Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Wassily Kandinsky: Geometric Expressions of Colour

Great Artists

The more frightening the world becomes ... the more art becomes abstract.

Of all the arts, abstract painting is the most difficult. It demands that you know how to draw well, that you have a heightened sensitivity for composition and for colors, and that you be a true poet. This last is essential.

The true work of art is born from the 'artist': a mysterious, enigmatic, and mystical creation. It detaches itself from him, it acquires an autonomous life, becomes a personality, an independent subject, animated with a spiritual breath, the living subject of a real existence of being.

Wassily Kandinsky [1886-1944]: A photo from circa 1913. In his famous book, Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911), Kandinsky writes: "Colour is a power which directly influences the soul. Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammer, the soul is the strings.The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul."
Source: Wikipedia 

Wassily Kandinsky is well-known for incorporating geometric shapes and vibrant colours into his work, and in doing so is considered the father of abstract art. Kandinsky was highly articulate in explaining the relationship between lines, shapes and colour, and the universal language they evoked. What is somewhat wondrous is that he only started painting seriously after age 30, leaving an illustrious and secure career as a professor of law.

Despite his late start, or as a result of it, Kandinsky brought many things into his art, not the least of which was his sharp legal mind to artistic interpretation; an intimate relationship with music; and a spiritual sense of wonder, where colours were themselves vested with a soul.This view somewhat explains why Kandinsky had other-worldly influences, such as the teachings of theosophy and Rudolf Steiner:
Kandinsky was fascinated by the occult teachings of Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Society, and the Austrian mystic Rudolf Steiner, whose lectures he attended. Steiner argued that the "soul-and-spiritual" reality is accessible to the "seer".
And, although he was a painter, he was deeply influenced by the music of Viennese composer, Arnold Schönberg. This is aptly expressed in his view of Moscow sunsets, first published in Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911):
The sun melts all of Moscow down to a single spot that, like a mad tuba, starts all of the heart and all of the soul vibrating. But no, this uniformity of red is not the most beautiful hour. It is only the final chord of a symphony that takes every colour to the zenith of life that, like the fortissimo of a great orchestra, is both compelled and allowed by Moscow to ring out.
Music played such an importance in his art, that he named many of his works "Compositions." For example, Composition V (1911), Composition V1 (1911) and Composition VII (1913). In Kandinsky: Compositions, Magdalena Dabrowski places the importance of music in context: 
Kandinsky's conviction that music is a superior art to painting due to its inherent abstract language came out forcefully in the artist's admiration for the music of the Viennese composer Arnold Schönberg, with whom he initiated a longstanding friendship and correspondence and whose Theory of Harmony (1911) coincided with Kandinsky's On the Spiritual in Art.

Kandinsky's complex relationship to Schönberg's music is central to his concept of Composition, since Schönberg's most important contribution to the development of music, after all, occurred in the area of composition.
Wassily Kandinsky: Composition VII, 1913. The Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. Painted in 1913 when Kandinsky lived with Gabriela Munter in Munich, Germany. Kandisnky said this was the most complex piece he painted.
Source: WassilyKandinsky.net

His Early Influences

Wassily Wasilyevich Kandinsky was born to Wasili Silverstrovich and Lidia Ivanovna Tikheeva, in Moscow, Russia, on December, 16th, 1866. His mother was a Muscovite and his father a native of Kyakhta, a Siberian town near the Chinese border. The young Kandinsky grew up with both European and Asian influences.

His parents played the piano and the zither, and Kandinsky himself learned the piano and cello at an early age. Music was never far away from him, and influenced his soul and work. They moved to Florence, Italy, in 1869 where the young Kandinsky attended nursery school. In 1871 the family returned to Russia, but to Odessa where his father ran a tea factory. Shortly after, when he was five, his parents divorced.

The young boy lived with his father and stayed for periods with his aunt, Elizaveta Tikheeva, who gave him a set of watercolours. It was a little later as an adolescent that his inchoate theories of colour were formed, namely, that each colour had a mysterious life of its own.

Although he was gifted in both art and music, he at first chose the safer path. He earned his law degree from the University of Moscow in 1892, and lectured there until 1896.  During this period, he married his cousin, Anna Chimyakina.

At age 30 he had a spiritual awakening of sorts, which would change his life and that of the world of art. It was one of those moments that often take place in a young man's life at around the age of thirty, the practical choice or the passionate choice. It was after seeing Claude Monet's impressionist painting, The Haystack (1890-91), that Kandinsky chose the latter:
In 1896, when he was approaching his 30th birthday, he was forced to choose among his possible futures, for he was offered a professorship in jurisprudence at the University of Dorpat (later called Tartu), in Estonia, which was then undergoing Russification. In what he called a “now or never” mood, he turned down the offer and took the train for Germany with the intention of becoming a painter.
From 1896 to 1914 Kandinsky lived in Munich. For the first few years, Kandinsky was a student again, first at a private school under the tutelage of Anthon Azbe; and then he studied at the Munich Academy of Art under the teaching of Franz von Schtucke. Kandinsky emerged from the academy with a diploma in 1900.

In 1902 he met a young artist, Gabriele Münter, a student eleven years his junior, who became his mistress between 1902 and 1914. In 1904 he separated from his his wife, Anna Chimyakina (and the divorce became legal in 1911). For the next five years, Wassily and Gabriele travelled around Europe, painting and participating in exhibitions. She undoubtedly influenced his art. They lived openly as a married couple, which was acceptable in bohemian circles, but not in conventional ones.

Founded the Blue Rider Group

In 1911 Kandinsky and the German painter, Franz Marc, founded a group called, Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), named after one of his works. It included such artists as August Macke, Paul Klee, Alexej von Javlensky, and other painters fundamental to Expressionism. The group held two important exhibitions in 1911 and 1912 touring Germany, for which Kandinsky also included paintings by Henri Rousseau.

Kandinsky was the main driving force behind the start of the new movement: he chose artists, collected their works, and published an almanac. In his writings Kandinsky promoted abstract art. He formulated his ideas of spirituality in art, his color theory, and the concept of autonomous color painted apart from an object or form. It was also during this period that he wrote Concerning the Spiritual in Art, in 1911.

The start of the First World War ended the Blue Rider Group and forced Kandinsky back to Russia in 1914. By November 1914, he and Münter parted ways, she to Munich and he to Moscow. There he taught art in Moscow and visited St. Petersburg.

In  the autumn of 1916, the almost 50-year-old Kandinsky met Nina Nikolayevna Andreevskaya, the 24-year-old daughter of a Russian colonel, who became his wife in February 1917. The marriage was a successful one. Their only son, Vsevolod, was born in 1917, but he died in 1920 during the brutal Russian Civil War, unable to survive undernourishment and infectious disease.

During and after the Russian Revolution of 1917, he was involved in teaching art. But as the Soviet Union was moving toward social realism, Kandinsky's work came under increasing attack from his fellow artists. In  December 1921 Kandinsky wisely left Russia and joined the Bauhaus Movement in Weimar, Germany. He was invited by Walther Gropius, the founder of Bauhaus, an innovative school of art and architecture. "Composition VIII" (1923) is one of the defining works of the Weimar period. Kandinsky became a German citizen in 1928.

Move to Paris

Between 1926 and 1933 Kandinsky painted 159 oils and 300 water colors. Many of them, unfortunately, have not been recovered, after Nazis classified Kandinsky's and many other artists' paintings as "degenerate." Fifty-seven works by Kandinsky in German museums were confiscated by the Nazis.

Not surprisingly, in 1933, after the Bauhaus Movement was banned as degenerate by the Nazis in Germany, Kandinsky and his wife, Nina, had to once again move, this time to the Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine. He became a French citizen in 1939 and continued living and working in Paris during the Nazi occupation of the Second World War.

His work inspired  many opinions, not surprising for a pioneer of abstract art who sought new forms and stretching the boundaries of old forms. As Kandinsky once said. his ambitions as a painter were actually quite modest:
In conclusion, therefore, I shall embark upon the negative path and explain as clearly as possible what I do not want. ... I do not want to paint music. I do not want to paint states of mind. I do not want to paint coloristically or uncoloristically. I do not want to alter, contest, or overthrow any single point in the harmony of the masterpieces of the past. I do not want to show the future its true path. ... I want only to paint good, necessary, living pictures, which are experienced properly by at least a few viewers.
Wassily Kandinsky died of cerebro-vascular disease in his studio in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France, on December 13, 1944, survived by his wife, Nina. He was 78. His courageous pursuit of passion in becoming a painter paid off, not only for him, but for all humanity. His paintings are adored and appreciated by more than a few viewers.


  1. Music is a superior art to painting because it is the art that gives us physical pleasure. That is why atonal music never caught on--it is unpleasant to one's sense of hearing. Abstract art, on the other hand, is easy to get used to. It doesn't hurt.

  2. I am not sure what George Jochnowitz means by 'a superior art'? By what criteria might such a judgement be made? One person's soul may be touched by a painting, that of another by a piece of music. Some of us need both forms of art with which to nourish our souls. Surely, superiority is a mute point.

  3. Thank you for your comment.

    Although I ought to let Prof Jochnowitz speak for himself, I sense that he was referring to Kandinsky who said music was the superior art in that it had an universal language.

    Even so, I would agree with you that any art form can express something that touches the soul of humanity. Such explains the multitude of artists out there.


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