Tomorrow is the birthday of Wassily Kandinsky, who is one of my favourites, so here is a quick recap.
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. He grew up in a bourgois, cultured family and learned to play the piano and the cello. In 1886 he began to study law and economics at the Moscow University. After passing his exams he started a teaching career at the Moscow Faculty of Law. He had many interests and apparently a great gift to teach himself different skills.
In 1895 Kandinsky saw an exhibition of French impressionists in Moscow with paintings of Monet and others. He was at first confused and would later described how upset he was about Monet’s painting The haystack. He thought that the painter had no right to paint things in a way that made it difficult to recognize the subject. In 1896, at the age of thirty, he decided to start a new career as an artist and went to Munich in Southern Germany. He enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts for four years until 1900. The art of Kandinsky established itself rather fast from 1903 on through many exhibitions in Europe. In 1911 he formed together with other ex-pressionist painters the group Der Blaue Reiter. Other members of the group were the Swiss painter Paul Klee, Franz Marc, August Macke, Gabriele Münter, Alexei von Jawlensky and Alfred Kubin. Kandinsky was the leading head of the group together with Franz Marc. His dominant position was not always to the delight of the other members.
Kandinsky became the theorist of abstract painting. In 1910 he created his first abstract work – a watercolor. In 1912 he published a book on the theory of abstraction. The Blue Rider had only a short life due to the outbreak of World War I. In 1914 Kandinsky returned to Russia where he stayed until 1921. In 1922 he came back to Germany to teach and work at the Bauhaus in Dessau until 1933. During the years at the Bauhaus the artist had his most productive and prolific time.
When the German Nazis came to power in 1933, all modern art was considered as entartet (degenerated art) and the Bauhaus was closed in 1933. Kandinsky’s works were removed from German museums and confiscated. The artist’s next destination was Neuiily near Paris where he remained until his death in 1944. At the time of his emigration to France, he was a well-established artist in the United States. Salomon Guggenheim became one of his collectors. Wassily Kandinsky continuously developed his style over the years but never made any abrupt changes as for instance Pablo Picasso did. His early paintings were expressive, colorful compositions but figural. The style reminds of Henri Matisse. From around 1910 the transition to abstract painting can be recognized. The figural elements were more and more reduced and finally they disappeared completely. Like a musician, he titled his art works impressions, compositions or improvisations. From around 1920 on, his style became rather geometrical.
Kandinsky’s youth and life in Moscow brought inspiration from a variety of sources. As a child he would later recall being fascinated and unusually stimulated with color. This is probably due to his synaesthesia which allowed him to quite literally hear as well as see color. The fascination with color continued as he grew up in Moscow, although he seems to have made no attempt to study art. In 1889 he was part of an ethnographic group that traveled to the Vologda region north of Moscow. His study of the folk art in the region, in particular the use of bright colors on a dark background was reflected in his early work. Kandinsky would write a few years later that ‘Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with the strings’.
Along with Piet Mondriaan and Kazimir Malevich, Kandinsky is considered a pioneer in abstract art, undoubtedly the most famous. He was a synaesthete who could, quite literally, hear colors. This effect of color was a major influence on his art, and he even named some of his paintings “improvisations” and “compositions” as if they were works of music and not painting. Works by Kandinsky have been recently sold for as much as US$25 million. Probably the largest collection of his paintings may be seen in the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.