Wassily Kandinsky

Russian avant-garde

Wassily Kandinsky [kan-din-skee] (1866 – 1944) was a Russian painter, printmaker and art theorist. He was a major figure in modern art and painted some of the first modern abstract works. His art changed several times during his life. It was fauvist, abstract, expressionist and constructivist in turn.

He was interested in geometry in art and philosophy. The creative aspect of the form is expressed by a descending series of circles, triangles and squares. 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, fervor of spirit, and spiritual desire inner necessity.

Born in Moscow, in 1896, at the age of 30, Kandinsky gave up a promising career teaching law and economics to enroll in the Munich Academy where his teachers would eventually include Franz von Stuck. He went back to Moscow in 1914 after World War I started. He was unsympathetic to the official theories on art in Moscow and returned to Germany in 1921. There he taught at the Bauhaus school of art and architecture from 1922 until the Nazis closed it in 1933. He then moved to France where he lived the rest of his life, and became a French citizen in 1939. He died at Neuilly-sur-Seine in 1944.

Later in life he would recall being fascinated and stimulated by color as a child. His fascination with color symbolism and psychology continued as he grew. In 1889, he was part of an ethnographic research group which travelled to the Vologda region north of Moscow. In Looks on the Past, he tells how the houses and churches were decorated with such shimmering colors that, on entering them, he felt he was moving into a painting. This experience, and his study of the region’s folk art (particularly the use of bright colors on a dark background), can be seen in much of his early work.

Writing that ‘music is the ultimate teacher,’ Kandinsky embarked upon the first seven of his ten Compositions. The first three survive only in black-and-white photographs taken by fellow artist and friend Gabriele Münter. 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).

As the ‘Der Blaue Reiter Almanac’ essays and theorizing with composer Arnold Schoenberg indicate, Kandinsky also expressed the communion between artist and viewer as being available to both the senses and the mind (synesthesia). Hearing tones and chords as he painted, Kandinsky theorized that (for example), yellow is the color of middle C on a brassy trumpet; black is the color of closure, and the end of things; and that combinations of colors produce vibrational frequencies, akin to chords played on a piano. In 1871 the young Kandinsky learned to play the piano and cello.

Fascinated by Christian eschatology and the perception of a coming New Age, a common theme among Kandinsky’s first seven Compositions is the apocalypse (the end of the world as we know it). Writing of the ‘artist as prophet’ 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 he felt were imminent in the pre-World War I world.

Kandinsky also developed a theory of geometric figures and their relationships—claiming, for example, that the circle is the most peaceful shape and represents the human soul.

In his writings, published in Munich by Verlag Albert Langen in 1926, Kandinsky analyzed the geometrical elements which make up every painting—the point and the line. He called the physical support and the material surface on which the artist draws or paints the basic plane, or BP. He did not analyze them objectively, but from the point of view of their inner effect on the observer.

A point is a small bit of color put by the artist on the canvas. It is neither a geometric point nor a mathematical abstraction; it is extension, form and color. This form can be a square, a triangle, a circle, a star or something more complex. The point is the most concise form but, according to its placement on the basic plane, it will take a different tonality. It can be isolated or resonate with other points or lines.

A line is the product of a force which has been applied in a given direction: the force exerted on the pencil or paintbrush by the artist. The produced linear forms may be of several types: a straight line, which results from a unique force applied in a single direction; an angular line, resulting from the alternation of two forces in different directions, or a curved (or wave-like) line, produced by the effect of two forces acting simultaneously.

A plane may be obtained by condensation (from a line rotated around one of its ends). The subjective effect produced by a line depends on its orientation: a horizontal line corresponds with the ground on which man rests and moves; it possesses a dark and cold affective tonality similar to black or blue. A vertical line corresponds with height, and offers no support; it possesses a luminous, warm tonality close to white and yellow. A diagonal possesses a more-or-less warm (or cold) tonality, according to its inclination toward the horizontal or the vertical.

A force which deploys itself, without obstacle, as the one which produces a straight line corresponds with lyricism; several forces which confront (or annoy) each other form a drama. The angle formed by the angular line also has an inner sonority which is warm and close to yellow for an acute angle (a triangle), cold and similar to blue for an obtuse angle (a circle), and similar to red for a right angle (a square).

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