Occupation: Painter, Art Theorist
Movement: Expressionism, Der Blaue Reiter, Abstract Art
Education: Law Faculty of Moscow University, Academy of Fine Arts, Munich
“The Blue Rider,” 1903
“Houses in Munich,” 1908
“The Cow,” 1910
“Square with Concentric Circles,” 1913
“Circles in a Circle,” 1923
“Soft Hard,” 1927
Wassily Kandinsky was a turn-of-the-century Russian art theorist and painter, widely regarded as the first artist of purely abstract canvases. His work was influenced by his intellectual views on color, symbolism and spiritualism, and he is as well-known for his avant-garde theories on aesthetics in addition to his technical excellence as a painter.
Wassily Wassilyevich was born in Moscow in December of 1866, the son of Lidia Ticheeva and Vasily Silvestrovich Kandinsky, a successful tea merchant whose Siberian ancestry extended further east to Asiatic royalty. Although his father groomed him for a career in law, Kandinsky 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
Kandinsky 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 Claude Monet’s “Haystacks” and Richard Wagner’s “Lohengrin” informed the drastic change in his life he would soon make. In 1896, Kandinsky 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 economics and law to study art in Munich.
Kandinsky 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 Kandinsky’s work, but feared that his palette was too bright. As basic but integral training in form, he insisted that Kandinsky paint exclusively in black-and-white. In the following year we see an evolution in the artist’s scope, but his relationship with his wife grew strained, and by 1903 he was divorced.
Travels with Gabriele
The end of his marriage resulted in Kandinsky’s five years of travel across Europe with a young artist named Gabriele Münter. 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, Kandinsky also wrote and published a dissertation about his experiments and musings titled, “Concerning the Spiritual in Art.”
Move towards Abstraction
Kandinsky’s early expressionist paintings throb with brilliant colors much like by the Fauvists, who celebrated color over form. This primacy to color over form hinted at the future abstraction to come. While the stress on color by Fauvists set the early stage of abstraction, it was Kandinsky who took it to the culmination point. His painting started to employ pure color and resembled the structure of symphonies, which communicated to the senses of the viewers. But Kandinsky’s art moved beyond abstraction. His ambition was to evoke multiple senses through his art, for example evoke sound through images. To achieve this, he banished all figures from his canvas and developed a visual language filled with stabs and marks of colors that denoted the musical notes. It’s said that Kandinsky had synesthesia, and he wanted to replicate the synesthetic effects through his paintings. He used colors and marks to evoke sounds and music in his viewers. Even though it's not established that Kandinsky had synaesthesia, it can be safely suggested that the relationship between sound and color was an integral part of his oeuvre.
Supposedly Kandinsky had the first experience of his synesthesia during a performance of Wagner's opera "Lohengrin" in Moscow. He wrote, "Wild, almost crazy lines were sketched in front of me." In Germany he came in contact with Arnold Schoenberg in 1911. After listening to a concert in which Schoenberg employed atonal composition method, Kandinsky finished “Impression III (Konzert)” in two days. Later he befriended Schoenberg and wrote a letter to him in which he said, “The independent progress through their own destinies, the independent life of the individual voices in your compositions, is exactly what I am trying to find in my paintings.” He also wrote that a new art has to be constructed that is anti-geometric and anti-logical and integrates dissonances within it.
In 1911, Kandinsky had also set Der Blaue Reiter in Munich with Franz Marc, August Macke, Albert Bloch and others. The name Blaue Reiter meant "blue rider" and it was based on the leitmotif of the horse and rider in Kandinsky’s work. The dynamic image of the horse and rider suggested a movement away from realism to abstraction. In Marc's works the horse was an emblem of rebirth. Kandinsky also loved the color blue. He wrote, “The deeper the blue becomes, more strongly it calls man towards the infinite, awakening in him a desire for the pure and, finally, for the supernatural… The brighter it becomes, the more it loses its sound, until it turns into silent stillness and becomes white." The group of artists shared common values and believed in abstract forms and rich colors, which had spiritual properties for them. The colors, they believed, could also neutralize the ill-effects of the rampant corruption and materialism of the time.
Return to Russia
The beginning of the World War forced Kandinsky to leave Germany for Switzerland in 1914, but a parting of ways with Gabriele 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.
Kandinsky 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.
Kandinsky 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.
Kandinsky and his wife spent the rest of their lives in France, where he continued to paint and theorize until his death in 1944.
1866 - Born in Moscow
1886 - Joins the Law Faculty of Moscow University
1896 - Gets selected to be Professor to the Department of Law at Derpt University in Tartu
1897 - Joins the Azbe School of Painting in Munich
1911 - Sets “Der Blaue Reiter” in Munich with Franz Marc, August Macke, Albert Bloch and others
1914 - Moves to Moscow
1923 - Joins the faculty of Bauhaus in Germany
1944 - Dies in France
2006 - Tate Modern, London
2011 - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
2012 - Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
2012 - National Gallery of Scotland
2013 - Guggenheim Museum, New York
2013 - Neue Galerie, New York
2014 - Milwaukee Art Museum, Wisconsin
Art Institute of Chicago
Dallas Museum of Art, Texas
Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco
Guggenheim Museum, New York City
Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Museum of Modern Art, New York
Tate Gallery, London
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice
“Concerning the Spiritual in Art” by Wassily Kandinsky
“Point and Line to Plane” by Wassily Kandinsky
“Kandinsky” by Hajo Duchting
“Wassily Kandinsky, 1866-1944: A revolution in Painting” by Hajo Duchting
“Kandinsky” by Vivian Endicott Barnett and Christian Derouet