noah's Ark, Jonah and the Whale, Christ's Anastasis and Resurrection, the three Marys' discovery of the Empty Tomb, the Riders of the Apocalyse in the Revelation, various Russian folk tales, and the common mythological experiences of death and rebirth. Never attempting to picture any one of these stories as a narrative, he used their veiled imagery as symbols of the archetypes of death / rebirth and destruction / creation he felt were imminent to the pre-World War I world.

As he stated in Concerning the Spiritual In Art (see below), Kandinsky felt that an authentic artist creating art from "an internal necessity" inhabits the tip of an upward moving triangle. This progressing triangle is penetrating and proceeding into tomorrow. Accordingly, what was odd or inconceivable yesterday is commonplace today; what is avant garde (and only understood by the few) today is standard tomorrow. The modern artist/prophet stands lonely at the tip of this triangle making new discoveries and ushering in tomorrow's reality. Kandinsky had recently become aware of Einsteinian physics, Freudian psychology, airplane flight, x-rays, as well as the advances of modern artists like Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse who had contributed to radically new ways of seeing and experiencing the world.

Composition IV and subsequent paintings are primarily concerned with evoking a spiritual resonance in viewer and artist. As in his painting of the apocalypse by water (Composition VI), Kandinsky puts the viewer in the situation of experiencing these epic myths by translating them into contemporary terms along with requisite senses of desperation, flurry, urgency, and confusion. This spiritual communion of viewer-painting-artist/prophet is ineffable but may be described to the limits of words and images.

According to Concerning the Spiritual In Art, any artwork is successful if it:

  • arises from an internal necessity of the artist; and
  • if the artist's original impulse is evoked in the viewer by means of the artwork and the viewer's reception.

Kandinsky never completely abandoned reference to the visible world the way New York Abstractionists Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko would in the 1950s. In fact, he claimed there was nothing abstract about his paintings at all and preferred the term "concrete art" to describe them, feeling they confront the viewer as solid, unique objects in themselves. Seeking to produce a strictly spiritual communication between viewer and painter, Kandinsky's works make oblique reference to the visible world rather than merely reproducing the visible world.

Artistic and Spiritual Theoretician

As the Der Blaue Reiter Almanac essays and theorizing with composer Arnold Schoenberg indicate, Kandinsky also expressed this communion between artist and viewer as being simultaneously available to the various sense faculties as well as to the intellect (synesthesia). Hearing tones and chords as he painted, Kandinsky theorized that, for examples, yellow is the color of middle-C on a piano, a brassy trumpet blast; black is the color of closure and the ends of things; and that combinations and associations of colors produce vibrational frequencies akin to chords played on a piano. Kandinsky also developed an intricate theory of geometric figures and their relationships, claiming, for example, that the circle is the most peaceful shape and represents the human soul. These theories are set forth in Point and Line to Plane (see below). Because of his influence as a theorist — if not for his pictorial work alone — Kandinsky is often considered peer to Picasso in the field of 20th Century form, and Matisse in 20th Century color.

During the months of studies Kandinsky made in preparation for Composition IV he became exhausted while working on a painting and went for a walk. In the meantime, Gabrielle Munter tidied his studio and inadvertently turned his canvas on its side. Upon returning and seeing the canvas — yet not identifying it — Kandinsky fell to his knees and wept, saying it was the most beautiful painting he had seen. He had been liberated from attachment to the object. As when he first viewed Monet's Haystacks, the experience would change his life and the history of Western art.

In another event with Munter during the Bavarian Abstract Expressionist years, Kandinsky was working on his Composition VI. From nearly six months of study and preparation, he had intended the work to evoke a flood, baptism, destruction, and rebirth simultaneously. After outlining the work on a mural-sized wood panel, he became blocked and could not go on. Munter told him that he was trapped in his intellect and not reaching the true subject of the picture. She suggested he simply repeat the word "uberflut" ("deluge" or "flood") and focus on its sound rather than its meaning. Repeating this word like a mantra, Kandinsky painted and completed the monumental work in only a three-day span.

Theoretical writings on Art

The analysis made by Kandinsky on forms and on colors doesn't result from simple arbitrary ideas associations, but from the inner experience of the painter who has passed years creating abstract paintings of an incredible sensorial richness, working on forms and with colors, observing for a long time and tirelessly his own paintings and those of other artists, noting simply their subjective and pathetic effect on the very high sensibility to colors of his artist and poet soul.

So it is a purely subjective form of experience that everyone can do and repeat taking the time to look at his paintings and letting acting the forms and the colors on his own living sensibility. These are not scientific and objective observations, but inner observations radically subjective and purely phenomenological which is a matter of what the French philosopher Michel Henry calls the absolute subjectivity or the absolute phenomenological life.

Concerning the Spiritual In Art

Kandinsky compares the spiritual life of the humanity to a large Triangle similar to a pyramid; the artist has the task and the mission of leading others to the top by the exercise of his talent. The point of the Triangle is constituted only by some individuals who bring the sublime bread to men. It is a spiritual Triangle which moves forward and rises slowly, even if it sometimes remains immobile. During decadent periods, souls fall to the bottom of the Triangle and men only search for the external success and ignore purely spiritual forces.

When we look at colors on the painter's palette, a double effect happens : a purely physical effect on the eye, charmed by the beauty of colors firstly, which provokes a joyful impression as when we eat a delicacy. But this effect can be much deeper and cause an emotion and a vibration of the soul, or an inner resonance which is a purely spiritual effect, by which the color touches the soul.

The inner necessity is for Kandinsky the principle of the art and the foundation of forms and colors' harmony. He defines it as the principle of the efficient contact of the form with the human soul. Every form is the delimitation of a surface by another one; it possesses an inner content which is the effect it produces on the one who looks at it attentively. This inner necessity is the right of the artist to an unlimited freedom, but this freedom becomes a crime if it is not founded on such a necessity. The art work is born from the inner necessity of the artist in a mysterious, enigmatic and mystic way, and then it acquires an autonomous life; it becomes an independent subject animated by a spiritual breath.

The first obvious properties we can see when we look at isolated color and let it act alone; it is on one side the warmth or the coldness of the colored tone, and on the other side the clarity or the obscurity of the tone.

The warmth is a tendency to yellow, the coldness a tendency to blue. The yellow and the blue form the first big contrast, which is dynamic. The yellow possesses an eccentric movement and the blue a concentric movement, a yellow surface seems to get closer to us, while a blue surface seems to move away. The yellow is the typically terrestrial color whose violence can be painful and aggressive. The blue is the typically celestial color which evokes a deep calm. The mixing of blue with yellow gives the total immobility and the calm, the green.

Clarity is a tendency to the white and obscurity a tendency to the black. The white and the black form the second big contrast, which is static. The white acts like a deep and absolute silence full of possibilities. The black is a nothingness without possibility, it is an eternal silence without hope, it corresponds to death. That’s why any other color resonates so strongly on its neighbors. The mixing of white with black leads to gray, which possesses no active force and whose affective tonality is near that of green. The gray corresponds to immobility without hope; it tends to despair when it becomes dark and regains little hope when it lightens.

The red is a warmth color, very living, lively and agitated, it possesses an immense force, it is a movement in oneself. Mixed with black, it leads to brown which is a hard color. Mixed with yellow, it gains in warmth and gives the orange which possesses an irradiating movement on the surroundings. Mixed with blue, it moves away from man to give the purple, which is cooled red. The red and the green form the 3rd big contrast, the orange and the purple the fourth one.

Point and Line to Plane

Kandinsky analyses in this writing the geometrical elements which compose every painting, namely the point and the line, as well as the physical support and the material surface on which the artist draws or paints and which he calls the basic plane or BP. He doesn’t analyze them on an objective and exterior point of view, but on the point of view of their inner effect on the living subjectivity of the observer who looks them and let them acting on his sensibility.

The point is in the practice a small stain of color put by the artist on the canvas. So the point used by the painter is not a geometric point, it is not a mathematical abstraction, it possesses a certain extension, a form and a color. This form can be a square, a triangle, a circle, like a star or even more complex. The point is the most concise form, but according to its placement on the basic plane it will take a different tonality. It can be alone and isolated or on the opposite put in resonance with other points or with lines.

The line is the product of a force, it is a point on which a living force has been applied in a given direction, the force applied on the pencil or on the paint brush by the hand of the artist. The produced linear forms can be of several types : a straight line which results from a unique force applied in a single direction, an angular line which results from the alternation of two forces with a different direction, or a curved or wave-like line produced by the effect of two forces acting simultaneously. A plane can be obtained by condensation, from a line rotated around one of its ends.

The subjective effect produced by a line depends on its orientation : the horizontal line corresponds to the ground on which man rests and moves, to flatness, it possesses a dark and cold affective tonality similar with black or blue, while the vertical line corresponds to height which offers no support, it possesses on the opposite a luminous and warm tonality close from white and yellow. A diagonal possesses by consequence a more or less warm or cold tonality according to its inclination according to the horizontal and to the vertical.

A force which deploys itself without obstacle as the one which produces a straight line corresponds to lyricism, while several forces which confront or annoy each other form a drama. The angle formed by the angular line possesses as well an inner sonority which is warm and close to yellow for an acute angle (triangle), cold and similar to blue for an obtuse angle (circle) and similar to red for a right angle (square).

The basic plane is in general rectangular or square, thus it is composed of horizontals and verticals lines which delimitate it and define it as an autonomous being which will serve as support to the painting communicating it its affective tonality. This tonality is determined by the relative importance of theses horizontals and verticals lines, the horizontals giving a calm and cold tonality to the basic plane, while the verticals give it a calm and warm tonality. The artist possesses the intuition of this inner effect of the canvas format and dimensions, which he chooses according to the tonality he wants to give to his work. Kandinsky even considers the basic plane as a living being that the artist "fertilizes" and of which he feels the "breathing".

Every part of the basic plane possesses a proper affective coloration which will influence on the tonality of the pictorial elements that will be drawn on it, which contributes to the richness of the composition which results from their juxtaposition on the canvas. The above of the basic plane corresponds to the looseness and to lightness, while the below evokes the condensation and heaviness. This is the work of the painter to listen to know these effects in order to produce paintings which are not just the effect of a random process, but the fruit of an authentic work and the result of an effort toward the inner beauty.

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