The Shape Of Wassily Kandinsky

The Shape Of Wassily Kandinsky
Wassily Wassilyevich Kandinsky (1866 – 1944) was a Russian Painter and Art Theorist. Having relinquished a promising career as a Professor of Law and Economics in Estonia, Kandinsky began painting studies (life-drawing, sketching and anatomy) at the age of 30.


Abstract Anatomies

Kandinsky was born in Moscow, Russia, the son of Lidia Ticheeva and Vasily Silvestrovich Kandinsky, a tea merchant. One of his great-grandmothers was Princess Gantimurova, and he was the uncle of Russian-French philosopher Alexandre Kojève. From his colourful childhood, he developed a lifelong fascination with the psychology of colour symbolism.

In 1889 at age 25, Kandinsky was part of an ethnographic research group which travelled to the Vologda region North of Moscow. He expressed that the houses and churches were decorated with such shimmering colours that upon entering them, he felt as if he were moving into a painting. This experience, and his study of the region’s folk art (particularly the use of bright colours on dark backgrounds), were reflected in much of his early work.

In 1896, Kandinsky settled in Munich, studying first at Anton Ažbe’s private school and then at the Academy of Fine Arts. He returned to Moscow in 1914, after the outbreak of World War I. Following the Russian Revolution, Kandinsky became an insider in the cultural administration of Anatoly Lunacharsky and helped establish the Museum of the Culture of Painting. However, by then “his spiritual outlook… was foreign to the argumentative materialism of Soviet society”.

Kandinsky’s creation of abstract work followed a long period of development and maturation of intense thought based on his artistic experiences. He called this devotion to inner beauty, its fervour of spirit, and soulful desire an inner necessity; it was a central aspect of his vocation. Some art historians suggest that Kandinsky’s passion for Abstract art began when he found one of his own paintings hanging upside down in his studio; he stared at it for a while before recognising it as his own.

Kandinsky’s influences during this period include Wagner’s Lohengrin, which he felt pushed the limits of music and melody beyond standard lyricism. He was also spiritually influenced by Madame Blavatsky (1831–1891), a prominent exponent of Theosophy. Theosophical theory expresses creation as geometric progression, beginning with a single point. The creative aspect of the form is expressed by a descending series of shapes. Kandinsky’s books Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1910) and Point and Line to Plane (1926) echo these tenets.

As an Art Theorist, Kandinsky helped found the Neue Künstlervereinigung München (Munich New Artists’ Association), becoming its president in 1909. However, the group reportedly struggled to integrate the radical approach of Kandinsky (and others) with conventional artistic concepts, and subsequently dissolved in 1911. Kandinsky then formed a new group, the Blue Rider (Der Blaue Reiter) with like-minded artists such as August Macke, Franz Marc, Albert Bloch, and Gabriele Münter. They released an almanac (The Blue Rider Almanac) and held two exhibitions before the outbreak of World War I.


“Our hearing of colours is so precise … Colour is a means of exerting a direct influence upon the soul. Colour is the keyboard. The eye is the hammer. The soul is the piano with its many strings. The artist is the hand that purposely sets the soul vibrating by means of this or that key. Thus it is clear that the harmony of colours can only be based upon the principle of purposefully touching the human soul.”


Lines In The Sand

Kandinsky taught basic design classes for beginners, as well as courses on advanced theory at the Bauhaus; he also conducted painting classes and workshops which augmented his colour theories with new elements of form psychology. Kandinsky’s examinations of the effects of forces on straight lines, leading to the contrasting tones of curved and angled lines, coincided with the research of Gestalt psychologists, whose work was also discussed at the Bauhaus.

He sought to illustrate his distance from the constructivism and suprematism movements influential at the time, and the Great Synthesis between 1934 – 1944 saw the creation of his Biomorphic forms with supple, non-geometric outlines; suggesting microscopic organisms, but expressing a rich and personal inner life. Kandinsky used original colour compositions, evoking Slavic popular art. He also occasionally mixed sand with paint to give a granular, rustic texture to his pieces. This period corresponds to a synthesis of Kandinsky’s previous works in which he used a mix of elements, further enriching them through synergy.

In 1936 and 1939 he painted his final two major compositions, the type of elaborate canvases he had not produced for many years. Composition IX has highly contrasted, powerful diagonals whose central form gives the impression of an embryo in the womb. Small squares of colours and coloured bands stand out against the black background of Composition X, as star fragments (or filaments), while enigmatic hieroglyphs with pastel tones cover a large maroon mass which seems to float in the upper-left corner. In Kandinsky’s work some characteristics are self-evident, while certain touches are more discreet and veiled; revealing themselves progressively and only to those who deepen their connection with his pursuit. He intended his forms (which he subtly harmonised and positioned) to resonate with the observer’s soul.

As the Der Blaue Reiter Almanac essays and theorising with composer Arnold Schoenberg indicate, Kandinsky also expressed the communion between creator and observer as being available to both the senses and the intellect, as a felt or imaginative synaesthesia. Hearing tones and chords as he painted, Kandinsky theorised that for example, yellow is the colour of middle C on a brassy trumpet; black is the colour of closure and the end of things; and that combinations of colours produce vibrational frequencies. Kandinsky’s legendary stage design for a performance of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition illustrates his synaesthetic concept of a universal correspondence of forms, colours and sounds.


Prophetic Fallacy

While studies, sketches, and improvisations exist (particularly of Composition II), a Nazi raid on the Bauhaus in the 1930s resulted in the confiscation of Kandinsky’s first three Compositions. They were displayed in the State-sponsored exhibit “Degenerate Art”, and then destroyed (along with works by Paul Klee, Franz Marc and other modern artists).

Fascinated by Christian eschatology and the perception of a coming New Age, a common theme among Kandinsky’s first seven Compositions is the apocalypse and the end of the world as we know it. Writing of prophecy 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.

Having a devout belief in Orthodox Christianity, Kandinsky drew upon the biblical stories of Noah’s Ark, Jonah and the whale, Christ’s resurrection, the four horsemen of the Apocalypse in the book of Revelation, Russian folktales 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 which he felt were imminent in the pre-World War I era.

In an episode with Münter during the Bavarian abstract expressionist years, Kandinsky was working on his Composition VI. After nearly six months of study and preparation, he had intended the work to evoke a flood, baptism, destruction, and rebirth. But having outlined the work on a mural-sized wood panel, he became blocked and could not go on. Münter told him that he was trapped in his intellect which prevented him from reaching the true nature of the subject. She suggested he simply repeat the word uberflut (“deluge” or “flood”) and focus on its sound and sensations, rather than its meaning. Repeating this word like a mantra, Kandinsky painted and completed the monumental piece within three days.

Kandinsky felt that an authentic artist creating from “an internal necessity” inhabits the tip of an upward-moving pyramid, similar to the spirals of the Theosophical movement. This progressing point is penetrating and proceeds cyclically into the future. What was odd or inconceivable yesterday, is commonplace today; what is avant-garde today, is common knowledge tomorrow.

His signature or individual style can be further defined and divided into three categories over the course of his art career: Impressions (representational element), Improvisations (spontaneous emotional reaction), Compositions (ultimate works of art). He ultimately sought to integrate the changes instigated by recent scientific developments and the advances of modern creatives, who had contributed to radically new ways of seeing and experiencing the world; and his pieces are intriguing experiments into the synthesis of drama, words, colour and music expressed as a sensationally seamless whole.


“Abstract art places a new world, which on the surface has nothing to do with ‘reality’, next to the ‘real’ world. Deeper down, it is subject to the common laws of the ‘cosmic world’. And so a ‘new world of art’ is juxtaposed to the ‘world of nature’. This ‘world of art’ is just as real, just as concrete. For this reason I prefer to call so-called abstract art – concrete art.”