I have an affinity for paintings with music or musicians as subject matter, so I started out looking for an artist who shared my fascination with this art-within-art theme of music in painting.
Vasily Kandinsky was born December 4, 1866 in Moscow. He completed a full education in law before deciding to become a painter and was thirty years old when he went to Munich to begin his art studies. In his autobiography, Kandinsky recalled seeing Monet’s Haystacks, in which he felt color was more important than the objective subject matter, which may have been part of the impetus for the abrupt change.
While Kandinsky was beginning to develop technical artistic skills, he was more advanced in his understanding of aesthetics and artistic philosophy. He taught art and published essays and reviews before becoming known as an artist. His early independent work, dating to about 1900, depicted landscapes and shows the development of his ability to capture the real, visible world around him. During this phase, he painted The Blue Rider (below). He travelled much and dabbled with various artistic styles and methods, including Impressionism, Art Nouveau, and Neo-Impressionism.
In 1908, Kandinsky’s paintings began to take on a different quality, reflecting a clarification of his analytical thought, and perhaps a reconciliation of his artistic philosophy with his artistic ability. Paintings have a cleaner application of color, and there is less concern with verisimilitudes- over time, objects became more abstracted and increasingly expressive, and colors and shapes became autonomous from actual objects. In these pre-WWI years, Kandinsky completed the first seven of the ten oil paintings he titled Compositions – Composition VII is shown below.
With his foundation in artistic theory and his newfound power of abstract expression, Kandinsky became the leader of an influential avant-garde movement. He helped form create two art associations, the Munich New Artists’ Association in1909 and the Blue Rider in 1911. He also published his principal theoretical treatise, titled On the Spiritual in Art. This document envisioned an ultimate form of art, in which music, color, and movement were fused on stage. It also argues for abstraction, which Kandinsky saw as a means for the human spirit to triumph over material.
Kandinsky’s painting took a new turn in the post-WWI years. Outlines and shapes became more cleanly defined, and the perfect circle, later a reoccurring theme, was introduced. In 1922, Kandinsky became a teacher in the Bauhaus school, which reunited the fine arts with the crafts. His Bauhaus style became distinct from both his earlier and later work – it featured floating geometric shapes – circles, wedges, lines, grids, half-letters, crescents, and other fragments. An example highlighting Kandinsky’s frequent use of circles is Several Circles, below.
With increasing attacks from rightist political attacks in Germany, the Bauhaus school closed, and Kandinsky escaped to Paris. Here, his art made its final transformation, with the “amoeba” shape becoming central to his works. Kandinsky began to favor biomorphic shapes, irregular lines, and paler colors. An example from this time period is Reciprocal Accord, shown below.
Messer, Thomas M. Kandinsky. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1997.
Weiss, Peg. Kandinsky and Old Russia: The Artist as Ethnographer and Shaman. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1995.