Russian painter, designer and art theorist Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) counts among the creators of Abstract Art. Originally pursuing a career in law, he only decided to turn towards a life as an artist at a relatively late stage, but succeeded in radically changing the world of art nonetheless. A member of several groups of artists such as Phalanx, Die Neue Künstlervereinigung München (Munich New Artist’s Association), Jack of Diamonds and Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), he was a leading influence in contemporary art. This book takes Kandinsky’s theoretical treatise Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1912) as a starting point to approach both the artist and his work. The theories about colour and form presented in his text become manifest in his entire work and gain more and more importance throughout his creative life. Kandinsky’s artistic roots can be found in Russian icon painting, his subjects of Russian folklore prove his connection with his home country; later in his life he would return to, and reclaim Russian fairytales. Initially, Kandinsky adheres to Realism; followed by phases in numerous different movements – Impressionism, Art Nouveau, Neo-Impressionism and Expressionism – before gravitating towards abstraction. During his first years as an artist in Munich (from 1896) his style can be described as organic. Together with his spouse and artistic colleague, Gabriele Münter, he paints colourful images of Bavarian nature and people’s lives; his representations of the small town Murnau would later become characteristic for this period. Kandinsky remained in Germany until the outbreak of World War I. After returning to Russia in 1914 he was influenced by Constructivism, resulting in compositions dominated by hard lines, points and geometrical shapes. Part of the Russian avant-garde, Kandinsky became an important figure of public cultural life in post-revolutionary Russia, until he left for Berlin due to the changing political climate.
During his time in Berlin (1920-1922) his landscape paintings from the Munich period are eventually replaced by increasingly abstract pictures. In the following years, whilst he is teaching at the Bauhaus – first in Weimar, later in Dessau – his style develops a more geometric direction in the form of pictographs and hieroglyphs. In the following period, in Paris (from 1933), biomorphic shapes appear more and more often in his works. Like other contemporaries Kandinsky recognises the necessity of combining different artistic disciplines, particularly music and colour. In Kandinsky’s world colour becomes a medium to mainly express emotions rather than simply depict reality. Kandinsky created an impressive collection of oil paintings, watercolours and woodcuts which, each in their own way, reveal his artistic genius. He wrote other theoretical art texts like Point and Line to Plane (1926). Both his paintings and his writings make him one of the greatest and most influential artists of the 20th century.
Every work of art is the child of its age and, in many cases, the mother of our emotions. It follows that each period of culture produces an art of its own which can never be repeated. Efforts to revive the art-principles of the past will at best produce an art that is still-born.
All those varieties of picture, when they are really art, fulfil their purpose and feed the spirit. Though this applies to the first case, it applies more strongly to the third, where the spectator does feel a corresponding thrill within himself. Such harmony or even contrast of emotion cannot be superficial or worthless; indeed the Stimmung of a picture can deepen and purify that of the spectator.
Such works of art at least preserve the soul from coarseness; they “key it up,” so to speak, to a certain height, as a tuning-key the strings of a musical instrument. But purification, and extension in duration and size of this sympathy of soul, remain one-sided, and the possibilities of the influence of art are not exerted to their utmost.
The limitations of the term “rhythmic” are obvious. In music and nature each manifestation has a rhythm of its own, so also in painting. In nature this rhythm is often not clear to us, because its purpose is not clear to us. We then speak of it as unrhythmic.
So the terms rhythmic and unrhythmic are purely conventional, as also are harmony and discord, which have no actual existence.
Complex rhythmic composition, with a strong flavour of the symphonic, is seen in numerous pictures and woodcuts of the past. One might mention the work of old German masters, of the Persians, of the Japanese, the Russian icons, broadsides, etc.
In nearly all these works the symphonic composition is not very closely allied to the melodic. This means that fundamentally there is a composition founded on rest and balance.
As examples of the new symphonic composition, in which the melodic element plays a subordinate part, and that only rarely, I have added reproductions of four of my own pictures.
They represent three different sources of inspiration:
- A direct impression of outward nature, expressed in purely artistic form. This I call an “Impression”.
- A largely unconscious, spontaneous expression of inner character, the non-material nature. This I call an “Improvisation”.
- An expression of a slowly formed inner feeling, which comes to utterance only after long maturing. This I call a “Composition”.
In this, reason, consciousness, purpose, play an overwhelming part. But of the calculation nothing appears, only the feeling. Which kind of construction, whether conscious or unconscious, really underlies my work, the patient reader will readily understand.
Finally, I would remark that, in my opinion, we are fast approaching the time of reasoned and conscious composition, when the painter will be proud to declare his work constructive.
This will be in contrast to the claim of the Impressionists that they could explain nothing, that their art came upon them by inspiration.
We have before us the age of conscious creation, and this new spirit in painting is going hand in hand with the spirit of thought towards an epoch of great spiritual leaders…
See more on Wassily Kandinsky’s artworks here:
One of his famous paintings:
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