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Wassily Kandinsky – the Father of Abstract Art

Wassily Kandinsky wearing a suit and tie

Wassily Kandinsky – a representative of the avant-garde world, one of the founders of the abstract painting. He was the first to create the theory based on the principles of new art. His largely autobiographical painting has passed the difficult path from the subject to the abstract through personal upheavals and tragedies of the era. Kandinsky was an eternal wanderer and a “one-man-band”, whose philosophy inspired many generations of artists, from Bauhaus students to representatives of post-war abstract expressionism.

Wassily Kandinsky wearing a suit and tie

What was the life of Kandinsky before he became an artist?

Wassily Kandinsky was born in Moscow on December 16, 1866. The boy was brought up in a multicultural environment from early childhood. His mother was a Baltic German, his father was a merchant of the first guild from an ancient family near Lake Baikal. When Wassily was five years old, the family moved to Odessa because of the poor health of his father. In Odessa, Wassily studied at the Grekov Art College. After graduating from Odessa gymnasium, Kandinsky chose a lawyer’s career typical of a young man from an intelligent family. He returned to his native Moscow and entered the law faculty of Moscow University. The next 10 years of his life, the artist devoted to law, the national economy and ethnography.

a man and a woman sitting on a bed

How did Wassily Kandinsky start his career as a painter?

Wassily Kandinsky decided to become an artist at the age of 30. It was 1895. An exhibition of impressionists was held in Moscow. One of the exhibited paintings was “Haystack” by Claude Monet, which rocked Kandinsky to the very core. The future reformer of the artistic language guessed what was on the canvas only after reading the title of the work. Inspired and full of new ideas, he went to Munich – one of the centers of European art of that time.
a large green field with trees in the background

Blue rider, 1903, Private Collection

What was the “Der Blaue Reiter” movement?

In Europe, Kandinsky met with Alexei Yavlensky, Ivan Bilibin, Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, Igor Grabar. He received his first skills in building composition, working with form and color in Anton Azhbe’s private studio. Kandinsky entered the Munich Academy of Arts. Several times he participated in exhibitions of the “The Jack of Diamonds” society. In 1909, together with Franz Marc, Wassily Kandinsky founded the famous “Der Blaue Reiter” (The Blue Rider) movement. The organization contributed to the development of abstract art with the aim to free art from strict academicism. Kandinsky explained the name of the movement as follows: “We both loved blue, Mark loved horses, I – riders …”

What was the first abstract painting by Wassily Kandinsky?

The first non-figurative work of Kandinsky, which initiated a new movement in art, was the watercolor painting “Untitled” created in 1910. Today you can see it in Paris in the Centre Georges Pompidou.

a map of a book

First abstract watercolor, 1910, Georges Pompidou Center, Paris, France

What was the special color perception of Wassily Kandinsky?

Wassily Kandinsky was a synesthetic. The colors were associated with very specific sounds for him. So, he said that “the blue color, represented musically, looks like a cello; darkening, it resembles the sounds of double bass, and in the deepest and most solemn form – the low sounds of the organ”, the red colour “sounds like a trumpet or like the beats of a timpani”, and the white colour “influences the human psyche as a great silence, musically corresponding to pauses.” Perhaps this is due to such a talent that Kandinsky was able to compose real color symphonies.

How did Wassily Kandinsky unite painting and music? 

Wassily Kandinsky supported the theory of interaction and association of various types of art. He played the piano and cello, loved the theater and dreamed of combining color, music and stage. Even the names of his works sounded like music – “compositions” and “improvisations”.
Back in the 1910s, Kandinsky created four stage compositions: “Green Sound”, “Purple Curtain”, “Black and White” and “Yellow Sound”. The latter was considered the most significant and interesting. The libretto was published in “ the Blue Rider” almanac in 1912.

a man talking on a cell phone

Kandinsky had a cat named Vaska. There is a cute photo made in the garden with his ginger cat Vaska.

The outbreak of World War I forced Kandinsky, as a citizen of Russia, to return to his homeland. Wassily girlfriend Gabrielle stayed in Munich. But a year later 50-year-old artist got acquainted on the phone with the 17-year-old highly educated daughter of the Russian general Nina Andreevskaya. First, he fell in love with her voice, and after the meeting, they started to live together and got married in 1917. Despite the judgement of the community, Nina remained the faithful wife to Kandinsky for almost 30 years, until his death.

a fabric surface

Composition VI, 1913, Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia

How did the Revolution influence Wassily Kandinsky? 

Kandinsky, after returning to his homeland first was full of enthusiasm regarding the October Revolution. In the beginning, the Bolsheviks actively supported leftist movements in art. The artist even tried to collaborate with the Soviet regime, but soon realized that he was not on the way with the proletarian dictatorship as he was the descendant of the nobles and a cosmopolitan. In 1921 he returned to Germany.

What are the most famous paintings by Kandinsky?

We already mentioned the painting “Untitled”, but we want to tell you about a few more canvases. Without them neither Kandinsky’s work nor abstract art as a movement are unthinkable. The artist originally wanted to call “Composition VI” as “Flood”, and you may really see the outlines of the wreckage and sinking objects in some forms. Subsequently, the artist said that it was wrong to create a specific motive in painting because the external was still dissolved in the internal. Many experts consider  “Composition VII” to be the peak of Kandinsky’s art. Several themes overlap with each other – from resurrection to Judgment Day. “Composition VIII” is noticeably different from previous works by the artist with similar names, because here we see clear geometric shapes. By the way, it was in the description of this picture that Kandinsky compared colors with sounds.

a group of colorful graffiti

Composition VII, 1913, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia

What was the connection of Wassily Kandinsky to the Bauhaus school?

Walter Gropius, the founder of the Higher School of Construction and Art Design (Bauhaus 1922 – 1932), invited Kandinsky to head the workshop of wall painting. Along with teaching, Wassily Kandinsky published the book “Point and line on the plane” participated in exhibitions in the United States and lectured there.

More geometry appeared in his painting especially circles: “The circle that I use so often lately can be called a romantic one. And the present romance is much deeper, more beautiful, more substantial and more beneficial: it is a piece of ice in which fire burns. And if people feel only cold and don’t feel fire – too bad for them … “

In 1932, the National Socialists who came to power in Germany closed the Bauhaus – and the Kandinsky couple moved to France where Kandinsky died in 1944. 

Three paintings of the Compositions series by Kandinsky were among the works put on display in the infamous “Degenerate Art” exhibition in Munich in 1937 organized by Nazi. Kandinsky’s paintings were then destroyed.

a close up of a map

Composition VIII, 1923, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City

How do you like paintings by Kandinsky? Share your impressions!

Wassily Kandinsky wanted each person to have his own associations with his works, that may be the reason for such faceless titled to his works of art.