Wassily Kandinsky

The Russian painter and graphic artist Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) was one of the great masters of modern art and the outstanding representative of pure abstract painting that dominated the first half of the 20th century.

Wassily Kandinsky produced his early work in Russia, his mature and most revolutionary work in Germany, and his later work in France. He invented a language of abstract forms with which he replaced the forms of nature. His ultimate intention was to mirror the universe in his visionary world. He felt that painting possessed the same power as music and that sign, line, and color ought to correspond to the vibrations of the human soul.

Kandinsky was born on Dec. 4, 1866, in Moscow; his father was a tea merchant. When he was 5 the family moved to Odessa. The young Kandinsky drew, wrote poems, and played the piano and the cello. Between 1886 and 1892 he studied law and economics at the University of Moscow. In 1889, as a member of an ethnographic mission to the Vologda district, he was highly impressed by the interior decorations of the village houses. In 1893 he accepted a position on the law faculty of the university.

Beginnings as an Artist

Only in 1896, when he was 30 years old, did Kandinsky decide to become an artist. Of importance for his artistic development was the exhibition of French impressionists in Moscow in 1895, particularly the works of Claude Monet. In Monet's paintings the subject matter played a secondary role to color. Reality and fairy tale intermixed—that was the secret of Kandinsky's early work, which was based on folk art, and it remained so even later although more intellectualized.

Between 1897 and 1899 Kandinsky attended the Azbé School of Painting in Munich, and in 1900 he was a pupil of Franz von Stuck. In 1901 Kandinsky founded the artists' group Phalanx and taught at their private art school. The following year he met the painter Gabriele Münter, with whom he lived until 1916. The works of his Phalanx period, from 1901 to 1904, are in the Jugendstil. In 1903 Kandinsky traveled to Venice, Odessa, and Moscow; in 1904 to Holland and Tunisia; in 1906 to Odessa and Rapallo. From 1905 on he was a member of the Salon d'Automne and the Salon des Indépendants. He spent 1906-1907 in Sèvres near Paris. He exhibited with the Brücke (Bridge) artists in Dresden and returned to Munich in 1908.

Kandinsky's early impressionist-inspired paintings and those of his Jugendstil period are strong in color, and color continued to dominate in his landscapes of Murnau, where he bought a house in 1909 (for example, Railway at Murnau, 1909-1910). He was one of the founders of the Neue Künstlervereinigung (New Artists' Associaton) in Munich in 1909, of which he became the chairman.

First Abstract Art

The year 1910 was crucial for Kandinsky and for world art. Kandinsky produced his first abstract watercolor, in which all elements of representation and association seem to have disappeared; he also wrote Über das Geistige in der Kunst (1912; Concerning the Spiritual in Art), the first theorization of a nonobjective form of art ever elaborated by an artist and his most influential treatise. He met Franz Marc in 1910, and in 1911, after a trip to Russia, he met Paul Klee, Jean Arp, and August Macke. Kandinsky and Marc founded the Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider) group in Munich in 1911 and exhibited with them. A second exhibition followed in 1912, and the Almanach Blauer Reiter was published. The exhibition was repeated in the Sturm Gallery in Berlin, for which a special Kandinsky album was issued.

In 1913 Kandinsky produced a series of color lithographs and prose poems Klänge (Sounds) and took part in the first Herbstsalon (Autumn Exhibition). The Blaue Reiter disbanded in 1914. In his early abstract works vehement linear strokes are combined with powerful patches of color, as in Composition V (1911) and With the Black Arch (1912).

Return to Russia

When World War I broke out, Kandinsky returned to Russia. In 1917 he married Nina Andreewsky. During the Russian Revolution the artist occupied an important post at the Commissariat of Popular Culture and at the Academy in Moscow. He organized 22 museums and became the director of the Museum of Pictorial Culture. In 1920 he was appointed professor at the University of Moscow. The following year he founded the Academy of Arts and Sciences and became its vice president. When, at the end of that year, the Soviet attitude to art changed, Kandinsky left Russia.

Years in Germany and France

In 1922 Kandinsky became a professor at the Bauhaus in Weimar. Together with Klee, Alexei von Jawlensky, and Lyonel Feininger he founded the Blaue Vier (Blue Four) group in 1924. When, in 1925, the Bauhaus moved to Dessau, Kandinsky moved with it. In 1926 he published the principles of his teaching in Punkt und Linie zur Fläche (Point and Line to Plane). His art from about 1920 to 1924 has been defined as his architectural period. The shapes are more precise than before; there are points, straight or broken lines, single or in bunches, and snakelike, radiating segments of circles; the color is cooler, more subdued, with occasional outbursts of earlier expressionist tonality. This period is exemplified in Composition VIII (1923). From 1925 to 1927 he emphasized circles in his paintings, as can be seen in Several Circles (1926).

Kandinsky became a German citizen in 1928, and the same year he designed sets for Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures from an Exhibition for the Dessau Theater. In 1929 Kandinsky held his first one-man show in Paris and traveled to Belgium and the French Riviera. In 1930 he had another exhibition in Paris. For the large architectural exhibition in Berlin of 1931 he produced wall decorations. When the Bauhaus was closed in 1932, Kandinsky moved to Berlin, and the following year he left for Paris.

Kandinsky's romantic, or concrete, period, from 1927 to 1933, in which his use of pictorial signs was abundant and his color was softer, is exemplified in Between the Light (1931). It led to the last phase of his art, that spent in France, which was an intellectual synthesis of his previous strivings.

Kandinsky settled in Neuilly-sur-Seine near Paris. He met Joan Miró, Robert Delaunay, and Piet Mondrian, and a friendship developed with Antoine Pevsner, Arp, and Alberto Magnelli. In 1939 Kandinsky became a French citizen. He died on Dec. 13, 1944, in Neuilly-sur-Seine. The paintings of his Paris period have a Russian splendor of color, a richness of formal invention, and a delightful humor, as in Composition X (1939), Sky Blue (1940), and Reciprocal Accord (1942).

Further Reading on Wassily Kandinsky

Kandinsky's views are in his Concerning the Spiritual in Art, and Painting in Particular (1912; trans. 1947). The most comprehensive study of Kandinsky is Will Grohmann, Wassily Kandinsky: Life and Work (trans. 1958). Max Bill, Wassily Kandinsky (1951), with articles by various contributors, contains important biographical and art-historical data. Paul Overy, Kandinsky: The Language of the Eye (1969), applies Gestalt psychological and philosophical viewpoints to the assessment of Kandinsky's art.