Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) was a great pioneer in modernist painting and one of the founders of non-objective painting and suprematism. Robert Hughes, the art critic for Time magazine, listed him, along with Mondrian, Russian Kazimir Malevich as "the three founding fathers of 20th century abstract painting." [Source: Benjamin Forgey, Smithsonian, January 1984]

Washington Post art and architecture critic Benjamin Forgey wrote: "In his quiet, complex way Kandinsky reflected the multidimensional drives of early 20th-century culture: he was a poet, editor, organizer, utilitarian designer, printmaker, theoretician, educator. Above all, he was a painter, and his paintings ranged extensively."

The son of a successful tea merchant, Kandinsky was born in Moscow on December 4, 1866. He was deeply interested in economics and ethnography and was greatly impressed by traditional fairy tales, rituals and icons in the Orthodox church and Russian architecture. Kandinsky was a professor of law and economics at the University of Moscow when he decided to become a painter at the age of 30.

In 1917, the year of the Bolshevik Revolution, 50-year-old Kandinsky married Nina Andreewsky, the beautiful young daughter of a Russian general. They were happily married until Kandinsky died in the Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine in 1944.

Kandinsky's Early Career as an Artist

In 1896, the 30-year-old Kandinsky embarked for Munich with aim of "pulling down the walls that separated him from true art." He became one of the founders of the "Blue Rider School" in Munich.

Kandinsky created a number of masterpieces between 1909 and 1914. The Armory Show in 1913 introduced Kandinsky, the Cubist and post-Impressionists to the United States.

Because he was a Russian national, Kandinsky was forced to leave Germany at the beginning of World War I. At the time he returned to Russia in 1914 he was regarded as one of he great artist of his time. He founded the Russian Academy of Artistic Sciences and was involved in a number of other cultural and professional institutions. He stayed in Russia for seven years, during the period of upheaval during World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, and managed to live a comfortable, uneventful life.

Kandinsky left again for Germany in 1921. He became friends with the Swiss artist Paul Klee and the composer Bela Bartok and was stimulated by the intellectual environment at Barhaus. In the 1920s, he and his family shared a double house designed by Gropius with Klee in Deassau.

Kandinsky's Character

Kandinsky was a fastidious painter who often worked a his easel dressed in a suit. Klee recalled that even s a student he mixed his paints "with a kind of scholarliness." His students said “he acted like a diplomat. It is such a surprise that someone with an outrageous appearance had such a rich imagination."

On August 2, 1914, the day before Germany declared war on Russia, Kandinsky wrote in letter to a friend: ""Now we have it! Isn't it frightful? It's as though I'm thrown out of a dream. I've been living inwardly in this period, assuming the complete impossibility of events...Mountains of corpses, frightful agonies of the most varied kind, inner culture set back for an indefinite time."

Later he became a kind of mystic who believed painting was a kind of medium between the material and spiritual worlds. He said he could hear the sound of yellow and smell the "spiritual perfume" of a triangle.

Kandinsky, the Artist

Recalling the first time he opened his tubes of paint, Kandinsky wrote, "Jubilant, solemn, meditative, dreamy, self-absorbed, serious or roguish, sighing with relief or deeply aggrieved, defiant and resistant, soft and yielding, stubborn, self-controlled, sensitive, precariously balanced, those peculiar things called 'colors' emerged one after another—living creatures, independent, endowed with all the properties necessary for life of their own..."

Kandinsky was very productive in his early years in Germany. He helped pioneer abstract art. His work initially was not intentionally abstract. He produced artwork inspired by nature with colors chosen for their psychological and emotional impact.

In Russia, during World War I and the revolutionary period, Kandinsky was a leader in the avant-guard movement. His output declined as he spent his time doing things other than painting. He drifted from the politicized and utilitarian goals of the avant guard.

After returning to Germany Kandinsky spent 11 years as a master at Bauhaus, the most influential art academy in the 20th century. He found inspiration and satisfaction working and teaching at the Barhaus, where his work became more geometric and abstract.

Kandinsky's Art

Kandinsky created purely abstract works of art whose relationship to anything in the natural world was purely accidental. His aim says art historian H.W. Janson was to "charge form and color with purely spiritual meaning." [Source: "History of Art" by H.W. Janson, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.]

Kandinsky was inspired by he spiritual writing of Madame Blavatsky, the music of Wagner, the brushwork of Monet, the colors of Matisse, Symbolism, Juegnstil, occultism, Theosophy, and Russian and Siberian folklore and art. He was committed to the Bolshevik revolution but became disillusioned after living through the chaos and violence the movement's early years.

Some of his works were inspired by concrete images that after months of study and preparation became abstract images that often had meaning and expressed inner feeling to Kandinsky but are difficult for viewers to see.

"Why does the circle fascinate me?" Kandinsky once asked. because he said, "of the three primary forms it points most clearly to the fourth dimension." He added it was also the "most modest form but asserts itself unconditionally," it is a "precise but inexhaustible variable," "stable and unstable," and posses a "single tension that carries countless tensions within it."

Kandinsky's Paintings

Kandinsky's “Composition VI” (1913), “Composition VII” (1913) and “Composition VIII” (1923) are considered his most significant pieces of art and landmarks in the "revolution of abstraction."

Kandinsky did a large number preliminary drawings and studies for his "Composition" paintings and worked out the elements in advance. "I was inwardly moved by the word 'composition,'" he wrote, "and later it became my aim in life to paint a 'composition.’

Washington Post art critic Paul Richard ranked Kandinsky's “Composition VII” (1913) along with Picasso's “Les Demoiselles d'Avignon” as "among the mightiest of monuments of early modern art." Kandinsky spent months preparing the ten-foot wide painting, but completed it in a sudden burst of painting that took less than four days. Richard described the work as an "ever blending of the Now and the Always, is at once utterly spontaneous—and not spontaneous at all...nearly every color cloud, has been meticulously planned.”

In 1928, Kandinsky designed the lighting sets and geometric costumes for the dancers of a production of Mussorgsky's “Pictures at an Exhibition”.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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