Kandinsky, Vasily

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aesthetic liberalism
toward abstraction
the bauhaus phase and after

KANDINSKY, VASILY (1866–1944), Russian painter.

It was only years after he began painting in an abstract style that Vasily Kandinsky claimed priority as that style's originator. In an autobiographical sketch of 1919, he referred to himself as "the first painter to base painting upon purely pictorial means of expression and abandon objects in his pictures" (Kandinsky, p. 431), dating his first such painting to 1911. By then Kazimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian were achieving notice for their abstract work. In the 1930s, when abstraction seemed to have established itself as the climax, if not the very definition, of modernist painting, Kandinsky renewed his claim even more emphatically: his Picture with a Circle of 1911, he wrote, was "actually the first abstract picture in the world, because no other painter was painting in the abstract at the time. So it is a 'historic picture"' (quoted in Hahl-Koch, p. 184).

Whether or not Kandinsky was literally correct, he was philosophically justified; Picture was the first work to be painted according to an explicitly abstract aesthetic, worked out even before he had painted a single work in that style. "On the Spiritual in Art" (1912; completed 1909) was a manifesto that cast the idea of abstraction not just as a style of painting but as a philosophical-aesthetic challenge to the contemporary European bourgeois worldview. It became one of the defining documents of modernism.

aesthetic liberalism

Kandinsky was born in Moscow on 16 December (4 December, old style) 1866 into a well-off, progressive, middle-class merchant family. His parents divorced, at his mother's initiative, when he was four, and he was brought up by his father and maternal aunt. He remained close to his mother, however, whose strong personality he identified with "Mother Moscow," the city he once described in an ideal visual moment in the late afternoon sun as a totality that unified all opposites in a symphonic harmony of color and served as the inspiration for all his work. Though drawn early to art, Kandinsky pursued training in law and economics as a member of the liberal Russian intelligentsia intent on bringing backward Russia into the modern world. At age thirty, disillusioned with the reformist potential of the social sciences, he abruptly decided to study painting and left Russia for Munich, a favored destination for expatriate Russian artists. But the idealism of Russian liberal reform would forever inform the purpose of his painting.

Kandinsky's aesthetic liberalism was a peculiarly Russian blend of nativist populism, Orthodox religiosity, and artistic symbolism. While desiring liberal political institutions, he rejected the selfish, materialistic individualism of the West. The communalism of "Old Russia," its classes united by common spiritual values, was to be the model of the new. In Russian symbolist doctrine, the artist had a special role in its creation. The purpose of art was to create images of harmony out of conflict, which could inspire in its audiences the spiritual transformation necessary for social and political change. But to produce these the artist must first realize harmony within himself; because of the egoism of modern man, this could be achieved only through the transformative love of woman. In this conception the feminine was understood as both a higher spiritual form inspiring man and the equal "other" of the masculine, the recognition of whose individuality through love could overcome the selfishness of contemporary life. Kandinsky was committed to both feminine idealization and sexual equality in life and in art, which for the symbolists were one.

After a brief period of apprenticeship, Kandinsky started his own art association and school, the Phalanx, which admitted women equally with men. The love affair he began with one of his young students, Gabriele Münter, profoundly influenced the next phase of his work. His confessedly "scrappy" production of land- and townscapes, symbolist fairy tales, and Jugendstil (art nouveau) graphic works increased dramatically to include new themes of life in Old Russia, period images of elegant women, and loving couples in medieval settings. These genres reached their climax in two Paris paintings of 1907, Riding Couple, a pointillist inspired, gorgeously colored scene of courtly lovers on a steed against the background of medieval Moscow; and Motley Life, a larger canvas crowded with figures representing the spectrum of occupations and classes in Old Russia, the social context of romantic love.

toward abstraction

These paintings, however, marked the end of a phase. Aesthetic and romantic crises pushed Kandinsky in radically new directions. In Paris he had encountered the fauvist color innovations of Henri Matisse, a major step in the emancipation of painting from representation. That emancipation was something Kandinsky had been groping for, for he had long felt his veneration for nature's creativity to be self-defeating: attempting to reproduce nature's colors left the painter a mere imitator, not an original creator. But he had been stymied because he also believed that it was only under the aegis of (feminine) nature, and its human counterpart feminine love, that he could produce great work. Disappointment in the creative potential of his relationship with Münter, along with the new technical means suggested by Matisse, opened a period of brilliant color experimentation in Kandinsky's work around 1908. These "fauvist" images, however, rapidly moved ever closer to pure abstraction.

Before they reached it, Kandinsky announced the goal of his journey. In "On the Spiritual in Art," he proclaimed the bankruptcy of the modern spirit of materialism in politics, economics, philosophy, and art. The competition for wealth had "turned the life of the universe into an evil, purposeless game"; scientific positivism and naturalism in art had produced in the soul seeds of "desperation, unbelief, lack of purpose" (Kandinsky, p. 128). Painting had to be revolutionized in order to rescue the human spirit by returning art to its "objective element," the "pure and eternal" vision of harmony. But to be persuasive to contemporaries, harmony could be achieved only by going through the "temporal-subjective" strife of modernity, not avoiding it. "Clashing discords … great questionings, apparently purposeless strivings, stress and longing … opposites and contradictions—this is our harmony," Kandinsky asserted programmatically (p. 193). The technical means of realizing it involved above all synthesizing colors representing conflicting emotions and mental states, "each with its separate existence, but each blended into a common life, which is called a picture by the force of inner necessity" (p. 193).

Among the current inspirations for his ideas about abstraction was Mme. Blavatsky's theosophical movement, whose claim to hold a set of beliefs about the divine origin of the universe that was at the root of all existing religions evoked spirituality without specific imagery. But it was his encounter with Arnold Schoenberg's "atonal" music, with its "emancipation of dissonance" from the established, "natural" tonal system, which enabled Kandinsky to make the final break with representation. The sudden revelation that colors did not necessarily have fixed meanings but could be infinitely redefined by their different uses and contexts "tore open … the gates of the realm of absolute art" (Kandinsky, p. 398). At last the painter could, like nature, create ex nihilo, and be nature's equal in originality and power.

Between 1911 and 1914, Kandinsky produced an enormous output of both abstract and thematic works. The line between them is not sharp; many paintings with nonthematic titles, particularly the two numbered series called "Improvisations" and the more ambitious, larger-scale "Compositions," abound with discernible objects. In general the paintings of this period represent two main themes, recapitulating in Kandinsky's new aesthetic language his constant concerns: on the one hand representations of conflict, battle, and destruction, prominently including biblical images of Noah's flood and the Apocalypse, and on the other representations of paradise as a Garden of Love strewn with sexually united couples (e.g., Improvisation 27, 1912). Dualistic structures contrasting and balancing the two themes, as in Composition IV (1911), give way approaching 1914 to denser, more apparently chaotic biomorphic canvases working to create harmony out of fragmentation rather than polarities, culminating in the prewar Composition VII (1913).

Kandinsky also worked to educate potential audiences in his new ideas, and create a market for his work, by organizing groups of like-minded colleagues who drew up manifestos, published almanacs, and organized exhibitions. He formed the New Artists' Association of Munich with Alexei von Jawlensky, Marianne von Werefkin, and others in 1909. When his work became too radical for some of his colleagues, Kandinsky broke with them and established another group, the Blue Rider (Blaue Reiter), with Franz Marc and August Macke. The Blue Rider Almanac (1912), a heterogeneous collection of materials including theoretical prose pieces, illustrations, and Kandinsky's own drama, Yellow Sound, did much, along with the Blue Rider exhibitions, to bring modernist work into the cultural consciousness of Germany. The Almanac too became one of the landmarks of European modernism.

the bauhaus phase and after

The outbreak of war in 1914 forced Kandinsky to leave Germany as an enemy alien. His departure led to the final break with Münter. Under the new Soviet regime, Kandinsky served for a time in the Ministry of Culture, seeding provincial museums with modernist paintings in an effort to bring

contemporary art to broader masses of people. His sense that the regime was increasingly critical of his formalism, however, took him back to Germany in 1921, where he soon became one of the leading artists at the new Bauhaus school, teaching principles of form. His work by then had undergone another dramatic change, from biomorphism to much more rigid geometrical forms. Malevich's suprematism may have partly influenced the change, but the change was also connected with Kandinsky's sense that his previous methods did not, and perhaps could not, create the harmonious order he sought. After the Nazis rose to power, Kandinsky's work, along with that of other modernists, was condemned as "degenerate art." When the Nazis closed the Bauhaus in 1933, Kandinsky was forced into exile in Paris, where his work underwent yet another stylistic change under the impact of surrealism. He died near Paris, in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France, on 13 December 1944.

See alsoAvant-Garde; Matisse, Henri; Modernism; Painting; Russia; Symbolism.


Grohmann, Will. Wassily Kandinsky: Life and Work. Translated by Norbert Guterman. New York, 1958.

Hahl-Koch, Jelena. Kandinsky. Translated by Karin Brown, Ralph Harratz, and Katharine Harrison. New York, 1993.

Izenberg, Gerald N. Modernism and Masculinity: Mann, Wedekind, Kandinsky through World War I. Chicago, 2000.

Kandinsky, Vasily. Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art. Edited by Kenneth C. Lindsay and Peter Vergo. Boston, 1982.

Long, Rose-Carol Washton. Kandinsky: The Development of an Abstract Style. Oxford, 1980.

Ringbom, Sixten. The Sounding Cosmos: A Study in the Spiritualism of Kandinsky and the Genesis of Abstract Painting. Åbo, Finland, 1970.

Weiss, Peg. Kandinsky in Munich: The Formative Jugendstil Years. Princeton, N.J., 1979.

——. Kandinsky and Old Russia: The Artist as Ethnographer and Shaman. New Haven, Conn., 1995.

Gerald N. Izenberg