One of the pioneers of Russian abstractionism and arguably the world’s first abstractionist, Wassily Kandinsky began to develop his talents in the shadow of Post-Impressionism. Kandinsky, like Malevich, was heavily influenced by his contemporaries and movements such as French Cubism, Fauvism and German Expressionism. An avant-garde impresario and theorist, Kandinsky founded several art associations including the Munich Neue Kuenstlervereinigung in 1909 and the Blaue Reiter group in 1911.
Kandinsky was born in Moscow in 1866; his father hailed from Siberia, and the family’s ancestry was a blend of Russian, Baltic German, and Mongolian. During his youth, Kandinsky received a solid grounding in several academic fields, and studied a variety of subjects from law and economics to music, and was appointed lecturer at Moscow State University’s School of Law in 1893. After working there for several years as a lecturer, Kandinsky decided to pursue an education in painting, and left Russia for Germany in 1897 in order to study at Munich’s art academy. Using his home in the city of Murnau, just south of Munich, as a base, Kandinsky traveled widely between 1903 and 1908, journeying through Western Europe and Africa to the Netherlands, France, Tunisia and Italy.
Munich-Schwabing with the Church of St. Ursula, 1908.
Kandinsky’s early work was primarily influenced by the Art-Nouveau movement that was spreading across Western Europe at the turn of the twentieth century, and consequently is marked by broad areas of color and rhythmic lines. However, his style was to soon change, and by 1910, he produced what many art historians widely recognize as the world’s first abstract painting. During his early years in Munich, his work experienced an evolution, whereby it metamorphosed from landscapes to “powerful visions of a world dreamed of or imagined in which impinging lines of force and surging patches of color reinvest the creative gesture with all its primal violence and energy.”
Consequently, in 1910 he wrote, and subsequently published in 1912, the treatise, “Concerning the Spiritual in Art.” This seminal work embodied and presented his discoveries from various experiments and served as a place wherein he collected the reflections he had experienced while painting. The treatise is considered by many to be one of the most important published works about modern art published at the time. The work was a reflection of his own mysticism, and argued that art should more often reflect feelings and “spiritual vibrations” rather than the superficial appearance of the natural world.
Such theories are reflected in his works, and Kandinsky himself is quoted as saying “I applied streaks and blobs of color onto the canvas with a palette knife and I made them sing with all the intensity I could…” His book crystallized the notion that artists should seek to express the inner feelings and experiences of the world around them rather than to merely create recognizable representations of it. His painted works, however, were not to become wholly abstract until the 1920s, and during the 1910s, they still contained hints of concrete recognizable reality.
Composition VII, 1913
Shortly after the outbreak of the First World War, Kandinsky was forced to leave Germany and return to his homeland, journeying through Switzerland. While in Russia, after the Revolution, he allied himself with the post-Revolutionary movement to reinstate and re-organize art academies and galleries, and while in Russia, his work continued to grow and evolve, creating a fusion that combined echoes of abstractionism and impressionist landscapes.
The avant-garde atmosphere of World War One Moscow influenced Kandinsky’s work, and it is at this time that we see the introduction of a greater number of geometric elements in his work. While in Russia, Kandinsky became the chair of the State Procurement Commission, and was involved with the organization of over twenty museums. However, he encountered increased opposition to his works and theories from other prominent Russian artists such as Rodchenko and Stepanova, and as the Soviets began to exert increased pressure on the artistic culture, with a shift towards what would eventually become Socialist Realism, Kandinsky no longer found himself welcome in his native land. Forced to leave the country in the early 1920s, Kandinsky once again returned to Germany, this time accepting a professorship in Weimar at Walter Gropius’ famed Bauhaus institute in 1921.
On White II, 1923
It was while he was employed at the Bauhaus that Kandinsky’s art evolved further, losing any remaining trappings of reality and moving towards what we today consider to
be wholly abstract, often finding a basis in precise mathematical calculations. These works utilized points, lines, curves and geometric figures while being extremely dynamic. All of this was combined with a broad spectrum of colors, and the works were an attempt at conveying Kandinsky’s notions and feelings of spirituality.
These works would become a basis for most other abstract work of the twentieth century, and the importance of his works to modern art history cannot be understated. In 1926, Kandinsky published his treatise “Point, Line and Plane,” and in 1927 became a naturalized German citizen. Unfortunately, with the Nazi party’s rise to power, the Bauhaus was closed in 1933 and Kandinsky fled to Paris, where he was to live out the remainder of his life.
Kandinsky’s time in Paris was marked by more artistic restraint than his time in Berlin. Separated as he was from his contemporaries, he worked in greater solitude than before, and consequently, his work received less critical and public attention than it had previously enjoyed.
This is not to say that this was a period unmarked by great bursts of creativity, and in fact he called his time in Paris surrounding the Second World War a “truly beautiful fairy tale.” His works dating from this period are marked by a departure from the bold primary color system that had previously defined them, and instead Kandinsky turned towards a more nuanced, subtle color scheme. With the outbreak of the Second World War, artistic materials became increasingly scarce, and consequently, Kandinsky was forced to turn to gouache and cardboard ‘canvases’.
Despite the sufferings and hardships of life during World War Two, Kandinsky’s paintings from this time burst forth with life and color, and his art shows a marked evolution from harsh geometric, angular shapes to softer forms. However, abstractionism was still a relatively new, unaccepted art form, and Kandinsky faced criticism from both the general public and other artists. He continued to develop his artistic theory on the spiritual elements of art, writing that
Abstract art places a new world, which on the surface has nothing to do with “reality,” next to the “real” world. Deeper down, it is subject to the common laws of the “cosmic world.” And so a “new world of art” is juxtaposed to the “world of nature.” This “world of art” is just as real, just as concrete. For this reason I prefer to call so-called “abstract art” “concrete art.
Composition X, 1939
The “father of abstractionism,” Wassily Kandinsky, died at the age of 78 on December 13, 1944, five years after becoming a French citizen, in Neuilly-sur-Seine, just outside of Paris, France. For several years after his death, his work remained largely out of the realm of public interest, but as more artists turned to abstractionism, and public interest increased, so too did interest in his work. Today, he is recognized as a progressive pioneer in the modern art world, and his influence has been great and far-reaching.
В. В. Кандинский – российский отец мирово абстракционизма.
Василий Кандинский. WassilyKandinsky.ru
“Kandinsky, Wassily” Who’s Who in the Twentieth Century . Oxford University Press, 1999.Oxford Reference Online . Oxford University Press.
Marks, Steven G.How Russia Shaped the Modern World.Princeton University Press, 2002.
Wassily Kandinsky. Wassily-Kandinsky.org
All images available under Creative Commons License.
Taryn Jones graduated in 2008 from the University of Victoria (Canada) with her BA in history and anthropology. During that time, she also studied Russian and art history, and was heavily involved with the university’s Russian Studies course union. In January 2012, she will begin her studies at the University of British Columbia in a double Master’s program in library and archival science. Ideally, she would like to work in a gallery or museum’s library or archive. She has traveled throughout Russia on numerous occasions, and first studied in St Petersburg in 2007. In 2009, she traveled across the country, beginning at the Mongolian border and going westwards towards St Petersburg. In recent years, she has studied art history and museum studies in St Petersburg with SRAS. Most recently, she wrote articles for SRAS’s “Cheap Eats” feature and interned in the Youth Education Center of the State Hermitage, where she researched artists, edited English-language texts and translated Russian texts to English. Taryn’s specific artistic interests are the Wanderers, Socialist Realism and photography.
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Art and Museums in Russia