Kandinsky, Wassily (1866–1944)
KANDINSKY, WASSILY (1866–1944)EARLY CAREER
Born into a merchant family in Moscow on 4 December 1866, the painter, poet, playwright, and theorist Vasily Vasilyevich Kandinsky (commonly transliterated as Wassily Kandinsky) regarded Russia's ancient capital as his artistic departure-point. Graduating from Moscow University in 1892 with a degree in law, he explored many interests before deciding on the career of painter.
Beginning in 1896, Kandinsky studied art in Munich, at first with Anton Azbè and then under Franz von Stuck at the Akademie der Künste, assimilating the principles of late realism and then jugendstil. Ever inquisitive, Kandinsky moved quickly toward a highly experimental palette after exposure to the bright colors and refractive light of North Africa in 1904 and then of the French impressionists in Paris in 1906–1907. These encounters coincided with his discovery and appreciation of indigenous art forms such as Bavarian glass painting and Russian icons with their simple forms and hieratic subjects. Seeking a more spontaneous and abstract style, Kandinsky arrived at his so-called Compositions and Improvisations and his first abstract paintings of 1911.
During the Munich years Kandinsky was part of a close-knit circle of German and Russian artists that included Alexei von Jawlensky, Franz Marc, Arnold Schoenberg, Marianna Werefkin, and his heartfelt companion, Gabriele Munter. Among his German affiliations were the exhibition society Neue Künstlervereinigung (German New Artists' Association), of which he was elected president in 1909, and, more importantly, Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), a society and almanac that brought together talented painters, musicians, and writers, promoting an interdisciplinary and synthetic approach to questions of visual and material culture.
The desire to integrate the visual, the verbal, and the musical informed Kandinsky's major philosophical treatise, Über das Geistige in der Kunst (1912; Concerning the Spiritual in Art, 1914; later translated as On the Spiritual in Art), an abbreviated version of which was delivered on his behalf to the first All-Russian Congress of Artists in St. Petersburg in December 1911, before the entire text was published in Munich early the following year. Like many symbolists, Kandinsky, in On the Spiritual in Art, looked to music as the highest art, arguing that painting, too, should vibrate, emit an "inner sound," and function according to an intrinsic harmony. Kandinsky went on to identify certain parallels between the diatonic scale and the spectrum and to propose a consonance between colors and shapes, referring, for example, to the sharpness of a triangle and of the color yellow and to the high pitch of the flute or to the serenity of a circle, of the color blue and to the muted sound of the bassoon. Kandinsky welcomed the parallel quest for a new harmony in the work of the composers Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951) and Alexander Scriabin (1872–1915).
In On the Spiritual in Art and elsewhere Kandinsky refers not only to established color theories—such as that of the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832)—but also to more esoteric sources, especially theosophy with its emphasis on sensory totality and transubstantiation, extensions of which can be recognized in, for example, Woman in Moscow (1912).
However complex the sources, Kandinsky's elaboration of an abstract vocabulary—arhythmical and asymmetrical—depended on his fundamental recognition of the value of all modes of human perception. To this end he contemplated both the scientific and the cognitive and their combined relevance to the essential function of art—to summon the spiritual through the psyche of the artist. Although Kandinsky did not categorize himself as an expressionist, his notion of painting as the communication of an exalted vision left a deep imprint on succeeding generations, not least on the American abstract expressionists and action painters such as Jackson Pollock (1912–1956).
Overtaken in Germany by the First World War, Kandinsky returned to Moscow in 1915, where he continued to paint his abstract paintings and to develop his theories. But although he contributed after the October Revolution to various Bolshevik institutions, such as the Institute of Artistic Culture, Kandinsky found himself at loggerheads with other avant-gardists such as Kazimir Malevich and Vladimir Tatlin. In December 1921 he accepted an invitation to teach at the Bauhaus and, with his wife, Nina Andreyevskaya, left Russia forever.
Until the Nazis closed the Bauhaus in 1933, Kandinsky played an active role as teacher and researcher in Weimar and Dessau, moving closely with Walter Gropius, Johannes Itten, Paul Klee, and László Moholy-Nagy, in particular. He continued to concentrate on painting, at first supporting a geometric style informed by constructivism, and then entering a more biomorphic phase. He also gave attention to functional design, decorating porcelain and painting the sets for a 1928 production of Kartinki s vystavki (1874; Pictures at an Exhibition) by Modest Mussorgsky (1839–1881).
Moving to Paris, Kandinsky continued to paint and to write. He achieved wide acclaim through exhibitions in Europe and America and through important critical appreciations by Will Grohmann, Meyer Schapiro, and Christian Zervos, even if the Germany of Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) and Soviet Union of Joseph Stalin (1879–1953) rejected his art as pernicious—Kandinsky was represented at Hitler's "Entartete Kunst" (Degenerate Art) exhibition in Munich in 1937. His last paintings, such as Twilight (1943), carry references to both surrealism and zoomorphism, testifying to the inexorable curiosity and interpretative powers of their creator. Kandinsky died on 13 December 1944 in Neuilly-sur-Seine.
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John E. Bowlt