Born: Moscow, Russia
“Colour is a means of exerting direct influence on the soul.”
All images are copyrighted and strictly for educational and viewing purposes.
One of the pioneers of abstract modern art, Wassily Kandinsky exploited the evocative interrelation between color and form to create an aesthetic experience that engaged the sight, sound, and emotions of the public. He believed that total abstraction offered the possibility for profound, transcendental expression and that copying from nature only interfered with this process. Highly inspired to create art that communicated a universal sense of spirituality, he innovated a pictorial language that only loosely related to the outside world, but expressed volumes about the artist’s inner experience. His visual vocabulary developed through three phases, shifting from his early, representative canvases and their divine symbolism to his rapturous and operatic compositions, to his late, geometric and biomorphic flat planes of color. Kandinsky’s art and ideas inspired many generations of artists, from his students at the Bauhaus to the Abstract Expressionists after World War II.
Wassily (Vasily) Wassilyevich Kandinsky was born in 1866 in Moscow to well educated, upper-class parents of mixed ethnic origins. His father was born close to Mongolia, while his mother was a Muscovite, and his grandmother was from the German-speaking Baltic. The bulk of Kandinsky’s childhood was spent in Odessa, a thriving, cosmopolitan city populated by Western Europeans, Mediterraneans, and a variety of other ethnic groups. At an early age, Kandinsky exhibited an extraordinary sensitivity toward the stimuli of sounds, words, and colors. His father encouraged his unique and precocious gift for the arts and enrolled him in private drawing classes, as well as piano and cello lessons. Despite early exposure to the arts, Kandinsky did not turn to painting until he reached the age of 30. Instead, he entered the University of Moscow in 1886 to study law, ethnography, and economics. In spite of the legal focus of his academic pursuits, Kandinsky’s interest in color symbolism and its effect on the human psyche grew throughout his time in Moscow. In particular, an ethnographic research trip in 1889 to the region of Vologda, in northwest Russia, sparked an interest in folk art that Kandinsky carried with him throughout his career. After completing his degree in 1892, he started his career in law education by lecturing at the university.
Despite his success as an educator, Kandinsky abandoned his career teaching law to attend art school in Munich in 1896. For his first two years in Munich he studied at the art school of Anton Azbe, and in 1900 he studied under Franz von Stuck at the Academy of Fine Arts. At Azbe’s school he met co-conspirators such as Alexei Jawlensky, who introduced Kandinsky to the artistic avant-garde in Munich. In 1901, along with three other young artists, Kandinsky co-founded “Phalanx” – an artist’s association opposed to the conservative views of the traditional art institutions. Phalanx expanded to include an art school, in which Kandinsky taught, and an exhibitions group. In one of his classes at the Phalanx School, he met and began a relationship with his student, Gabriele Munter, who became his companion for the next 15 years. As he traveled throughout Europe and northern Africa with Munter from 1903 until 1909, Kandinsky familiarized himself with the growing Expressionist movement and developed his own style based on the diverse artistic sources he witnessed on his travels.
Kandinsky painted his breakthrough work, Der Blaue Reiter (1903) during this transitional period. This early work revealed his interest in disjointed figure-ground relationships and the use of color to express emotions rather than appearances – two aspects that would dominate his mature style. In 1909, he was one of the founding members of Neue Kunstlervereinigung Munchen (NKVM, or New Artists Association of Munich), a group that sought to accommodate the avant-garde artists whose practices were too radical for the traditional organizations and academies of the time. His paintings became more and more abstracted from the surrounding world as he gradually refined his style. He began titling works Improvisation, Composition, or Impression to further stress their distance from the objective world and continued to use similar titles throughout the rest of his career.
In 1911, in response to the rejection of one of Kandinsky’s paintings from the annual NKVM exhibition, he and Franz Marc organized a rival exhibition and co-founded “Der Blaue Reiter” (The Blue Rider) – a loose association of nine Expressionist artists that included August Macke, Munter, and Jawlensky. Though their aims and approaches varied from artist to artist, in general the group believed in the promotion of modern art and the possibility for spiritual experience through the symbolic associations of sound and color – two issues very near and dear to Kandinsky’s heart. Despite the similarities between the group’s moniker and the title of Kandinsky’s 1903 painting, the artists actually arrived at the name “Der Blaue Reiter” as a result of the combination of Marc’s love of horses and Kandinsky’s interest in the symbolism of the rider, coupled with both artists’ penchant for the color blue. During their short tenure, the group published an anthology (The Blue Rider Almanac) and held three exhibitions. Additionally, Kandinsky published Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911), his first theoretical treatise on abstraction that articulated his theory that the artist was a spiritual being that communicated through and was affected by line, color, and composition. He produced both abstract and figurative works at this time, but expanded his interest in non-objective painting. Composition VII (1913) was an early example of his synthesis of spiritual, emotional, and non-referential form through complex patterns and brilliant colors. The outbreak of World War I in 1914 led to the dissolution of Der Blaue Reiter, but, despite their short tenure, the group initiated and deeply inspired the highly influential German Expressionist style.
Kandinsky’s work, both artistic and theoretical, played a large role in the philosophic foundation for later modern movements, in particular Abstract Expressionism and its variants like Color Field painting. His late, biomorphic work had a large influence on Arshile Gorky’sdevelopment of a non-objective style, which in turn helped to shape the New York School’s aesthetic. Jackson Pollock was interested in Kandinsky’s late paintings and was fascinated by his theories about the expressive possibilities of art, in particular, his emphasis on spontaneous activity and the subconscious. Kandinsky’s analysis of the sensorial properties of color was immensely influential on the Color Field painters, like Mark Rothko, who emphasized the interrelationships of hues for their emotive potential. Even the 1980s artists working in the Neo-Expressionist resurgence in painting, like Julian Schnabel and Philip Guston, applied his ideas regarding the artist’s inner expression on the canvas to their postmodern work. Kandinsky set the stage for much of the expressive modern art produced in the twentieth century.