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Sunday, December 04, 2016

Abstraction Turns 150: A Vasily Kandinsky Art Gallery

by Alice E.M. Underwood

Vasily Kandinsky, born December 4, 1866, is known as one of the first abstract painters. But there’s a lot more to his artwork than pretty shapes and colors. Kandinsky was an art theorist who believed that the visual language of abstraction allowed for more meaningful, even spiritual expression of universal emotions and ideas. A successful lawyer until he quit at age 30 to start painting, Kandinsky played with symbolism, musically inspired compositions, and complex geometries to create an innovative and expressive artistic world.

He wrote:

"Of all the arts, abstract painting is the most difficult. It demands that you know how to draw well, that you have a heightened sensitivity for composition and for colors, and that you be a true poet. This last is essential." (artstory)

From his early loose representative works to the explosions of geometric color he came to favor, Kandinsky was a prolific poet. His first pieces are recognizable representations of the world we live in, but with a touch of unreality (he cited Monet as an early influence).

Akhtyrka, 1901

As he developed his personal style, his flair for disjunctions became more pronounced, with color increasingly disconnected from forms, and forms increasingly unrecognizable as rooted in reality.

Street in Murnau, 1908
Eastern Suite (Arabs III), 1908
Herbslandschaft mit Booten, 1908

By the end of the first decade of the 1900s, Kandinsky had made his mark. In 1911 he formed the Blue Rider group (Der Blaue Reiter), joined by other artists who focused on abstract art and aesthetics of the interior rather than exterior world.

During this time, the link between music and creativity became especially pronounced for Kandinsky; he named some of his more intricate pieces “compositions,” and his more spontaneous works “improvisations.”

In 1911, he wrote:

"Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul."

Composition VII, 1913

While Composition VII is one of Kandinsky’s most famous swirls of shapes and colors, and is widely recognized as intertwining the musical with the visual in a non-representational manner, his other works of the period are also evocative of structured yet fluid melodies.

Moscow Red Square, 1916 (wassilykandinsky.net)

After a brief return to Russia in 1914, where he contributed to developing art education and museum reform in the young years of the Soviet Union, Kandinsky tired of attacks on “irrationality in art” and returned to Germany in 1921.

There he joined the Bauhaus, a modernist, construction-focused art school in Germany in existence 1919-1933. In addition to teaching basic design and advanced theory to art students, he experienced a surge in artistic productivity of his own. His creations continued to be abstract, but gained new precision as Kandinsky increased his attention to planes, geometric forms, and a refined use of color.

Circles in a Circle, 1923 (wassilykandinsky.net)
Yellow – Red – Blue, 1925

In Yellow – Red – Blue in particular, the harmony of the forms and colors on the canvas, as well as their specific positions in the work, were seen to indicate a new level of expertise for the artist.

With the Nazis on the rise in the early 1930s, Kandinsky left Germany and settled in Paris, where he set to work with softer colors and what he called “biomorphic elements,” which critics have seen as representing the height of Kandinsky’s expressive visual language. Kandinsky referred to this creative period as a "really a picturesque fairy tale."

Composition IX, 1936
Striped, 1934 (guggenheim.org)
Sky Blue, 1940

But the fairy tale was not to last: Kandinsky faced shortages of art materials in his final years as war overtook Paris. He died in 1944, leaving a legacy of spirited and spiritual abstraction that he understood through a complex web of art theory, but can be enjoyed simply for the powerful juxtapositions of shapes and colors in his lively, musical world of visual creativity.

At the core of his artistic theory was a belief that abstraction could explain, but also transcend the real world. 

"Abstract art places a new world, which on the surface has nothing to do with 'reality,' next to the 'real' world. Deeper down, it is subject to the common laws of the 'cosmic world.' And so a 'new world of art' is juxtaposed to the 'world of nature.' This 'world of art' is just as real, just as concrete. For this reason I prefer to call so-called 'abstract art' 'concrete art.'"

Unless otherwise noted, works pictured are in the public domain in Russia and accessed via wikimedia.org.

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