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: Wassily Kandinsky and the Origins of Non-Objective Painting


Sam Sachs II



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Abstraction in art as a method of expressing reality has become so familiar to us today that its origin is frequently overlooked. In one sense it would appear as if it had been freshly developed, and in another it has always existed. But in terms of 20th-century painting one figure has historically been given credit for giving birth to the movement that only in recent years has reached its maturity. That figure is Wassily Kandinsky.Kandinsky, who was born in Moscow in December of 1866, was seventy-eight when he died. During his lifetime he was a citizen of three countries,1 a teacher, an author, an innovator, an organizer of two major art movements, and an artist of the first caliber even though he did not decide upon his career until he was past thirty. He produced now carefully documented oeuvre of staggering growth and complexity of which ranges from the realism of the turn of the century to his fully developed personal and abstract expressiveness at the end of the Second World War. His influence on the history of modern art is yet to be fully calculated.Kandinsky's early years in Russia involved his schooling first in Odessa, where his family moved in 1871, and later in Moscow where he studied for the bar. He travelled within his homeland and fully absorbed its traditions and folklore, a fact that was to be evident in his work throughout his life. It was not until 1895, when he visited the major retrospective exhibition of French Impressionists held in Moscow, that he became aware of his growing preoccupation with art. In the following year when he was offered a faculty position at the University of Dorpat, he refused and went instead to Munich to begin his study of art. In 1897 he entered the school of Anton Azbé, where he met his countryman Alexej von Jawlensky, and in 1900 moved on to the Munich Academy and the classes of Franz von Stuck where Paul Klee, his life-long friend, and Franz Marc were also enrolled. His career had begun.His early works grow both out of his training in a Germany engrossed in the then dominant Jugendstil and his own fanciful interpretation of traditional Slavic imagery. It was during this period that he founded the Phalanx group, a short-lived gallery/school, whose importance here lies less in its artistic activities than in the fact that it was there that Kandinsky first met the artist Gabriele Munter, his companion-to-be for many years to come.Between 1903 and 1908 Kandinsky, while officially living in Munich, travelled widely. Four months were spent in Tunisia in 1904-1905 and a year in Sévres near Paris (June 1906 to June 1907). It was at this time that he became familiar with the avant-garde work going on outside Germany; the advances being made by the Post-Impressionists Van Gogh and Gauguin and the Fauves Matisse and Derain impressed him greatly. His own works were in fact exhibited at the now famous third Salon d'Automme of 1905 in Paris where the Fauves were born and named.Kandinsky's works now took on a more and more personal colorism and romanticism. This trend had begun before his exposure to the French innovators but was nonetheless given impetus by the knowledge of their existence. As in so many areas, new ideas seem to crop up spontaneously in different locations without interinfluence. Unlike the Fauves Kandinsky seemed to concentrate more on amorphous areas of color, eschewing harshly defined outlines. He also took a far greater interest in the interior "meaning" of his pictures. He was becoming in the truest sense of the word an expressionist and continuously moved away from objective representation.This was a crucial period in Kandinsky's life. His realization that his art was going in an exciting new direction was confirmed by contemporaries in Munich who were similarly involved, but together they were frustrated by the age-old problem of their inability to gain the support of the galleries. Thus in 1909 Kandinsky became chairman of a new group which called itself The New Association of Munich Artists and which included Jawlensky and Munter.2 These artists shared an outlook that was increasingly personal and inner directed, and Kandinsky himself moved ever closer to the spiritual and eventually the non-objective in art.Artistically perhaps the most important year of Kandinsky's life was 1910. It was a dramatic year elsewhere as well. It was the year that the Berlin Secession featured Manet's 1867 Execution of Emporer Maximillian at its exhibition and served only to point out once and for all how hopelessly retardataire was that organization. It resulted in the foundation of the New Secession—yet another indication of the impatience and vitality of the era. It was the year of early Cubist paintings, the year of the American Arthur Dove's first abstractions, and also the year of Kandinsky's first totally abstract watercolor. It was also the year Kandinsky wrote his book Concerning the Spiritual in Art.3 Perhaps most important, for the purposes of this article it was the year Kandinsky painted Study for Improvisation V.4This painting is one of those key works which allows us to see not only where an artist has been but also where he is going; and since Kandinsky went so tremendously far and is still, in effect, taking people with him, the importance is thus magnified. This work stands just at the turning point between the realistic and the abstract, the objective and the subjective, and thus must therefore stand not only as a monument in the artist's oeuvre but also in the history of modern painting.It is a study for a larger work now pronounced destroyed by its former owner, The Smolensk Museum. But it is so carefully conceived and painted that it is in no way inferior to finished works of the same period. It is in the work of an artist struggling to free himself of what he felt were the bonds of a traditionalism tied to objectivity. Yet at the same time the artist is trying to imbue his statement with the traditional traits of emotion and spiritualism, although these latter were not always considered as being within the province of painting.The landscapes Kandinsky referred to as Improvisations began in 1909 and reached thirty-five in number by 1914. They come closest to the ideals expounded in his Concerning the Spiritual in Art. They have their origins in personal emotional expression and only rely in a secondary manner on nature itself. The colors used have a strong and intentionally direct relationship to the emotions projected.
[A painting] is only well painted if its spiritual value is completed and satisfying. "Good drawing" is drawing that can not be altered without destruction of this inner value, quite irrespective of its correctness as anatomy, botany, or any other science. This is not a question of a violation of natural form, but of the need of the artist for such a form. Similarly, colors are not used because they are true to only justified in using, but is under a moral obligation to use, only those forms which fulfill his own need. Absolute freedom from anatomy or anything else of the kind must be given to the artist in his choice of means. Such a spiritual freedom is as necessary in art as it is in life.5
The spiritual element which impressed Kandinsky so much at this time came in part from having been introduced to Theosophy. Several of his acquaintances in Munich were investigating the tennets of this somewhat occult movement which had direct relationships to Indian philosophy and claimed special insight into the nature of the divine. These ideas found a particularly receptive listener in Kandinsky who himself, in his art, was attempting to renounce the natural and achieve the sublime. As Theosophists felt that divinity itself was the true nature of existence so too did Kandinsky feel that painting was the real subject of a picture. Thus his increasing non-objectivity could, in a way, lead only to pure abstraction."Improvisation" itself is an abstract title and has strong overtones of musical composition. This is hardly unintentional, for we know that the composer Schoenberg was a friend of Kandinsky from 1906 and both shared the creative conception of "inner necessity." In the words of the musician, "The artist does not create that which others think beautiful but that which he finds necessary to create."Kandinsky relates how, one evening at dusk, he entered his studio and was astounded to see, propped up against a wall, a painting of most fantastic beauty which he had never seen before. It glowed in the half light and seemed to convey, with its mysterious colors and unidentifiable forms, everything he had been attempting without success. It was with both consternation and delight that he discovered that his painting was in fact one of his own, resting on its side and obscured by the gloom of twilight. This experience served to convince him of the primacy of color and form and the uselessness of detail.It is in this frame of reference that we must consider the Minneapolis painting. At first appearance it is a conglomeration of colors and forms and conveys no direct statement about reality. This must have been especially true in 1910 when anyone viewing it would have not have had, as we, the benefit of a half-century of visual experience in looking at abstract compositions. The picture must be seen for the innovation it was, for the truly revolutionary concepts it espoused.It is basically a landscape, however, and on close inspection is still tied to the world of reality. In the right foreground is a woman in blue looking at or working in a garden, the flowers of which are in full bloom at the left. Further, there are trees, bushes, and plants everywhere about. Clearly it is late spring or summer, and the joyous fecundity of the season is fully expressed in the exuberant colorism. In the background, in a motif used consistently by Kandinsky until 1912, are two horsemen vaulting a fence. They recall elements of Russian folklore, the freedom of the Steppes, and add to the generally fluid and happy feeling.Kandinsky has expressed these feelings, however, less through the use of recognizable elements than through the harmony of his color scheme. He well understood that reds and yellows are warm and moving colors while blue and purple tend to be cool and stable. Between these he constructs his balance. Further, the shapes that contain these colors add to the total effect; some of the outlines are sketchy and vibrant while others are solid and stable. When the artist chooses to reduce the significance of or totally omit the object, his then non-objective painting has only form and color on which to rely. This indeed is what Kandinsky desired to do and in so doing hoped thereby to find the pure principals of art.Kandinsky experienced reality in terms of color and color in terms of emotion: ". . . color is the most powerful medium in the hand of the painter. It has a psychic as well as a physical effect upon the observer . . . color is the artist's means by which he can influence the human soul."6 Kandinsky felt that the colors, first, and the forms, second, had the greatest power to reach the observer; that color, like sounds in music, could express emotions that no words or representational objects could ever hope to do.After 1914 objects were gone from his paintings, and he experimented increasingly with his new theories. His abstractions were to go through many phases in future years but always remain abstract, nonobjective, or "concrete" as he preferred to call them. Groups grew up about Kandinsky, such as the famous Blue Rider of 1911 and the Blue Four of 1924. He had left Germany and returned to Russia during the years of the First World War, but returned again in 1921 to become one of the most influential teachers at the Bauhaus; he was the last professor to leave as this famous school closed under the pressure of the Third Reich. In 1933, at 67, he left for Paris.Today he is regarded as one of the major figures of 20th-century painting. His theories and practice have fathered both artists and movements up to our own time.Endnotes
  1. He spent thirty-seven years in Russia (1866-1896; 1914-1921), thirty in Germany (1896-1914; 1921-1933), and eleven in France (1933-1944).
  2. Neue Kunstlervereinigung Munchen (NKV). Founders were Kandinsky, Jawlensky, Munter, Kubin, Erbsloh, Kanoldt, von Werefkin, and two non-artists.
  3. Uber das Geistige in der Kunst; published in 1912.
  4. 67.34.2 Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Brucy B. Dayton. Oil on cardboard, 28" x 28". Ex Coll: Helene von Jawlensky; Anne Abels; E. Beyeler. Grohmann CC 759.
  5. Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art (New York: Wittenborn, 1947), p. 74.
  6. Peter Selz, "The Aesthetic Theories of Wassily Kandinsky," Art Bulletin (June 1957), 133.
Referenced Works of Art
  1. Wassily Kandinsky, Poster for First Phalanx Exhibition, Munich, 1901.
  2. Wassily Kandinsky, Street in Murnau, 1908. Location unknown.
  3. Wassily Kandinsky, Improvisation XXXV, 1914. Collection Hans Arp.
  4. Wassily Kandinsky, Fugue, 1914. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.
  5. Wassily Kandinsky, Study for Improvisation V, 1910. Oil on cardboard, 28" x 28". Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Bruce B. Dayton, 67.34.2.
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Source: Sam Sachs II, "Wassily Kandinsky and the Origins of Non-Objective Painting," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 56 (1967): 29-35.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009