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Wasilli Kandinsky

In the third in our series of articles on art and artists, Kenny McEwan looks at the work of artist Wasilli Kandinsky associated with the art form known as "abstract art".

Walking through a gallery one day Wasilli Kandinsky noted a painting he had never seen before. He looked at it for a long time admiring its "extraordinary beauty glowing with an inner radiance", before he suddenly realised it was one of his own paintings upside down. In that moment he realised the power of non-representational art. For many people this story would confirm their worst suspicions about abstract art being so incomprehensible that its founder could not tell his own painting because it was upside down. However what this tale does tells us, is of the power of this art form and the questions and assumptions it raises concerning art and its construction.

Kandinsky born in Moscow in 1866 to a wealthy merchant family, should have become the law professor that he trained to be.. Had he done this he would probably have disappeared into obscurity. Instead his name became associated with some of the most important artistic movements in 20th century history. Of course in art history as in all other history, individuals do not exist in isolation from the rest of society or use their creativity in a vacuum. They observe and absorb what has gone before and what surrounds them. What makes them different is the way in which they use and reform ideas, evolving and combing them with fresh ones of their own to create new ones.

In 1896 an event occurred that was to convince Kandinsky to give up law in favour of art. An exhibition of impressionist paintings came to Moscow, which he attended. Here he saw a painting by Monet of Haystacks; Kandinsky was completely stunned by this, as he had not recognised the subject matter until he read the title. This event was to play a large part in his development as an artist.

By 1901 he was already involved in an avant-garde movement in Munich called 'Phalanx' 1, i.e. the line of battle between the old guard and the new one. Phalanx was both a school and a society advancing new ideas and bringing foreign art to Germany; particularly impressionist and post-impressionist paintings. This, however, was a short-lived group and dissolved in 1904. Kandinsky's ideas for non-representational art emanate from several different sources. During his training as a lawyer and political economist he undertook a field trip to north-eastern Russia where he came across Russian folk art. The carved houses and brightly coloured 'Naive' art style engaged his imagination, so much so that his early paintings combined the Art Nouveau, of the Phalanx group with the folk art he encountered. Creating paintings that were bold and intense owing much to the French 'Fauvists'. Fauvists, meaning wild beasts, used non-natural colours to create wonderfully vivid paintings, Matisse is the most famous proponent of this style.

Another component piece to the Kandinsky jigsaw, was his love of music, he could play the cello well and had tried his hand at composing. Music in real terms is non-representational and is little more than a collection of notes played on instruments. However that combination is capable of creating beautiful sounds that can elicit a wide range of emotions in the listener, Kandinsky believed that this could be applied to painting. He thought that a circle of a particular colour touching a triangle at a specific juncture could evoke the same response in the viewer as the hand of God touching Adam in the Sistine chapel.

Kandinsky, may have been aided somewhat in linking music to art in that he had a condition called Synaesthesia, this means that he could 'see' music. He could see colours associated with certain sounds and notes. People who have this neurological condition have an overlap of sensory input, in which one form of input creates a reaction in another sensory department of the brain. Later when Kandinsky produced paintings of pure abstraction, he would call them, 'Compositions' or 'Improvisations', reflecting his theories about music.

During 1904 to 1911 Kandinsky continued to develop his ideas reducing more and more any recognisable features in his paintings. An example of this kind of halfway house towards pure abstraction can be found in his painting 'Cossacks'. Linking his Russian background to line and colour, this painting looks abstract but on further examination recognisable shapes occur. In the bottom right hand corner can be seen the Cossacks with their red hats and lances, another Cossack is in the top left with his sabre in hand. Other shapes such as a horse and a fortified building can also be made out. Over all there is an unmistakable tension and air of violence in the painting, birds fly overhead perhaps carrion crow, long spikes are held aloft, as if in war formation. The name is also suggestive of violence and battle.

Around this time he starts to call his paintings 'compositions', as they become more abstract. This period also saw him founding another group called 'Blue Rider' a loose organisation of German Expressionists including Paul Klee and Franz Marc both highly influential painters. Aside from art these two also shared with Kandinsky deeply held spiritual values, which they wished to show in their work. Kandinsky was a believer in Theosophy, a mixture of various Eastern and Western religious philosophies. They saw the First World War as sweeping away the old way's and replacing it with a new spiritual order. As the war progressed and the death toll mounted he and others realised that this new 'Brotherhood of man' would not occur.

The outbreak of war also meant he had to return to Russia, as he was a foreign national in Germany. Whilst he was at no time a communist, Kandinsky had in the past expressed disapproval of the Tsarist regime in Russia and now that the October revolution had taken place he could, like many others of his class, have fled. He not only stayed, but also undertook huge re-organisational tasks for the Bolshevik government. This included running the theatre and film section of the Department of Fine Art, he taught painting at the State studio for Fine Art and edited the magazine "Iskusstvo" (Art).

In 1920 he became director of the Institute of Artistic Culture and established the Russian Academy of Artistic Sciences. Perhaps unsurprisingly this period of his life produced the smallest artistic output. What he did produce was pure abstract. Circles, lines, colour, geometric shapes criss- crossing one another amid seas of colour. Or black and white compositions of line, shapes and grids, all without any recognisable representation.

Unfortunately despite the mass of work he did for the fledgling Soviet government his style of painting was out of step with the new concepts of panting to be found in the Soviet Union - Constructivism. This style rejected any art without a purpose and declared it Bourgeois. This idea eventually led to a moribund and sterile school of art called Socialist Realism, which flourished under Stalin. Kandinsky was eventually forced to leave Russia and return once more to Germany. This time he joined the hugely influential Bauhaus, situated at this time in Weimar. Bauhaus, a school of architecture and applied arts, was the centre of modern design in Germany from 1919 to 1933. His move here was not without some controversy due to his previous role within the Soviet Union and it took six months for him to finally arrive at Weimar.

Bauhaus' approach to art and architecture was unique and linked the foremost artists and traditional craftsmen to create a new synthesis. Fine artists would give inspiration and stimulus and craftsmen would give practical classes. Here he continued to develop his art and produced a book to further expand on his theories, Point and Line to Plane, incorporates the new Gestalt theory of psychology to his previous theories. Gestalt regards, form, pattern, structure or configuration as a whole, not a mere summation of units or parts. Gestalt psychologists lectured at Bauhaus, and heavily influenced Kandinsky.

Bauhaus eventually moved to a purpose built institute at Dessau, but the days of this significant school were numbered by the menacing growth of the Nazis. They took over the school at Dessau forcing it to move to Berlin. As the Nazis grew, they arrested students and sacked staff whom they found politically unacceptable. Among them was Kandinsky, who finally settled in Paris where he spent his remaining days. Bauhaus eventually closed with many of its works of art burnt along with other "decadent "art.

Abstract art is not everyone's cup of tea, often it seems indecipherable, especially in comparison to art forms that are immediately recognisable. However there is no doubt in the power and energy that such paintings can produce. Lines, angles and colours, crossing and interjecting, explode across the canvas creating a beauty and intensity of is own. Kandinsky whilst not the only one to produce such art, certainly through his energy and drive ensured that it took its place among the great art movements of the last century and more importantly opened the door for others to follow.


(1) Phalanx, turn of the century German Art Nouveau exhibiting society, founded by Kandinsky and others. The name comes from a military formation.

Works of Kandinsky can be found at:
The Tate Modern, London. The Tate Library, London.
The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh.

Good Internet sites with Biographies and pictures: