Wassily Kandinsky Life and Art Periods

"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."

WASSILY KANDINSKY SYNOPSIS

One of the pioneers of abstract modern art, Wassily Kandinsky exploited the evocative interrelation between color and form to create an aesthetic experience that engaged the sight, sound, and emotions of the public. He believed that total abstraction offered the possibility for profound, transcendental expression and that copying from nature only interfered with this process. Highly inspired to create art that communicated a universal sense of spirituality, he innovated a pictorial language that only loosely related to the outside world, but expressed volumes about the artist's inner experience. His visual vocabulary developed through three phases, shifting from his early, representative canvases and their divine symbolism to his rapturous and operatic compositions, to his late, geometric and biomorphic flat planes of color. Kandinsky's art and ideas inspired many generations of artists, from his students at the Bauhaus to the Abstract Expressionists after World War II.

WASSILY KANDINSKY KEY IDEAS

Painting was, above all, deeply spiritual for Kandinsky. He sought to convey profound spirituality and the depth of human emotion through a universal visual language of abstract forms and colors that transcended cultural and physical boundaries.
Kandinsky viewed non-objective, abstract art as the ideal visual mode to express the "inner necessity" of the artist and to convey universal human emotions and ideas. He viewed himself as a prophet whose mission was to share this ideal with the world for the betterment of society.
Kandinsky viewed music as the most transcendent form of non-objective art - musicians could evoke images in listeners' minds merely with sounds. He strove to produce similarly object-free, spiritually rich paintings that alluded to sounds and emotions through a unity of sensation.
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WASSILY KANDINSKY BIOGRAPHY

Childhood

Wassily (Vasily) Wassilyevich Kandinsky was born in 1866 in Moscow to well educated, upper-class parents of mixed ethnic origins. His father was born close to Mongolia, while his mother was a Muscovite, and his grandmother was from the German-speaking Baltic. The bulk of Kandinsky's childhood was spent in Odessa, a thriving, cosmopolitan city populated by Western Europeans, Mediterraneans, and a variety of other ethnic groups. At an early age, Kandinsky exhibited an extraordinary sensitivity toward the stimuli of sounds, words, and colors. His father encouraged his unique and precocious gift for the arts and enrolled him in private drawing classes, as well as piano and cello lessons. Despite early exposure to the arts, Kandinsky did not turn to painting until he reached the age of 30. Instead, he entered the University of Moscow in 1886 to study law, ethnography, and economics. In spite of the legal focus of his academic pursuits, Kandinsky's interest in color symbolism and its effect on the human psyche grew throughout his time in Moscow. In particular, an ethnographic research trip in 1889 to the region of Vologda, in northwest Russia, sparked an interest in folk art that Kandinsky carried with him throughout his career. After completing his degree in 1892, he started his career in law education by lecturing at the university.

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Early Training

Wassily Kandinsky Biography

Despite his success as an educator, Kandinsky abandoned his career teaching law to attend art school in Munich in 1896. For his first two years in Munich he studied at the art school of Anton Azbe, and in 1900 he studied under Franz von Stuck at the Academy of Fine Arts. At Azbe's school he met co-conspirators such as Alexei Jawlensky, who introduced Kandinsky to the artistic avant-garde in Munich. In 1901, along with three other young artists, Kandinsky co-founded "Phalanx" - an artist's association opposed to the conservative views of the traditional art institutions. Phalanx expanded to include an art school, in which Kandinsky taught, and an exhibitions group. In one of his classes at the Phalanx School, he met and began a relationship with his student, Gabriele Munter, who became his companion for the next 15 years. As he traveled throughout Europe and northern Africa with Munter from 1903 until 1909, Kandinsky familiarized himself with the growing Expressionist movement and developed his own style based on the diverse artistic sources he witnessed on his travels.

Kandinsky painted his breakthrough work, Der Blaue Reiter (1903) during this transitional period. This early work revealed his interest in disjointed figure-ground relationships and the use of color to express emotions rather than appearances - two aspects that would dominate his mature style. In 1909, he was one of the founding members of Neue Kunstlervereinigung Munchen (NKVM, or New Artists Association of Munich), a group that sought to accommodate the avant-garde artists whose practices were too radical for the traditional organizations and academies of the time. His paintings became more and more abstracted from the surrounding world as he gradually refined his style. He began titling works Improvisation, Composition, or Impression to further stress their distance from the objective world and continued to use similar titles throughout the rest of his career.

Mature Period

In 1911, in response to the rejection of one of Kandinsky's paintings from the annual NKVM exhibition, he and Franz Marc organized a rival exhibition and co-founded "Der Blaue Reiter" (The Blue Rider) - a loose association of nine Expressionist artists that included August Macke, Munter, and Jawlensky. Though their aims and approaches varied from artist to artist, in general the group believed in the promotion of modern art and the possibility for spiritual experience through the symbolic associations of sound and color - two issues very near and dear to Kandinsky's heart. Despite the similarities between the group's moniker and the title of Kandinsky's 1903 painting, the artists actually arrived at the name "Der Blaue Reiter" as a result of the combination of Marc's love of horses and Kandinsky's interest in the symbolism of the rider, coupled with both artists' penchant for the color blue. During their short tenure, the group published an anthology (The Blue Rider Almanac) and held three exhibitions. Additionally, Kandinsky published Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911), his first theoretical treatise on abstraction that articulated his theory that the artist was a spiritual being that communicated through and was affected by line, color, and composition. He produced both abstract and figurative works at this time, but expanded his interest in non-objective painting. Composition VII (1913) was an early example of his synthesis of spiritual, emotional, and non-referential form through complex patterns and brilliant colors. The outbreak of World War I in 1914 led to the dissolution of Der Blaue Reiter, but, despite their short tenure, the group initiated and deeply inspired the highly influential German Expressionist style.

Wassily Kandinsky Photo

After Germany declared war on Russia, Kandinsky was forced to leave the country. He traveled to Switzerland and Sweden with Munter for almost two years, but returned to Moscow in early 1916, which effectively ended their relationship. In Moscow he courted and married Nina Andreevskaia, the young daughter of a Czarist colonel. While there, he not only became familiar with the art of Constructivists and Suprematists like Vladimir Tatlin and Kazimir Malevich, but also lived in the same building as Aleksander Rodchenko, and met other avant-garde luminaries like Naum Gabo, Lyubov Popova, and Varvara Stepanova. With the October Revolution in 1917, Kandinsky's plans to build a private school and studio were upset by the Communist redistribution of private wealth and instead, he worked with the new government to develop arts organizations and schools. Despite his participation in the development of the officially sanctioned new institutions, he felt increasingly removed from the avant-garde. His search for spirituality in art did not meld with the utilitarian aesthetic advocated by the young government and the artists it embraced.

In 1921, when architect Walter Gropius invited Kandinsky to Germany to teach at the Weimar Bauhaus, he accepted and moved to Berlin with his wife, gaining German citizenship in 1928. As a member of the innovative school, Kandinsky's artistic philosophy turned toward the significance of geometric elements - specifically circles, half-circles, straight lines, angles, squares, checkerboards, and triangles. In 1926, he published his second major theoretical work, Point and Line to Plane that outlined his ideas about a "science of painting." In both his work and theory he shifted from the romantic, intuitive expression of his pre-war canvases to an emphasis on constructively organized compositions.

Late Period and Death

Wassily Kandinsky Portrait

When the Nazis closed the Bauhaus school in 1933, Kandinsky was forced to leave his adopted home in Germany and moved to France, where he remained for the rest of his life. He and his wife Nina settled in a small apartment in a suburb of Paris, Neuilly-sur-Seine, and were granted French citizenship in 1939. While in France, his style again shifted and he experimented with biomorphic forms, which were more organic than the harsh geometric shapes of his Bauhaus paintings. Although he continued to paint until his last year, Kandinsky's output slowed during the war and his art fell out of favor as the referential images of Cubism and Surrealism came to dominate the Parisian avant-garde. Despite his distance from the aesthetic forefront, Kandinsky continued to refine his style and revisited many of his previous themes and styles during this period, synthesizing elements of his entire oeuvre into vast, complex works. His late style combined the expressive palette of his earliest non-objective Compositions from the early 1910s with the more structured elements he investigated while at the Bauhaus as well as the biomorphic forms popularized by the Surrealists, like Joan Miró and Jean Arp.

The Nazis confiscated 57 of his canvases during their purge of "degenerate art" in 1937, but despite the Fascist proscription against his art, American patrons - notably Solomon R. Guggenheim - avidly collected his abstract work. His works became key to shaping the mission of the museum Guggenheim planned on opening dedicated to modern, avant-garde art. With over 150 works in the museum's collection, Kandinsky became known as the "patron saint of the Guggenheim." He died in December of 1944 in relative, but serene, isolation.

WASSILY KANDINSKY LEGACY

Kandinsky's work, both artistic and theoretical, played a large role in the philosophic foundation for later modern movements, in particular Abstract Expressionism and its variants like color field painting. His late, biomorphic work had a large influence on Arshile Gorky's development of a non-objective style, which in turn helped to shape the New York School's aesthetic. Jackson Pollock was interested in Kandinsky's late paintings and was fascinated by his theories about the expressive possibilities of art, in particular, his emphasis on spontaneous activity and the subconscious. Kandinsky's analysis of the sensorial properties of color was immensely influential on the color field painters, like Mark Rothko, who emphasized the interrelationships of hues for their emotive potential. Even the 1980s artists working in the Neo-Expressionist resurgence in painting, like Julian Schnabel and Philip Guston, applied his ideas regarding the artist's inner expression on the canvas to their postmodern work. Kandinsky set the stage for much of the expressive modern art produced in the twentieth century.

Original content written by Eve Griffin
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WASSILY KANDINSKY QUOTES

"Objects damage pictures."

"Colour is the key. The eye is the hammer. The soul is the piano with its many chords. The artist is the hand that, by touching this or that key, sets the soul vibrating automatically."

"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

Wassily Kandinsky Influences

Interactive chart with Wassily Kandinsky's main influencers, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.

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Paul Cézanne
Paul Cézanne
Paul Cézanne was an influential French Post-Impressionist painter whose depictions of the natural world, based on internal geometric planes, paved the way for Cubism and later modern art movements.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Paul Cézanne
Claude Monet
Claude Monet
Claude Monet was a French artist who helped pioneer the painterly effects and emphasis on light, atmosphere, and plein air technique that became hallmarks of Impressionism. He is especially known for his series of haystacks and cathedrals at different times of day, and for his late Waterlilies.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Claude Monet
Paul Klee
Paul Klee
The Swiss-born painter Paul Klee worked in a variety of styles, including Expressionism, geometric abstraction, and collage. His most famous works have a mystical quality and make use of linear and pictorial symbols.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Paul Klee
Franz Marc
Franz Marc
Franz Marc was a German painter and printmaker, and one of the pioneers of German Expressionism. Along with August Macke and Kandinksy, Marc founded The Blue Rider artist group. A student of Futurism and Cubism, Marc was a master of color and depth, and a major influence on mid-twentieth-century abstractionists.

Modern Art Information Franz Marc
Walter Gropius
Walter Gropius
The German architect Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus school of art and design in Weimar Germany. Along with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, he is regarded as one of the pioneers of modern architecture.

Modern Art Information Walter Gropius
Arnold Schoenberg
Arnold Schoenberg
Arnold Schoenberg was an Austrian-born American composer, painter and music theorist, and is often associated with the German Expressionist movement. Schoenberg was a pioneer in modern composition, developing his "twelve-tone" technique and several innovations in atonality.

Modern Art Information Arnold Schoenberg
Post-Impressionism
Post-Impressionism
Post-Impressionism refers to a number of styles that emerged in reaction to Impressionism in the 1880s. The movement encompassed Symbolism and Neo-Impressionism before ceding to Fauvism around 1905. Its artists turned away from effects of light and atmosphere to explore new avenues such as color theory and personal feeling, often using colors and forms in intense and expressive ways.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Post-Impressionism
Fauvism
Fauvism
Fauvism was an early twentieth-century art movement founded by Henri Matisse and André Derain. Labeled as "wild beasts", Fauve artists favored vibrant colors and winding gestural strokes across the canvas.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Fauvism
Cubism
Cubism
Cubism was developed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque between 1907-1911, and it continued to be highly influential long after its decline. This classic phase has two stages: 'Analytic', in which forms seem to be 'analyzed' and fragmented; and 'Synthetic', in which pre-existing materials such as newspaper and wood veneer are collaged to the surface of the canvas.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Cubism
Expressionism
Expressionism
Expressionism is a broad term for a host of movements in early twentieth-century Germany, from Die Brücke (1905) and Der Blaue Reiter (1911) to the early Neue Sachlichkeit painters in the 1920s and '30s. Many German Expressionists used vivid colors and abstracted forms to create spiritually or psychologically intense works, while others focused on depictions of war, alienation, and the modern city.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Expressionism
William Baziotes
William Baziotes
William Baziotes was a first generation Abstract Expressionist painter who worked in a Surrealist, lyrical style.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information William Baziotes
Arshile Gorky
Arshile Gorky
Arshile Gorky was an Armenian-born American painter and a major influence on the development of Abstract Expressionism. In his own art he fused elements of Cubism, Surrealism and Expressionism, and was close with key figures central to New York's burgeoning abstrct art scene, such as John Graham, Stuart Davis and Willem de Kooning.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Arshile Gorky
Hans Hartung
Hans Hartung
Hans Hartung was a German-born French painter, typically associated with Cubism and subsequent abstract artistic styles. Dubbed a "degenerate" for his art, Hartung was banished from Germany during World War II. His abstract paintings were influential on the development of Lyrical Abstraction.

Modern Art Information Hans Hartung
Hans Hofmann
Hans Hofmann
German-born American painter, art teacher and theorist. Hofmann matured as an artist in 1904-14 in Paris, where he met many of the greatest artists of that time. After he emigrated to America in the early 1930s, he enjoyed a prominent career as a teacher, powerfully influencing many Abstract Expressionists with his understanding of European modernism.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Hans Hofmann
Solomon R. Guggenheim
Solomon R. Guggenheim
Solomon R. Guggenheim was an American art collector and philanthropist. In 1937 he established the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and soon after opened the experimental Museum of Non-Objective Painting, which celebrated the work of abstract artists. In 1959 this became the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Solomon R. Guggenheim
Alexej von Jawlensky
Alexej von Jawlensky
Alexej von Jawlensky was a Russian painter who was associated with German Expressionism. Jawlensky was a member of the Expressionist groups Der Blaue Reiter and Die Blaue Vier. Jawlensky's best known paintings contained pronounced color and quasi-abstracted forms.

Modern Art Information Alexej von Jawlensky
Action Painting
Action Painting
Action Painting was a term coined by art critic Harold Rosenberg to refer to the gestural mode of Abstract Expressionism, characterized by drips, flung paint, and rapid, spontaneous strokes. In this view the painting is a record of the artist's activities over time.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Action Painting
Color Field Painting
Color Field Painting
A tendency within Abstract Expressionism, distinct from gestural abstraction, color field painting was developed by Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still in the late 1940s, and developed further by Helen Frankenthaler and others. It is characterized by large fields of color and an absence of any figurative motifs, and often expresses a yearning for transcendence and the infinite.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Color Field Painting
Surrealism
Surrealism
Perhaps the most influential avant-garde movement of the century, Surrealism was founded in Paris in 1924 by a small group of writers and artists who sought to channel the unconscious as a means to unlock the power of the imagination. Much influenced by Freud, they believed that the conscious mind repressed the power of the imagination. Influenced also by Marx, they hoped that the psyche had the power to reveal the contradictions in the everyday world and spur on revolution.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Surrealism
Bauhaus
Bauhaus
Bauhaus is a style associated with the Bauhaus school, an extremely influential art and design school in Weimar Germany that emphasized functionality and efficiency of design. Its famous faculty - including Joseph Albers and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe - generally rejected distinctions between the fine and applied arts, and encouraged major advances in industrial design.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Bauhaus
Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and '50s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraced the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the postwar mood of anxiety and trauma.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Abstract Expressionism
Constructivism
Constructivism
Russian Constructivism emerged with the Revolution of 1917 and sought a new approach to making objects, one which abolished the traditional concern with composition and replaced it with 'construction,' which called for a new attention to the technical character of materials. It was hoped that these inquiries would yield ideas for mass production. The movement was an important influence on geometric abstraction.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Constructivism
Suprematism
Suprematism
Suprematism, the invention of Russian artist Kazimir Malevich, was one of the earliest and most radical developments in abstract art. Inspired by a desire to experiment with the language of abstract form, and to isolate art's barest essentials, its artists produced austere abstractions that seemed almost mystical. It was an important influence on Constructivism.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Suprematism
Vladimir Tatlin
Vladimir Tatlin
Vladimir Tatlin was a prominent Russian avant-garde artist and architect. He was one of the key figures of the Constructivist movement.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Vladimir Tatlin
Kazimir Malevich
Kazimir Malevich
Kazimir Malevich was a Russian modernist painter and theorist who founded Suprematism. Along with his painting Black Square, his mature works feature simple geometric shapes on blank backgrounds.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Kazimir Malevich
Alexander Rodchenko
Alexander Rodchenko
Aleksander Rodchenko was a Russian artist, sculptor, photographer, and graphic designer. Concerned with the need for analytical-documentary photo series, he often shot his subjects from odd angles - usually high above or below - to shock the viewer and to postpone recognition. He was one of the founders of Constructivism and Russian design; he was married to the artist Varvara Stepanova.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Alexander Rodchenko
Naum Gabo
Naum Gabo
Naum Gabo was a Russian sculptor associated with the Constructivist movement, and was a pioneer in Kinetic sculpture. Gabo was a key avant-gardist in post-revolutionary Russia, and later played an influential rule in the De Stijl and Bauhaus schools of art.

Modern Art Information Naum Gabo
Lyubov Popova
Lyubov Popova
Lyubov Popova was an eminent Russian avant-garde artist, painter, and designer. Her work was important for several modern styles, including Cubism, Suprematism, and Constructivism.

Modern Art Information Lyubov Popova
Varvara Stepanova
Varvara Stepanova
Varvara Stepanova was the wife of Alexander Rodchenko. An artist herself, she devoted her life to the collaboration with her famous husband. Rodchenko's experimentation with geometry and abstraction was formative for her own pursuits in painting and design.

Modern Art Information Varvara Stepanova
Joan Miró
Joan Miró
Active in Paris from the 1920s onward, and influenced by Surrealism, Miró developed a style of biomorphic abstraction which blended abstract figurative motifs, large fields of color, and primitivist symbols. This style would be an important inspiration for many Abstract Expressionists.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Joan Miró
Hans Arp
Hans Arp
Hans Arp (also known as Jean Arp) was a German-French artist who incorporated chance, randomness, and organic forms into his sculptures, paintings, and collages. He was involved with Zurich Dada, Surrealism, and the Abstraction-Creation movement.

Modern Art Information Hans Arp
Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock was the most well-known Abstract Expressionist and the key example of Action Painting. His work ranges from Jungian scenes of primitive rites to the purely abstract "drip paintings" of his later career.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Jackson Pollock
Mark Rothko
Mark Rothko
Mark Rothko was an Abstract Expressionist painter whose early interest in mythic landscapes gave way to mature works featuring large, hovering blocks of color on colored grounds.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Mark Rothko
Neo-Expressionism
Neo-Expressionism
Neo-Expressionism began as a movement in German art in the early 1960s with the emergence of Georg Baselitz. It gained momentum in the 1970s, with the addition of painters such as Anselm Kiefer, Markus Lüpertz and Eugen Schönebeck. Drawing inspiration from German Expressionism, many of its practitioners focused on the country's troubled modern history. In the 1980s, it inspired many successful painters across the world, including Julian Schnabel.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Neo-Expressionism
Julian Schnabel
Julian Schnabel
Julian Schnabel is an American painter, interior decorator and filmmaker. In addition to being a major figure in the Neo-Expressionist movement, he is most well-known as the director of such films as Basquiat and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Julian Schnabel
Philip Guston
Philip Guston
Initially associated with the New York School of abstract art, Guston famously abandoned pure abstraction in the 1950s and turned to figurative art and quasi-abstract cartoon imagery. His later work, for which he is best known, was a major influence on the development of Neo-Expressionism in the U.S.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Philip Guston
Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider)
Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider)

Title: Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) (1903)

Artwork Description & Analysis: This breakthrough work is a deceptively simple image - a lone rider racing across a landscape - yet it represented a decisive moment in Kandinsky's developing style. In this painting, he demonstrated a clear stylistic link to the work of the Impressionists, like Claude Monet, particularly evident in the contrasts of light and dark on the sun-dappled hillside. The ambiguity of the form of the figure on horseback rendered in a variety of colors that almost blend together foreshadow his interest in abstraction. The theme of the horse and rider reappeared in many of his later works. For Kandinsky this motif signified his resistance against conventional aesthetic values as well as the possibilities for a purer, more spiritual life through art.


Oil on canvas - Private collection

Der Blaue Berg (The Blue Mountain)
Der Blaue Berg (The Blue Mountain)

Title: Der Blaue Berg (The Blue Mountain) (1908-09)

Artwork Description & Analysis: In this work, the influence of the Fauves on Kandinsky's color palette is apparent as he distorted colors and moved away from the natural world. He presented a bright blue mountain, framed by a red and yellow tree on either side. In the foreground, riders on horseback charge through the scene. At this stage in Kandinsky's career, Saint John's Book of Revelation became a major literary source for his art, and the riders signify the four horsemen of the apocalypse. The horsemen, although an indicator of the mass destruction of the apocalypse, also represent the potential for redemption afterward.
Kandinsky's vibrant palette and expressive brushwork provide the viewer with a sense of hope rather than despair. Further, the brilliant colors and dark outlines recall his love of the Russian folk art. These influences would remain part of Kandinsky's style throughout the rest of his career, with bright colors dominating his representational and non-objective canvases. From this figurative and highly symbolic work, Kandinsky progressed further towards pure abstraction. The forms are already schematized from their observable appearance in the surrounding world in this canvas, and his abstraction only progressed as Kandinsky refined his theories about art.


Oil on canvas - The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of Art

Composition IV
Composition IV

Title: Composition IV (1911)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Hidden within the bright swaths of color and the clear black lines of Composition IV, Kandinsky portrayed several Cossacks with lances, as well as boats, reclining figures, and a castle on a hilltop. As with many paintings from this period, he represented the apocalyptic battle that would lead to eternal peace. The notion of battle is conveyed by the Cossacks, while the calm of the flowing forms and reclining figures on the right alludes to the peace and redemption to follow. In order to facilitate his development of a non-objective style of painting, as described in his text Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1912), Kandinsky reduced objects to pictographic symbols. Through his elimination of most references to the outside world, Kandinsky expressed his vision in a more universal manner, distilling the spiritual essence of the subject through these forms into a visual vocabulary. Many of these symbolic figures were repeated and refined in later works, becoming further and further abstracted as Kandinsky developed his mature, purely abstract style.


Oil on canvas - Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfallen, Dusseldorf

Composition VII
Composition VII

Title: Composition VII (1913)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Commonly cited as the pinnacle of Kandinsky's pre-World War I achievement, Composition VII shows the artist's rejection of pictorial representation through a swirling hurricane of colors and shapes. The operatic and tumultuous roiling of forms around the canvas exemplifies Kandinsky's belief that painting could evoke sounds the way music called to mind certain colors and forms. Even the title, Composition VII, aligned with his interest in the intertwining of the musical with the visual and emphasized Kandinsky's non-representational focus in this work. As the different colors and symbols spiral around each other, Kandinsky eliminated traditional references to depth and laid bare the different abstracted glyphs in order to communicate deeper themes and emotions common to all cultures and viewers.
Preoccupied by the theme of apocalypse and redemption throughout the 1910s, Kandinsky formally tied the whirling composition of the painting to the theme of the cyclical processes of destruction and salvation. Despite the seemingly non-objective nature of the work, Kandinsky maintained several symbolic references in this painting. Among the various forms that built Kandinsky's visual vocabulary, he painted glyphs of boats with oars, mountains, and figures. However, he did not intend for viewers to read these symbols literally and instead imbued his paintings with multiple references to the Last Judgment, the Deluge, and the Garden of Eden, seemingly all at once.


Oil on canvas - Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Moscow I (Red Square)
Moscow I (Red Square)

Title: Moscow I (Red Square) (1916)

Artwork Description & Analysis: At first the move to Moscow in 1914 initiated a period of depression and Kandinsky hardly even painted at all his first year back. When he picked up his paintbrush again in 1916, he expressed his desire to paint a portrait of Moscow in a letter to his former companion, Munter. Although he continued to refine his abstraction, he represented the city's monuments in this painting and captured the spirit of the city. Kandinsky painted the landmarks in a circular fashion as if he had stood in the center of Red Square, turned in a circle, and caught them all swirling about him. Although he refers to the outside world in this painting, he maintained his commitment to the synesthesia of color, sound, and spiritual expression in art. Kandinsky wrote that he particularly loved sunset in Moscow because it was "the final chord of a symphony which develop[ed] in every tone a high life that force[d] all of Moscow to resound like the fortissimo of a huge orchestra."


Oil on canvas - The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Composition VIII
Composition VIII

Title: Composition VIII (1923)

Artwork Description & Analysis: The rational, geometric order of Composition VIII is a polar opposite of the operatic composition of Composition VII (1913). Painted while he taught at the Bauhaus, this work illustrates how Kandinsky synthesized elements from Suprematism, Constructivism, and the school's own ethos. By combining aspects of all three movements, he arrived at the flat planes of color and the clear, linear quality seen in this work. Form, as opposed to color, structured the painting in a dynamic balance that pulses throughout the canvas. This work is an expression of Kandinsky's clarified ideas about modern, non-objective art, particularly the significance of shapes like triangles, circles, and the checkerboard. Kandinsky relied upon a hard-edged style to communicate the deeper content of his work for the rest of his career.


Oil on canvas - Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

Several Circles
Several Circles

Title: Several Circles (1926)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Kandinsky painted this work in his sixtieth year and it demonstrates his lifelong search for the ideal form of spiritual expression in art. Created as part of his experimentation with a linear style of painting, this work shows his interest in the form of the circle. "The circle," claimed Kandinsky, "is the synthesis of the greatest oppositions. It combines the concentric and the eccentric in a single form and in equilibrium. Of the three primary forms, it points most clearly to the fourth dimension." He relied upon the varied possibilities of interpretation for the circle to create a sense of spiritual and emotional harmony in this work. The diverse dimensions and bright hues of each circle bubble up through the canvas and are balanced through Kandinsky's careful juxtapositions of proportion and color. The dynamic movement of the round forms evokes their universality - from the stars in the cosmos to drops of dew; the circle a shape integral to life.


Oil on canvas - Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

Composition X
Composition X

Title: Composition X (1939)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Influenced by the flowing biomorphic forms of Surrealism, Kandinsky later incorporated organic shapes back into his pictorial vocabulary. Executed in France, this monumental painting relies upon a black background to heighten the visual impact of the brightly colored undulating forms in the foreground. The presence of the black expanse is significant, as Kandinsky only used the color sparingly; it is evocative of the cosmos as well as the darkness at the end of life. The undulating planes of color call to mind microscopic organisms, but also express the inner emotional and spiritual feelings Kandinsky experienced near the end of his life. The uplifting organization of forms in contrast with the harsh edges and black background illustrates the harmony and tension present throughout the universe, as well as the rise and fall of the cycle of life. Last in his lifelong series of Compositions, this work is the culmination of Kandinsky's investigation into the purity of form and expression through nonrepresentational painting.


Oil on canvas - Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf

Bibliography
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