Dec 17, 2010
The mellifluously-named Wassily Wassilyevich Kandinsky (1866-1944) is credited as the first modern abstract artist. Art historians love to state superlatives, like “first” and “greatest,” but there is a reason to consider an artistic chronology. Because art is cumulative, later artists necessarily studied earlier masters and paid homage to them, either continuing their advances or breaking from them in new ways, an understanding of what came first is necessary to grasp what came later. The Russian painter and theorist Wassily Kandinsky is at the foundation of 20th century art, a time when abstraction overtook centuries of drive toward realistic painting.
Kandinsky was born in Moscow and grew up in Odessa. He studied law and economics at University of Moscow, and excelled to such a degree that he was offered a professorship in Roman Law at University of Dorpat. Unlike so many of history’s greatest artists, Kandinsky started painting very late in life. He was thirty when he began in earnest, with life-drawing and anatomy illustrations.
He moved to Munich in 1896, where he began to study art for the first time, both privately and at the Academy of Fine Arts. He returned to Moscow after the start of World War I, but found the official theories and policies on art to be stifling. The Academy in Moscow was fascinated with heart-string-tugging melodramatic realistic painting that could be used as propaganda, which felt passé and tawdry to Kandinsky. He returned to Germany in 1921, teaching at the famous Bauhaus School of Art and Architecture, where minimalist and abstract aesthetics were cultivated. When the Nazis closed the Bauhaus in 1933, he moved to France, where he remained for the rest of his life.
Kandinsky’s approach to art was intensely spiritual and theoretical. Art, to him, was the best articulation of the holy, the closest one could come to a dialogue with God. Kandinsky was interested in theory and spirituality first, with art as its conduit. He gave up a promising career as a law professor in order to pursue what surely seemed to his colleagues a foolish enterprise. A thirty-year-old embarking as a teenager might, enrolling at an arts academy with no particular background nor exhibition of precocious talent. Kandinsky himself attributed his decision in part to examining the catalogue for a Monet exhibit in 1896. He said,
That it was a haystack, the catalogue informed me. I could not recognize it. This non-recognition was painful to me. I considered that the painter had no right to paint indistinctly. I duly felt that the object of the painting was missing. And I noticed with surprise and confusion that the picture not only gripped me, but impressed itself ineradicably on my memory. Painting took on a fairy-tale power and splendor.
His other major influences were Wagner’s Lohengrin, which broke the boundaries of what contemporary music had past condoned, as well as the writings of Helen Blavatsky, who established a field of thought called Theosophism, in which spiritual and occult elements of a wide variety of world religions and cultures were woven together to create a new spirituality. Kandinsky was an avid Theosophist, and his own books, including Concerning the Spiritual In Art (1910) and Point and Line to Plane (1926) may be seen as Theosophical artistic treatises.
While he participated in the Blaue Reiter movement in Germany, Kandinsky was most influenced by his time at the Bauhaus, and this painting reflects the aesthetic encouraged there. He taught basic design, painting, and advanced theory classes. In his paintings, Kandinsky preferred to combine geometric forms, which suggest motion, mechanics, technology, and industry, with abstract “soft” forms, which imply organic matter. In this painting, you can identify which forms fit which category. The pink bow-like curves suggest human, soft forms, while the stacked colored squares imply the inorganic.
Most of Kandinsky’s paintings are untitled, because they are not strictly “about” anything—a theme that will recur in conversations about 20th century abstract art. A title would guide the viewer to search out a shape or a symbolic, allegorical theme in the painting. “Untitled” provides no clues, which can feel frustrating or liberating, depending on your point of view.
At its simplest, Kandinsky painted what he found spiritually moving. If someone were to ask you to paint something spiritually moving, what would you paint? You might paint a white man with long brown hair and a beard, wearing a white robe. In fact, most Europeans would probably come up with some traditional image of Christ or God. You might also choose a sunset, a lightning storm, the birth of a child. Kandinsky eschewed the traditional art historical trend of painting formal scenes related to history or mythical history. That had been done, plus it had the aroma of propaganda, most often for the Catholic Church, which many abstract artists found objectionable. Kandinsky wrote that the artist was a prophet, that “music is the ultimate teacher,” and an authentic artist created art from “an internal necessity.” In his treatises, he likened the creation of artwork to Noah’s compulsion to build the Ark. It may have been God acting through a human conduit, or it may have been an internal psychological compulsion that past generations interpreted as the will of God, but true art was born out of a pressing internal need to create.
Kandinsky’s paintings expressed his “internal necessity” to produce what he found to be his spiritual duty as artist/prophet, influenced by the geometry and abstraction of the Bauhaus for which he taught, and the contemporary advances in musical composition. The result, like this painting, is influenced by early 20th century music, arrhythmic and discordant, but at its heart presents what Kandinsky feels is most spiritually moving to him. He needs to express this, it is a divine compulsion, but he is not evangelical. His need is to create, not to convert his viewers to see the spiritual world his way. Admiring Kandinsky brings to mind the titillating question: what would you paint?