Date of Birth: December 16, 1866
Date of Death: December 13, 1944
Place of Birth: Moscow, Russia
Occupation: Painter and Art Theorist
Movements: Expressionism, Der Blaue Reiter, Abstract Art
Education: Law Faculty of Moscow University, Moscow; Academy of Fine Arts, Munich
Wassily Kandinski was a turn-of-the-century Russian art theorist and painter, widely regarded as the first artist of purely abstract canvases. His work was much informed by his intellectual views on colour, symbolism and spiritualism, and he is as well-known for his avant-garde theories on aesthetics as for his technical excellence as a painter.
Wassily Wasilyevich was born in Moscow in December of 1866, the son of Lidia Ticheeva and Vasily Kandinski, a successful tea-merchant whose Siberian ancestry extended further east to Asiatic royalty. Although his father groomed him for a career in law, Kandinski was tutored in both piano and cello as a young boy, and took further instruction in drawing from a private coach. His fascination for color (to which he assigned a mysterious life) and its subsequent psychological effects was to remain with him into his adulthood.
A Life in Law
Kandinski enrolled at the Law Faculty of Moscow University in 1886, and went on to graduate with honors six years later. He married his cousin Anna Chimyakina upon receiving his degree and began teaching at his alma mater as an associate professor. However, his interest in art was abiding and his free time was often spent in studies of regional folk styles. Through those years spent at the university, he was culturally involved — a connoisseur of both art and music. The deep resonance he felt for both Monet’s “Haystacks”and Wagner’s Lohengrin informed the drastic change in his life he would soon make. In 1896, Kandinski was selected to be Professor to the Department of Law at Derpt University in Tartu, but the appointment was short-lived and he gave up economy and law to study art in Munich.
Kandinski settled in Munich in 1896 and began studying at Anton Azbe's private school, but his instruction in line drawing and composition did not stimulate him. After being kept in the same level for more than a year, he left Azbe’s institute for a place at the Academy of Fine Arts, where he would study under Franz Stuck, a prominent graphic artist.
Stuck was impressed with Kandinski’s work, but feared that his palette was too bright. As basic but integral training in form, he insisted that Kandinski paint exclusively in black-and-white. The next year saw an evolution in the artist’s scope, but his relationship with his wife grew strained, and by 1903 he was divorced.
Travels with Gabriela
The end of his marriage resulted in Kandinski’s five years of travel across Europe with a young artist named Gabriela Munter. After participating in exhibitions in Tunisia, Holland and France, the couple settled in the small town of Murnau in the Bavarian Alps. It was the start of a prolific and intense period of activity, full of reminiscences of a forgotten Romantic era. Vividly colored landscapes of dreamed and real worlds, dramatic in their strong lines and primal energy dominated his pieces from this time, along with planes and forms that were disintegrated and dematerialized, familiar objects made unfamiliar and therefore more essential. They are cited as the first abstract paintings in history. While creating this new language, Kandinski also wrote and published a dissertation about his experiments and musings titled, “Concerning the Spiritual in Art.”
Return to Russia
The beginning of the World War forced Kandinski to leave Germany for Switzerland in 1914, but a parting of ways with Gabriela soon had him back in his hometown of Moscow by the end of the year. He met Nina Andreevskaya, the daughter of a general, in 1916 and married her in February of the next year.
The revolutionary years in Russia saw him alternate between half-abstract phrasing and Impressionistic landscapes, his steady evolution unbroken by social and political unrest. He became involved with art education and museum reform, and designed curricula based on his previously stated analyses in his treatise. But his views were not those of the intellectual intelligentsia at the time, and constant attacks from his colleagues forced him to move back to Germany at the end of 1921.
Kandinski joined the faculty of Bauhaus in 1923, where his work adopted a more scientific basis. He developed a precise, detailed idiom of points and lines that worked with and against each other to create shapes, figures and curves over which cool, sweeping colors hung. The language was one born of both research and expression, meant to project the intuitive, psychic reality that exists at a different frequency. Unfortunately, by 1931, the Nazis in Germany launched their full-scale campaign against the school and it was shut down the following year.
Kandinski had painted over 150 oils and 300 watercolors during his time at Bauhaus, but many of his works were lost when the Nazis condemned them as degenerate and set them ablaze.
Kandinski and his wife spent the rest of their lives in France, where he continued to paint and theorize until his death in 1944.