Wassily Wassilyevich Kandinsky (16
December 1866 – 13 December 1944) was an influential Russian painter and
art theorist. He is credited with painting one of the first purely abstract
works. Born in Moscow, Kandinsky spent his childhood in Odessa, where
graduated at Grekov Odessa Art school. He enrolled at the University of
Moscow, studying law and economics. Successful in his profession - he was
offered a professorship (chair of Roman Law) at the University of Dorpat -
Kandinsky began painting studies (life-drawing, sketching and anatomy) at the
age of 30.
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. Kandinsky was unsympathetic to the official theories
on art in Communist 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 for the rest of his life, becoming a
French citizen in 1939 and producing some of his most prominent art.
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; it was a central aspect of his art.
Kandinsky's conception of art
The artist as prophet
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).
Influenced by theosophy 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. Raised an Orthodox Christian, 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.
As he stated in Concerning the Spiritual In Art (see below), Kandinsky felt that
an authentic artist creating art from "an internal necessity" inhabits the tip of
an upward-moving pyramid. This progressing pyramid is penetrating and proceeding
into the future. What was odd or inconceivable yesterday is commonplace today; what
is avant garde today (and understood only by the few) is common knowledge tomorrow.
The modern artist–prophet stands alone at the apex of the pyramid, making new
discoveries and ushering in tomorrow's reality. Kandinsky was aware of recent
scientific developments and the advances of modern artists who had contributed to
radically new ways of seeing and experiencing the world.
Composition IV and later paintings are primarily concerned with evoking a
spiritual resonance in viewer and artist. As in his painting of the apocalypse by
water (Composition VI), Kandinsky puts the viewer in the situation of experiencing
these epic myths by translating them into contemporary terms (with a sense of
desperation, flurry, urgency, and confusion). This spiritual communion of
viewer-painting-artist/prophet may be described within the limits of words and
Artistic and spiritual theorist
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 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,
akin to chords played on a piano. 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. These theories are explained in
Point and Line to Plane (see below).
During the studies Kandinsky made in preparation for Composition IV, he became
exhausted while working on a painting and went for a walk. While he was out,
Gabriele Münter tidied his studio and inadvertently turned his canvas on its side.
Upon returning and seeing the canvas (but not yet recognizing it) Kandinsky fell to
his knees and wept, saying it was the most beautiful painting he had ever seen. He
had been liberated from attachment to an object. As when he first viewed Monet's
Haystacks, the experience would change his life.
In another episode with Münter during the Bavarian abstract expressionist years,
Kandinsky was working on his Composition VI. From nearly six months of study and
preparation, he had intended the work to evoke a flood, baptism, destruction, and
rebirth simultaneously. After outlining 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 and not reaching the true subject of the picture. She suggested he simply
repeat the word uberflut ("deluge" or "flood") and focus on its sound rather than
its meaning. Repeating this word like a mantra, Kandinsky painted and completed the
monumental work in a three-day span.
In 2012, Christie's auctioned Kandinsky's Study for Improvisation 8, a 1909 view of
a man wielding a broadsword in a rainbow-hued village, for $23 million. The
painting had been on loan to the Kunstmuseum Winterthur, Switzerland, since 1960
and was sold to a European collector by the Volkart Foundation, the charitable arm
of the Swiss commodities trading firm Volkart Brothers. Before this sale, the
artist's last record was set in 1990 when Sotheby's sold his Fugue (1914) for $20.9