From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Wassily Kandinsky (December 16, 1866 – December 13, 1944) was a Russian painter and art theorist, pioneer of geometric abstract art and one of the most important members of the Russian avant-garde. His best-known works include On White II (1923).
Kandinsky was born in Moscow but spent his childhood in Odessa. He enrolled at the University of Moscow and chose law and economics. Although quite successful in his profession—he was offered a professorship (chair of Roman Law) at the University of Dorpat—he started painting studies (life-drawing, sketching and anatomy) at the age of 30.
In 1896 he settled in Munich and studied at the Academy of Fine Arts, Munich. He went back to Moscow in 1914 after World War I started. Being in conflict with official theories on art, he returned to Germany in 1921. There he was a teacher at the Bauhaus from 1922 until it was closed by the Nazis in 1933. At that time he moved to France where he lived the rest of his life, becoming a French citizen in 1939. He died at Neuilly-sur-Seine in 1944.
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" 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, or 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 Jewish and Christian mythology of Noah's Ark, Jonah and the whale, Christ's Anastasis and Resurrection, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in the Revelation, various Russian folk tales, 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 to 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 triangle. This progressing triangle is penetrating and proceeding into tomorrow. Accordingly, what was odd or inconceivable yesterday is commonplace today; what is avant garde (and only understood by the few) today is standard tomorrow. The modern artist/prophet stands lonely at the tip of this triangle making new discoveries and ushering in tomorrow's reality. Kandinsky had become aware of recent developments in sciences, as well as the advances of modern artists who had contributed to radically new ways of seeing and experiencing the world.
Composition IV and subsequent 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 along with requisite senses of desperation, flurry, urgency, and confusion. This spiritual communion of viewer-painting-artist/prophet is ineffable but may be described to the limits of words and images.
Artistic and spiritual theoretician
As the Der Blaue Reiter Almanac essays and theorizing with composer Arnold Schoenberg indicate, Kandinsky also expressed this communion between artist and viewer as being simultaneously available to the various sense faculties as well as to the intellect (synesthesia). Hearing tones and chords as he painted, Kandinsky theorized that, for examples, yellow is the color of middle-C on a piano, a brassy trumpet blast; black is the color of closure and the ends of things; and that combinations and associations of colors produce vibrational frequencies akin to chords played on a piano. Kandinsky also developed an intricate 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 set forth in Point and Line to Plane (see below).
During the months of studies Kandinsky made in preparation for Composition IV he became exhausted while working on a painting and went for a walk. In the meantime, Gabriele Münter tidied his studio and inadvertently turned his canvas on its side. Upon returning and seeing the canvas—yet not identifying it—Kandinsky fell to his knees and wept, saying it was the most beautiful painting he had seen. He had been liberated from attachment to the object. As when he first viewed Monet's Haystacks, the experience would change his life and the history of Western art.
In another event 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 only a three-day span.