Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944)

What makes him different?

Russian-born artist,  Wassily Kandinsky, once looked with envy on civil servants who, he declared, ‘after work, may, can relax completely’.  The reason for this unusual longing was his own inability to switch off from the world.  Relaxation did not come easily to Kandinsky and from an early age he was acutely sensitive to the world around him and often felt overpowered by the sensations and emotions he experienced in response to it.    Luckily for us, through painting, he found  the means to use this unusual ability to make a remarkable contribution to the world of modern art.

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Composition VIII, 1932
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Early years

Wassily Kandinsky was born  into a wealthy  family in Moscow in 1866 but spent his childhood in Odessa.  When his parents divorced, he was put into the care of an aunt who ensured he had lessons in music (he played the piano and cello well) and drawing and, on leaving school, he returned to Moscow to study law.  He was an excellent student and was on course to enjoy a very successful career in the law department of Moscow university when fate played a hand in his destiny and led him off in a new direction.

The power of art

It is likely that Kandinsky had the condition known as synaesthesia which allowed him to hear colour and see music.  The power of this ability was first brought home to him at the age of 26 when, during a performance of Wagner’s opera Loenghrin, he experienced the mighty  sound  of the symphony orchestra in a whole range of vivid colours that evoked scenes of Moscow.  He knew immediately that he wanted to paint them. 

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Farbstudie Quadrate, c.1913
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His desire to paint was reinforced when he saw a painting from  Monet’s Haystack series  for the first time in an exhibition in Moscow in 1896.  It was then he realised that colour alone could be the subject of a painting and that the inclusion of a recognisable object was unnecessary. 

Both experiences had a profound effect on Kandinsky and gave him the confidence to abandon his career in law and take up the study of painting in Munich.  From the outset, he had a unique vision for his art.  He viewed painting as a ‘spiritual’ activity and once liberated from the need to put objects into his works, he knew he could share his own intense sensory perceptions of the world with others for the common good. 

Painting from within

Painting, for Wassily Kandinsky, had to come from what he called ‘internal necessity’, an inner compulsion and had to reflect the inner voice of the artist.  After four years of study in Munich he embarked on an extensive  period of travel abroad which allowed him to explore and experiment with different types of art, using intense colour and moving ever increasingly in the direction of total abstraction. 

He attributes his creation  of the first wholly abstract painting to an experience he had in his studio in 1909 when he glimpsed one of his own paintings leaning on its side against the wall and instead of the image he had painted he saw only shapes and colours without meaning.  A world of total abstraction opened up to him. 

On The Spiritual in Art

Teaching and writing about art theory were as important to Kandinsky as painting itself and in 1911 he published his seminal work, On The Spiritual in Art, in which he expands on his ideas that colour and form can communicate without any particular reference to a subject matter.   In the book he discusses the power of colour and attributes certain qualities to a variety of colours.  The colour blue is  particularly meaningful for him - deep blue is profoundly spiritual while lighter blue evokes silence and stillness. The cello, which he played well, represents the deepest blue of all the instruments.  Green is a peaceful colour which can have a benefit on tired people,  yellow a stimulating one.  Bright red, in musical terms, is like the sound of a fanfare and alizarin red like the high notes of a violin.   The book  makes dense reading but the ideas it contains are ground-breaking.

Der Blaue Reiter

In 1911, along with fellow artist Franz Marc, Wassily Kandinsky founded Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) an exhibition of work by a diverse group of international artists with the aim ‘to show by means of the variety of forms represented how the inner wishes of the artist are embodied in manifold ways.’  Among the artists whose work appeared were Robert Delaunay, Gabrielle Munter, August Macke as well as Kandinsky and Marc themselves.  The name of the exhibition came about as both artists loved blue and Kandinsky loved horses and used them frequently as a motif in his paintings.  The group held a second exhibition in 1912 and included work by Paul Klee, a recent recruit to their circle.

Kandinsky’s own work during this time was now almost completely abstract .  Music continued to be important to him, in particular the work of composer Arnold Schoenberg whose atonal  music reflected what he was aiming to do in painting.  He believed that the most powerful means of expression lay in the sound of colours and the exploration of an inner tension in a painting which he created by a series of carefully positioned points, lines, circles and curves.  The paintings communicate a dynamic quality, a strong sense of movement forwards.  In his painting, Improvisation Deluge (1913) he set out to offer a ‘hymn of that new creation that follows upon the destruction of the world.’  His paintings are filled with optimism and the joy of the physical sensations of life.

In 1917, having ended his long-term relationship with Gabrielle Munter, Kandinsky married the much-younger Nina Andreevsky and found a new happiness with a woman who was able to be the devoted  companion he desired.   He was in touch with other Russian painters of the Suprematist and Constructivist movements  and  incorporated new, more geometric, elements into his paintings based on their ideas, paving the way for expansion into a whole new phase in his creativity.

The Bauhaus

In 1921 Wassily Kandinsky was invited to take up a teaching post at the Bauhaus in Weimar.  The Bauhaus was a radical new school of art which was set up to train students in a range of art and design techniques  and  the use of new technological developments in the production of  their work.

Wassily Kandinsky was an enthusiastic and gifted teacher and the school was a perfect setting for the further development of his art theories.  He published Point and Line to Plane in which he provided an analysis of the effects of lines and curves.  According to his theories, horizontal lines correspond to coolness and flatness, vertical ones convey warmth and height and diagonal lines are a combination of both.  He attributes confidence and resilience to the curve and the circle took on a more mystical importance.

Throughout his time at the Bauhaus (1921-1932), he combined painting with his teaching career and produced a vast body of work, incorporating smaller motifs and symbols into his compositions.  The changing political situation in Germany, however, threw a dark shadow over the Bauhaus and it was forced to close by the Nazi regime in 1932.

Paris

Kandinsky and Nina moved to Paris in 1933, settling into an apartment on the outskirts of the city.  The art world in Paris did not embrace him as he expected.  Surrealism and Cubism dominated the market and he found it difficult to sell work.  He also found himself having to defend abstract art for the first time.  His output remained prolific and his paintings from that period reflect an order and balance that gives no hint of the uncertain political times he was living through.  He continued to use geometric shapes and patterns, bright colours and floating motifs against darker backgrounds, painting every day until his death in 1944 at the age of 78.

The Legacy

Despite his occasional yearnings for a simpler life, Wassily Kandinsky knew he was fortunate in the way he was able to experience the world.  His work is bright and optimistic and he conveys an infectious passion for the world around him and the colours and forms it gave him access to.  His work has enduring appeal and his desire to share his unique vision communicates itself through each of his vibrant paintings.  He inspires optimism in us all.