Wassily Kandinsky

Wassily Kandinsky

Russian Painter

Born: December 4, 1866 - Moscow, Russia
Died: December 13, 1944 - Neuilly-sur-Seine, France
"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."
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Wassily Kandinsky Signature
"Color is a means of exerting direct influence on the soul."
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"Objects damage pictures."
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Wassily Kandinsky Signature
"The artist must train not only his eye but also his soul."
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"Color 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."
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Wassily Kandinsky Signature
"There is no must in art because art is free."
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"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."
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Wassily Kandinsky Signature

Summary of Wassily Kandinsky

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, representational 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.


  • 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.

Biography of Wassily Kandinsky

Detail of Serbian stamp commemorating 150 years since Wassily Kandinsky's birth

Modernist abstraction could not have asked for a more charismatic and visionary theorist than Kandinsky - the highest ideals he pursued through his many travels and friendships.

Progression of Art

Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) (1903)

Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider)

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) (1908-09)

Der Blaue Berg (The Blue Mountain)

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 (1911)

Composition IV

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, Düsseldorf

Composition VII (1913)

Composition VII

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) (1916)

Moscow I (Red Square)

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 (1923)

Composition VIII

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 (1926)

Several Circles

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 (1939)

Composition X

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, Düsseldorf

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Content compiled and written by Eve Griffin

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Wassily Kandinsky Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Eve Griffin
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 01 Feb 2013. Updated and modified regularly
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