By Marc Gilson
In part one of our series we looked at how Claude Debussy’s unique approach to musical composition upended convention, and how Debussy himself was inspired by the scent of flowers, poetry, and painting. Now we’ll explore a Russian painter’s complex and stunning abstract works that drew their inspiration from folk art and music.
Alchemist of Color – Wassily Kandinsky
“Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammer, the soul is the piano with the strings.” — Wassily Kandinsky
Is there a spiritual element in both the process and product of art? Can art properly convey both the inner and outer experiences of the artist? Is there some “inner necessity” that compels an artist to delve into himself to draw out inspiration? And can the elements of music be synthesized with painting? At least once artist affirmed all of this about art, and much more.
Wassily Kandinsky was born in Moscow, December 16th, 1866 (though some scholars differ on his actual date of birth), the only child of his father, a tea merchant named Vasily, and his mother Lidia, a woman known for her beauty and intelligence. In time, Wassily Kandinsky would almost single-handedly launch the genre of abstract art and become one of the preeminent art theorists of his time. Though he wouldn’t pursue art as a career until the age of 30, Kandinsky would then quickly establish himself as a master of transcendent images and a forefather of both abstract art and modern graphic design. But the route to this success was unpredictable.
Even as a child, the young Wassily found himself enamored with color and was highly sensitive to its effects on thought and feeling. He described the first colors he could remember as, “lush bright green, white, carmine red, black, and ochre.”
In his youth, Kandinsky studied law and economics; not typical fields of interest for an artist. But at age 23, his life’s trajectory changed, although almost subliminally. Kandinsky was invited to take part in an ethnographic expedition to Vologda, a rural region north of Moscow, where he spent two months studying the customs and beliefs of the local villagers.
Immersed in the folk art and lore of these indigenous Russians, Kandinsky was mesmerized. In particular, he was taken with the way in which the buildings and objects were painted with bright, vibrant colors, often against dark backgrounds (a theme Kandinsky would echo in many of his later works). Upon entering the buildings and houses of the region, he claimed to be struck by the distinct impression of having stepped into a painting.
Besides the houses and other structures of the local villages, every piece of furniture and knickknack grabbed his attention. Often, the individual objects and curios he found on the shelves were so heavily and brightly painted he could barely tell what they were, as though the object had dissolved or given way to the colors it wore. For one so sensitive to color, this proved to be an immersive and powerful few weeks. His experiences studying Russian folk art would be among the first seeds to eventually flower into the absorbing works with which Kandinsky’s name would become associated.
The cliched story line we’d expect to see would have Kandinsky abandoning his law studies in a fit of inspired self-realization to don a smock, pick up a palette, and live the life of the starving but brilliant artist. Instead, he dutifully continued his schooling and in 1891 he passed his final law exams.
But five years later, he would have two epiphanies that would finally awaken the latent artist within, and change both Kandinsky’s personal life and the very future of art.
In 1896, Kandinsky stood in a Moscow gallery staring at Monet’s “Haystacks” in which it appeared to him that Monet used color as an entity independent of the subject itself. The “haystacks” he was expected to observe were clouded somehow by this use of color. Of this watershed moment Kandinsky tried to explain: “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 dimly 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.”
Again, as with the folk art in his native Russia, Kandinsky was confronted by Monet’s painting with the notion that the perception of the subject matter of a painting could be influenced deeply by color. He realized that the sense an object conveyed by a painting was something that could be constructed in the mind of the observer – the abstract shapes and colors on the canvass not only acting as modifiers of the object, but determinant in and of themselves. Obviously, not an easy thing to explain, and yet so clear and obvious to Kandinsky that he would devote the rest of his life to seeking ways to express it.
The second watershed moment came, also in 1896, when he attended a performance of Richard Wagner’s opera Lohengrin at the Bolshoi theater in Moscow. It was during this performance that Kandinsky experienced a transposition of senses; hearing color and seeing sound, a singular and odd experience that enveloped him and replaced his ability to discern the individual elements in favor of the whole.
Like Debussy, Kandinsky may have experienced a literal synesthesia: cross-sensory perception where the visual becomes the heard, and the colors take on audible tones. Of the performance, he said, “I saw all my colors in my mind. Wild lines verging on the insane formed drawings before my very eyes.”
What Kandinsky did not realize at that time was that he and the composer of Lohengrin were very much kindred spirits where art was concerned. Or perhaps he did sense it. As Kandinsky would soon describe in his own terms, Wagner had already described through his music in epic proportions; the perfection of expression through a synthesis of poetic, musical, dramatic, and visual art forms. For Wagner, this was reflected in his majestic and richly symbolic operatic series Der Ring des Nibelugen (The Ring of the Nibelung, commonly called “The Ring Cycle”).
The effect of Wagner’s music on Kandinsky was no accident; the German composer was known for drawing on dramatic and theatrical elements to construct music designed to be as much an emotional experience as an aural one.
Art and music was not the only place Kandinsky found inspiration. He was also influenced by the work of esoteric philosopher Rudolf Steiner and that of H. P. Blavatsky, the chief proponent of Theosophy. Theosophy held, among other things, that underpinning a comprehension of nature was an understanding of a geometric progression of points beginning with a single point. Hence an understanding of nature was possible via geometry, the meaning of a single point only being properly understood relative to another point, and another, and so on. This would prove to be another important idea Kandinsky (and a few other artists) would realize and put to use, especially later in his career. For Kandinsky, Theosophy provided the basis for his belief in the link between art, science, and spirituality. But as he had by now realized, it would only be through his painting that these ideas could be properly demonstrated.
To solidify the shift in his intentions, 1896 also saw Kandinsky enrolled in art school in Munich. By this time he was already relatively well-established in law and economics, which some music historians believe provided him with both a financial and psychological advantage over some of his younger, more reckless (and destitute) school mates. He was to be an artist, but not a starving one.
However, in spite of his new artistic interests, Kandinsky did not thrive in art school. He was preoccupied with notions about art not found in the textbooks or lectures of his instructors. Still, a diligent student, he improved his methods while indulging in his own experimentation. He learned from some of his more enlightened teachers how to discern the essence of a subject, find the inner language necessary to express it, and then execute the painting as a kind of sacred act. This was not simply dabbing blobs of paint on a canvass until something pleasant appeared to the eye. It was, for Kandinsky, an alchemical process; mystical, ineffable, and personal. And although his early work was conventional by most standards, it hinted at Kandinsky’s emerging genius.
Kandinsky was as interested in art theory as in producing great works himself. He wrote many hundreds of pages on art, its process, its perception, and its perfection. He was fascinated by the idea of creating art, not as an act of manufacturing, but as a feat of mining one’s inner world for inspiration and bringing the results of that exploration into a tangible medium.
In Munich, 1911, Kandinsky along with several other emerging influential Expressionist painters (including Paul Klee and Franz Marc), founded Der Blaue Reiter, an art almanac which, among other things, gave Kandinsky a platform from which to express his ideas. The almanac’s name was taken from one of Kandinsky’s own paintings (“The Blue Rider”). Blue, to Kandinsky, was a very important color as it represented the spiritual within art.
Der Blaue Reiter was largely a Kandinsky-driven project. It espoused the ideals Kandinsky’s name would soon become associated with: the connection between painting and music, the symbolism of color, the value of geometry, and, perhaps most importantly, the suffusion of the spiritual with the artistic.
But the publication wouldn’t last long; the outbreak of WWI caused the members of Der Blaue Reiter to scatter and retire to safer havens than Munich provided. Some less fortunate, like Franz Marc, would be killed in combat. Kandinsky survived and returned to Russia. But in spite of Der Bleue Reiter’s briefly influential lifespan it was not Kandinsky’s only outlet for ideas. He also published Concerning the Spiritual in Art, a short but weighty treatise in which Kandinsky makes his case for a revolution in art. Densely conceptual and abstract, it remains today as much a philosophical manifesto as a book about art.
Kandinsky also taught for a time at the highly influential Bauhaus school starting in about 1920 where he not only continued to disseminate his theories but also absorbed those of other peer artists working on the cutting edge of what was fast becoming a relevant and potent artistic movement.
More than just viewing Kandinsky’s paintings, it’s really by reading his writings that it seems clear he cannot be considered a typical artist. Instead, Kandinsky was both a kind of mystic and spiritual engineer when it came to art. He wanted to know how art “ticked,” and was willing to deconstruct the process all the way down to the soul level of the artist to find out just how it worked. What constituted inspiration for Kandinsky existed on a metaphysical level more than just the understanding of methods one might use for rendering images. To create art, things had to happen in space and time and Kandinsky strove see these gears and wheels turning from the inside of that very process. Kandinsky insisted on the need to delve beneath the realm of the physical subject when painting, and to instead portray the interplay between the outer and inner worlds. He was less interested in technique, and much more interested in the mysterious and esoteric process by which some inner element of an artist’s soul manifests and concretizes as a real piece of art.
His abstract work, for which he is ultimately best known, was not a result of his skills as a technical painter, but rather as a kind of liberation of himself from the confines of proper form, and a release of this expression through color and shape. To capture a form in painting was mere mimicry and child’s play to Kandinsky, and little more than a trained skill anybody could learn. On the other hand, to free up the essence of that form through imagination or spiritual reflection was a true talent and what Kandinsky viewed as the highest aim of art. For Kandinsky, painting was an adventure, albeit an often laborious one. And it resulted in some of the most innovative and startling use of color and shape ever seen. His colors soars and intertwined. His shapes merged and collided. Kandinsky was, in a sense, a maestro of organized chaos on the canvass.
Kandinsky’s views on art are often richly esoteric and sometimes a bit ill-defined, making a study of his work both incredibly absorbing and occasionally frustrating. Critics of Kandinsky sometimes assert that, all things considered, it is Kandinsky’s ideas about art that prove more important than the art he produced. Although one could spend years studying his ideas, for the purposes of our brief tour of Kandinsky’s approach to art we can narrow our focus to Kandinsky’s own definition of three different kinds of paintings that give us a glimpse into how Kandinsky saw art. These three forms are: Impressions, Improvisations, and Compositions.
Let’s read about them in Kandinsky’s own words:
1) A direct impression of outward nature, expressed in purely artistic form. This I call an “Impression.”
2) A largely unconscious, spontaneous expression of inner character, the nonmaterial nature. This I call an “Improvisation.”
3) 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.”
While the first two kinds of painting are interesting, it is primarily the third concept that came to preoccupy Kandinsky’s artistic efforts for the rest of his life. The idea of a painting as a “composition” contained layers of meaning for Kandinsky. As we already know he had become acutely aware of the link between music and color. Hence, in one sense, to produce a “Composition” was to create a visual representation of music, a visual symphony. It’s easy to see this at work in some of Kandinky’s Compositions, the bold colors and twisting shapes often interacting with sharp angles and geometric symmetry, an orchestration of amorphous forms and vivid hues that invoke the same senses of melody, harmony, and dissonance one perceives in music.
Kandinsky felt strongly that a Composition was the ultimate artistic and spiritual culmination of expression. He viewed the creation of a Composition as a process of transfiguration from subject to pure painting. And creating one was not an easy task.
Before he had even painted the first Composition, Kandinsky believed it was what he was meant to do. “The very word ‘composition’ called forth in me an inner vibration. I made it my aim to paint a “composition.”
In all, Kandinsky would produce ten Compositions. The first seven he painted during an intensely creative period between 1909 and 1913. The first three of these were intentionally destroyed by Nazis during WWII (part of their campaign to eliminate so-called “degenerate art”) although black and white photographs of them survive. The rest remain as quintessential abstract masterpieces, each with a kind of life of its own in the mind of the viewer.
To attempt to define the meanings behind any one of the Compositions is to be surrounded by the myriad of classical, esoteric, and eclectic elements inhabiting Kandinsky’s imagination. As such, these works carry a definite dream-like quality, as though looking through a window into the subconscious. Stare at a Kandinsky Composition long enough, and one begins to perceive rather unusual things. Faces come and go, images fade in and out like seeing animals in the clouds, geometric patterns emerge and then dissolve, and in the end, a totally unique animistic experience lingers in memory.
Kandinsky would often work to the point of mental and physical exhaustion on his Compositions, frequently making dozens of pencil sketches and studies, testing different color combinations, or adjusting the dimensions and positions of forms he chose to incorporate, before ever painting the final version. Like the alchemist he was, forever measuring, mixing, heating, cooling, and combining his shapes and colors, Kandinsky pushed himself to discover the inner essence of every part of his painting, and render it, sometimes boldly, sometimes in a kind of diffuse haze.
Kandinsky would sometimes ruminate for days on a specific choice about a certain color, the proper shape or position of some geometric proportion. What often appears at first glance to be a rather aimless mess of color and reckless geometry is, in fact, the result of much careful planning and is executed with absolute intention.
Painting Compositions was for Kandinsky an all-consuming passion. Once, while in the throes of typhoid fever, Kandinsky said he was overcome with a vision of a completed painting; a painting which would become Composition II. Like so many remarkably talented individuals, the key for Kandinsky was simply getting onto the canvass what was already there, somewhere, in his unconscious.
In viewing the Compositions in sequence, it’s possible to follow the progression of Kandinsky’s own evolving process, both artistically and, it can be argued, spiritually. While the first seven works show wild blendings of color, and shapes hovering over or melting into one another, some appearing to emerge from the 2D surface of the canvass and others almost shyly hiding from the observer, Compositions VIII, IX, and X show something new. While VII was done in 1913, it would be ten years before Kandinsky would finish VIII. By that time, Kandinsky had finally found a satisfactory way to incorporate geometry into his work.
Hence, the final three Compositions, unlike the previous seven, use circles, triangles, strong, clean lines, and are almost whimsical in comparison to previous Compositions. This new use of form was, for Kandinsky, another step toward his idealized vision of art, but perhaps a step taken in new shoes. We already learned that Kandinsky always had a certain fascination with geometry, albeit more as an esoteric component than a mathematical element (as with his interest in Theosophy). Now he was, perhaps unwittingly, creating the very foundations for what would become graphic design, animation, and modern art.
Still, Kandinsky managed to demonstrate the fluidity of his theories by applying all the same principles to geometric renditions as he had with his more impressionistic work. Rather than wild swirls of color, there were checkerboards and circles now, sharp lines, clearly defined 2D objects. But while markedly different, these images would, like their predecessors, generate an atmosphere of mood and musicality.
Kandinsky proved that whether painting images of an impressionistic angel or a simple square, there was always, always, more than meets the casual eye. Perhaps a tad presumptuously, he called the result of these later Compositions, “The Great Synthesis,” and it remains as both a mysterious artistic legacy and a powerful springboard into the modern age of jazz art, abstract art, art deco, graphic arts, and, rather unexpectedly maybe, music video (which, at its highest form, sought to convey the potency of a musical piece via a visual medium).
Art historians and connoisseurs have put in a lot of effort dissecting and analyzing Kandinsky’s “Compositions.” It’s tempting to do, as these ten pieces seem like inexhaustible sources of information and insight into deeply intriguing ideas bridging art, music, history, and spirit. Themes like Christ’s resurrection, the Noahic deluge, human rebirth, and the apocalypse beg for iconographic interpretations or at least psychological inquiry.
But in the end, perhaps it’s best to simply engage the enigmatic Compositions as Kandinsky himself did – as gateways of color and form leading into another realm of the senses, where symphonies of symbolism and feeling carry us away and into a world beyond ourselves.