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Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944)

 

Russian painter, writer, and art theorist, one of the principal founders of abstract art. Before Kandinsky first pathbreaking composition from 1910, several artists had already produced non-objective paintings. Kandinsky's messianic On the Spiritual in Art (1912) is a fundamental text of the theory behind abstract art.

"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." (from On the Spiritual in Art)

Vasili (Wassily) Vasilievoch Kandinsky was born in Moscow into an upper middle-class family. His father, Vasili Silverstrovich, was a tea merchant. He came from Kyakhta, a Siberian town near the Chinese border. Kandinsky's great grandmother was a Mongolian aristocrat. Lidia Ivanovna Tikheeva, Kandinsky's mother, was from Moscow.

Kandinsky spent his childhood in Moscow and Odessa, where the family moved in 1871. After his parents divorced, he stayed with his father. Kandinsky's aunt, Elisabeth Tikheeva, took also care of him. As a child Kandinsky spoke a great deal of German - his maternal grandmother was a German. Fairy tales formed a part of his upbringing and in his early paintings Kandinsky often returned to their colorful world. In Odessa, Kandinsky started to take music lesson, learning to play the piano and the sello. Kandinsky never felt at home in the southern town, and his father used to take him to Moscow every summer.

In 1886 Kandinsky began to study at the University of Moscow economics and law, but also ethnographic studies, especially the Finno-Ugric people, interested him. Kandinsky's own name had possibly Finno-Ugric origins - the Ostiak word "kondinskii" or "kondar" means strong and powerful; the Finnish word for "konda" is "honka" (pine). In 1888 Kandinsky delivered a lecture on the beliefs of the Perms and Zyrians, which earned him a field work scholarship. Commissioned by the Society for Natural Science, Ethnography and Anthropology, he traveled with a copy of the Finnish national epic, Kalevala, to the northern province of Vologda to study the traditional criminal jurisprudence and the religion of the Zyrians. During the journey Kandinsky kept a diary. "I read the Kalevala. I worship it," Kandinsky wrote. Later he recalled in his autobiography, Rückblicke (1913), that in Vologda he "first learned to look at picture not only from the outside but to enter into it, to move around in it and to take part in its life." Inspired by folk art, Kandinsky published a report on pagan relics of Finno-Ugric tribes, entitled 'From Material on the Ethnography of the Sysolsk and Vychegodsk Zyriane'. His drawing and water-color sketches from the journey Kandinsky donated to the Rumyantsev Museum.

In 1892 Kandinsky married his cousin Anja Chimiakin, with whom he lived until 1904. After completing his dissertation, On the Legality of Laborers' Wages, Kandinsky was appointed to the Department of Law at the University of Moscow. For a time he worked as the artistic director of the Kušverev printing plant, before he decided to dedicate himself entirely to art. At the age of thirty-one he went to Munich, the major center of Russian art students, to study painting. The city was called "a nursery of the arts which influenced Moscow". Kandinsky entered a private art school and after failing the entrance examination to the Munich Academy of Art, he continued to study privately. Finally in 1900 Kandinsky was admitted to the Academy, where his teacher was Franz von Stuck.

In 1901 Kandinsky co-founded the short-lived artists' association Phalanx, which closed after two years. With his students Kandinsky planned to visit Bavarian churches, arguing that visiting churches in Moscow during his youth was very profitable for him. The purpose of the association was to organize exhibitions informing the public about "the art of tomorrow". Akseli Gallen-Kallela, the internationally renowned national-romantic artist, whom Kandinsky greatly admired, was also invited to take part in the Phalanx exhibition of 1902.

At that time Kandinsky painted naturalistic lanscapes, legends and scenes from medieval Russian life. Inspired by lubki (woodblock prints), Kandinsky produced Stihi bez slov (1903, Poems Without Words), an album of woodcuts based on the life in old Moscow. His first noteworthy piece of art writing, a critique of critics, Kandinsky published in 1901 in a Moscow newspaper. From Germany he sent articles for the progressive art journal Mir Iskusstva in St. Petersburg, the art capital of Russia at that time. For the Russian journal Apollon, the successor of Mir Iskusstva, he contributed letters from Munich. Kandinsky did not think much of contemporary German art and prophesied that something is going to happen: "And I thought: this really is that fairy kingdom in which pictures sleep on the walls, the custodians in their corners, the public with their catalogues in their hands, the Munich artists with their same broad brushstroke, the critics with their pens between their teeth."

In 1904 Kandinsky separated from his wife; their divorce was legalized in 1911. With Gabriele Münter, his student at Phalanx art school, Kandinsky traveled in Europe and Africa. Münter was 11 years his junior. In 1909 she bought a house in Murnau, ca. 50 km from Munich. Kandinsky and Münter spent there their summers until the outbreak of WW I.

Throughout the years, Kandinsky sought his personal way of expression. His long-time interest in the notion of Gesamtkunstwerk prompted him to create the stage composition The Yellow Sound (formerly entitled The Giants). From 1904 Kandinsky exhibited regularly at the Salo d'Autonomne in Paris. In 1909 he co-founded the Neue Künstler Vereinigung (NKV). The important daily Müncher Neueste Nachrichten accused most of the members being "incurable madmen" or "shameless charlatans". NKV staged two exhibitions - Kandinsky himself broke with the group when it refused one of his paintings, 'Composition V', because it was too abstract.

Between 1910 and 1914 Kandinsky created a series of abstract paintins, variously entitled impressions, improvisations, and compositions. At the second exhibition of NKV Kandinsky showed 'Composition II' (1910) and 'Improvisation X' (1910). He also produced 'First Abstract Watercolor', although according to some sources it was actually a study for 'Composition VII' (1913), which has been incorrectly dated. There is some ambiguity about the chronology of this work, but Kandinsky himself always asserted that he was the first to paint a nonobjective painting.

With Franz Marc, Münter, August Macke and other artists, Kandinsky formed a group, Der Blaue Reiter (the blue rider), which promoted the spiritual and abstaraction in art. As Charles W. Leadbeater in Man Visible and Invisible (1902), Kandinsky assigned special spiritual qualities to colors. "Blue is the truly celestial color," Kandinsky wrote in On the Spiritual in Art. "It creates an atmosphere of calmness - not like green, which represents an earthly self-satisfied stillness; it creates a solemn, supernatural depth." Der Blaue Reiter publisher an almanach in 1912. Its cover desing by Kandinsky portrayed a horseman, one of his favorite images. The model of the horn-blowing rider was perhaps derived from Gallen-Kalela's fresco 'Kullervo Goes to War' (1901). In addition to illustrations, the almanach included articles written by artists, and manuscripts of music by Arnold Schönberg and Anton von Webern. Kandinsky contributed an essay, 'On the Problem of Form', a drama entitled Der Gelbe Klang, and a study of the modern stage and Wagner. In 1911 he attended a concert of Schönberg's music. Captured by the composer's theories he translated into Russian Schönberg's article 'On Octaves and Fifths', part of his Harmonielehre. He also wrote an article on Schönberg's paintings to a publication dedicated to the composer.

Klänge (Sounds), Kandinsky's "musical" publication from 1912, contained prose poems and woodcuts. The edition, dedicated to the artist's parents, was limited to 345 copies. Four of its poems were published in Russia in the famous Futurist anthology A Slap in the Face of Public Taste (1912), without Kandinsky's permission. In a letter to Russkow Slovo he protested: "I warmly condone every honest attempt at artistic creativity... But under no circumstances do I consider permissible the tone in which the prospectus was written. I condemn this tone categorically, no matter whose it is."

Of crucial importance to the emergence of abstract art were discoveries in the field of atomic research, trends developing in cubism, Freud's theories, reaction against materialism, and the general rebellion against conventions in art, literature, and so on. From the beginning, Kandinsky's vision was closely associated with mysticism, with a spiritual point of view. Almost every Expressionist painter insisted on similar insight into the world, although some writers and artists also had direct contact with social and political reality. "Mythic observation is to me the foundation of all art," said Ernst Barlach and Emil Nolde wrote in his autobiography that "for me, the highest value, the form of visible life, was always inward and spiritual".

Kandinsky was fascinated by the occult teachings of Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Society, and the Austrian mystic Rudolf Steiner, whose lectures he attended. Steiner argued that the "soul-and-spiritual" reality is accessible to the "seer". Kandinsky owned a copy of his Theosophie (1904) and a number of books on Spiritualism. Also Worringer's dissertation Abstraction and Empathy (1908) had a profound impact on the artist. "The tendency toward abstaraction is the consequence of man's deep turmoil in confronting the world," Worringer wrote.

Kandinsky completed On the Spiritual in Art in 1911, but it was not easy for him to find a publisher for his book. Thanks to Franz Marc, it was accepted by Piper Verlang in Munchen - the same house that had published Worringer's dissertation. Prior to its publication, the manuscript was read and discussed at the All-Russian Congress of Artists in St. Petersburg in December 1911. An English translation appeared in 1914 in London.

From childhood, Kandinsky had been very sensitive to color, which he combined with music, stating that painting possesses the same power as music. "Of all types of modern painting," wrote Herbert Read in The Meaning of Art (1931), "Kandinsky's comes nearest to a plastic equivalent for music." According to Kandinsky, the subject matter of abstract painting is inner nature, the hidden reality "veiled in darkness". Kandinsky rejected merely aesthetic approach to art: "The artist must have something to say". He argued that non-figurative painting is as being produced by "inner necessity, which springs from the soul." All forms say something "of the essence and content of nature". Kandinsky was less concerned about the motif of the painting than the use of color and line as means of representing "spiritual" states of mind. It can be said, that abstract painting, like an Orthodox icon, conveys a spiritual message.

Before producing his first abstract watercolor in 1910, Kandinsky had already started to think that the subject matter was detrimental to his paintings. As a student the nearsighted artist had seen Monet's 'Haystack in the Sun' in an Impressionistic exhibition without being able to recognize its motif. This experience occurred again in Munich, where Kandinsky was unexpectedly bewitched by his own painting, lying on its side. Kandinsky said he could see nothing but shapes and colors and the content of which was incomprehensible to him.

From late 1914 to 1921 Kandinsky lived in Russia, except for the periods he went to Finland, still part of Russia, and Sweden, where his works were exhibited in Gummesons Konsthandel, Stockholm. In Moscow Kandinsky fell in love with Nina von Andreyevski, the 24-year-old daughter of General von Andreyevski. His first gift to his young fiancée was an abstract watercolor. The couple married in 1917 and honeymooned in Imatra, a small city in Finland famous for its rapids. A work from this journey portrays two women, separated by a mountain and rapids. The Imatra State Hotel, much magnified and dramatized, is on top of the mountain. The composition has some similarities with earlier works, such as 'Glass Painting with a Sun' (1910) and 'Small Pleasures' (1913).

Kandinsky was very active in organizing artistic life in Russia. He became a member of the Visual Arts Section in the People's Commissariat for Enlightenment (NARKOMPROS), and produced plans for a network of contemporary art museums. He was also appointed professor at the Free State Art Studios. In 1921 he created the Russian Academy of Artistic Sciences with the help of Anatoly Lunacharsky, the first Soviet commissar of education. Among his associates were Rodchenko, Stepanova, and other members of the Russian avant-garde. His pedagogical activity later formed the basis for his work at the Bauhaus. Although working with Bolsheviks, Kandinsky never denounced his Russian-Orthodox faith - on the contrary. Several of his paintings from the early 1910s deal with religious subjets, saints, the Deluge, and the Resurrection.

Frustrated with tightening political control and Alexander Rodchenko's utilitarianism, Kandinsky left Moscow for Berlin in December 1921 - he was among the earliest of emigrants. "The artistic endeavour of the abstractionists was worlds removed from real life," stated much later the Sovier art historian Oleg Sopotsinsky in Art in the Soviet Union (1977), "in fact they went to great lengths to seal themselves off from its influence, thus condemning themselves to a creative barrenness."

Kandinsky became a professor at the Bauhaus, a new art school created by Walter Gropius. In 1922 he took over the mural-painting workshop and a course on color, in which he followed mostly Goethe's color theory. Kandinsky also gave courses in 'Analytical Drawing and 'Abstract Form Elements' for first-semester students and free painting classes from 1927. Paul Klee, his colleague and friend at the Bauhaus, experimented with geometric abstraction, and wrote his Pedagogical Sketchbook (1925). Kandinsky's Point and Line to Plane (1926) contained a portion of his course material. The point is, according to Kandinsky, the proto-element of painting, its antithesis is the line. The point means rest, the line creates tension by movement. The boundary between the line and the plane is indefinite and mobile, but "even the straight line... carries within it with its other characteristics the desire... to give birth to a plane".

Until 1931, Kandinsky co-edited Bauhaus Zeitschrift für Gestaltungen. Poems by Kandinsky appeared in the literary journal Transition, based in New York. In 1933, when the Nazis seized power, storm troopers invaded the school in Berlin, and the Bauhaus was closed down for good. Most of the faculty and many students left Germany. Works by modern artists, Kandinsky included, were exhibited in July 1937 in the 'Degenerate Art Exhibition' in Munich. More than million people visited the exhibition, which traveled to twelve cities in Germany and Austria. Fifty-seven works by Kandinsky in German museums were confiscated by the Nazis.

Kandinsky moved to France, where he settled in Neuilly-sur-Seine, in a little apartment found for him and his wife by Marcel Duchamp. After the Germans invaded France in 1940, Kandinsky spent two months in the Pyrenees, and then returned to Neuilly. The American Embassy urged him to move to the United States. Kandinsky continued to exhibit frequently; in 1943 he had three exhibitions in New York. Kandinsky's last work was L'Elan tempéré' (Moderate Impulse), in which one can discover perhaps an equine form in movement. Kandinsky died in Neuilly of cerebro-vascular disease on 13 December, 1944.

For further reading: Kandinsky by Hugo Zehder (1920); Kandinsky by Will Grohmann (1924); Kandinsky by Marcel Avland (1947); Wassily Kandinsky, ed. by Max Bill (1951); Wassily Kandinsky: Life and Work by Will Grohmann (1958); Kandinsky by Marcel Brion (1961); Kandinsky by Cornelius Doelman (1964); Kandinsky. The Language of the Eye by Paul Overy (1969); The Sounding Cosmos by Sixten Ringbom (1970); Kandinsky by Arturo Bovi (1971); The Blue Rider by Peter Vergo (1977); Kandinsky by Hans K. Roetel and Jean K. Benjamin (1979); The Blue Rider by Paul Vogt (1980); Kandinsky by Thomas Messer (1997); Kandinsky, ed. by Natalia Avtonomova et al. (1998); Wassily Kandinsky, 1866-1944: The Journey to Abstraction by Ulrike Becks-Malorny (1999); Modernism and Masculinity: Mann, Wedekind, Kandinsky through World War I by Gerald Izenberg (2000); Wassily Kandinsky and Gabriele Münter, ed. by Annegret Hoberg (2001)

Selected works:

  • Stihi bez slov, 1903
  • Xylographies, 1909
  • Buhnenkomposition 3 (Schwartz und Weiss), 1911
  • Über des Geistige in der Kunst, 1912 - The Art of Spiritual Harmony (trans. by Michael T. Sadler) / On the Spiritual in Art (ed. by Hilla Rebay) / Concerning the Spiritual in Art (ed.by Michael Sadleir)
  • 'Über Kunstverstehen', in Der Sturm, 1912
  • Der Blaue Reiter Almanach, 1912 (ed. by Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc) - The Blaue Reiter Almanach
  • Klänge, 1913 - Sounds (ed. by Elizabeth R. Napier)
  • Sturm Album, 1913 (includes Rückblicke)
  • Om Konstnären, 1916
  • Tekst Khudozhnika. Stupeni, 1918
  • Institut khudozhestvennoi kultury v Moskve, 1920
  • Punkt und Linie zur Fläche, 1926 - Point and Line to Plane (trans. by Howard Dearstine and Hilla Rebay)
  • Essay über Kunst und Künstler, 1955 (ed. by Max Bill)
  • Sturm Album, in Modern Artist on Art, 1964 (ed. by Robert L. Herbert)
  • Regards sur le passé et autres textes 1912-1922, 1974 (ed. by Jean Paul Bouillon)
  • Ecrits complets, 1970-75 (2 vols.)
  • 'Plan for the Physiopsychological Department of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, 1923', in Russian Art of the Avant-Garde-Theory and Criticism, 1902-1924, 1976 (ed. by John E. Bowlt)
  • Briefe, Bilder, und Dokumente einer aussergewöhnlichen Begegnung, 1980 (with A. Schönberg) - Letters, Pictures, and Documents
  • Die Gesammelte Schriften, 1980- (ed. by Hans K. Roethel and Jelena Hahl-Koch)
  • Complete Writings on Art, 1982
  • Kandinsky, Franz Marc: Briefwechsel, 1983 (ed.by Klaus Lankheit)
  • Wassily Kandinsky and Gabriele Münter. Letters and reminiscences, 1902-1914, 1994 (ed. by Annegret Hoberg)

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