French, born Russia. 1866–1944
“Must we not then renounce the object altogether, throw it to the winds and instead lay bare the purely abstract?” Vasily Kandinsky posed this question in December 1911, in Concerning the Spiritual in Art, a text that laid out his argument for abstraction.1 That same month, he seemed to answer his own question, making a radically new picture type, Komposition V. Both his text and his painting established Kandinsky as a central actor in the move toward abstraction that was playing out across a network of artists, poets, and musicians in the years immediately preceding World War I.
An earlier painting from 1909, Picture with an Archer, suggested the direction Kandinsky was taking his work. In this landscape, certain forms remain discernable, such as the archer astride a horse and drawing his bow, two men in Russian dress, a collection of houses, and a central tower. But the painting’s color thrums with vibrancy, forming a patchwork of rich, non-naturalistic hues that nearly consumes the canvas. Soon, in works like Study for Painting with White Form and Improvisation, the artist would liberate line from its traditionally descriptive function. No longer used to bound form, it became purely expressive.
Kandinsky believed that the most advanced art would awaken “emotions that we cannot put into words.”2 For him, abstraction provided a vehicle for direct expression, circumventing language. He believed that color and form possessed their own affective power, acting on the viewer independently of images and objects. "Color is a means of exerting direct influence upon the soul,” he wrote in Concerning the Spiritual in Art. “Color is a keyboard. The eye is the hammer. The soul is the piano, with its many strings.”3
Throughout his career, music remained an important touchstone for Kandinsky. One of his first proto-abstract canvases had been inspired, he said, by a concert of Arnold Schoenberg’s atonal work in 1911. In late 1912 or 1913, he produced a volume of poetry known as Klänge (Sounds), in which he paired semi-abstract woodcuts with 38 prose poems. “I wanted to create nothing but sounds,” he declared.4
Compelled to leave Munich immediately after the outbreak of World War I, in August 1914, Kandinsky returned to his native Russia. There, he served as the first director of the Museums of Painterly Culture, working to establish a network of regional museums, in 1919. One year later, he became the first director of INKhUk (the Institute of Artistic Culture) in Moscow, a state-funded interdisciplinary research center for the study of culture. In 1922, he returned to Germany to join the faculty of the Bauhaus, an avant-garde art and design school based in Weimar and, later, Dessau. He remained at the Bauhaus until the Nazis shuttered it in 1933, prompting him to relocate one final time, to France.
Kandinsky made color theory an important part of the Bauhaus curriculum, and his preoccupation with primary form (basic geometric shapes including the triangle, circle, and square) and primary colors (red, blue, and yellow) influenced a new generation of artists, among them Herbert Bayer and Sonia Delaunay-Terk. During this time, his abstractions became increasingly hard-edged, as in Orange, with the circle emerging as his favored form—“a precise but inexhaustible variable,” he said, that “points most clearly to the fourth dimension.”5 In this, Kandinsky remained steadfast in his belief in the power of color and form to supplant language and to open our perception to a transcendent plane.
Natalie Dupêcher, independent scholar, 2018
504: New Expression in Germany and Austria
513: Design for Modern Life
Fall 2019–Summer 2021
A Revolutionary Impulse: The Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde
Dec 3, 2016–Mar 12, 2017
Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925
Dec 23, 2012–Apr 15, 2013
German Expressionism: The Graphic Impulse
Mar 27–Jul 11, 2011
- Vasily Kandinsky has online.
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