Art / essay

20th Century Art: Wassily Kandinsky

Wassily Kandinsky

(Dec. 16, 1866 – Dec. 13, 1944)

Of all the arts, abstract painting is the most difficult. It demands that you know how to draw well, that you have a heightened sensitivity for composition and for colors, and that you be a true poet. This last is essential.

This quote of Kandinsky follows the justifications he gave all during the time he painted to the work he produced. Obviously disputable, most of his theoretical constructs are laid down like a theorem in a science journal. He painted during a time of “isms”, not just in painting, but in politics, religion, and philosophy. Communism, Socialism, Impressionism, Expressionism, Surrealism, and many other assorted “isms”. Truthfully, no absolutism exists in art! The various manifestos handed out by the disparate art groups during the early 20th century are only an amusing anecdote today.

Anyone who has attended art school ran a good chance, somewhere along the line, to be required to read Concerning the Spiritual in Art. This book bears one acceptation after another on abstraction in art. Ultimately, Kandinsky can only speak for himself. When he says,Colors produce a corresponding spiritual vibration, and it is only as a step towards this spiritual vibration that the elementary physical impression is of importance” he is obtuse and oblique and not speaking empirically. His concepts belong to him and only him, even though others may find a similar emotional feeling. “Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the harmonies, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.” The artist must train not only his eye but also his soul.” Even if these comments are poetic, they apply to absolutely nothing beyond individual understanding or define anything in a world of objective reality. Mainly his literary works compose a body of platitudes and musings that many find as entertaining as his pictures.

Much like the Impressionists who would argue intensely about painting, many of those belonging to an “ism” in the early 20th century had a certitude about modern art. Though lovely, the Impressionists’ artwork was no more an end than any other work and could easily accept the tenets of Kandinsky’s philosophy. In fact, the general statements about souls, colors, and vibrations could be applied to any period in art history, including pre-history, even though Kandinsky used these statements as justification for abstraction or Expressionism.

Watercolor, 1910 (First abstract painting?)

The very first abstract painting is attributed to Wassily Kandinsky. Whether this is true or not seems a pointless exercise in answering the question. Pointing to artists who made statements and created works that exhibited abstract qualities, would lead to the conclusion that Kandinsky did not paint the first abstract work. As an example, Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold might be considered an abstraction, although some might say Whistler was portraying an effect of night and rockets exploding.

Nocturne in Black and Gold, Oil on Canvas, Whistler 1875

Nocturne in Black and Gold, Oil on Canvas, Whistler 1875

At any rate, abstraction has no strict definition. I know that many art critics love using the word, abstract, as a convenient adjective, applying it to Expressionism and other terms. There is a linear abstraction, lyrical abstraction, geometric abstraction, and so forth and so on. Works completely abstracted have no visible narrative, nor do they represent figures seen in reality. Depending on the guile and playfulness of the artist, however, they can pretend to represent reality.

Kandinsky thought his work characterized human ideals and emotions and that through art he sought to share his inner, psychological structure. In the postmodern world, such statements are silly to some and quite real to others. No one can, without narrative, depict complex ideas from a complete abstraction or divine convoluted emotions from the presentation of colors and unreal forms.

Nevertheless, adhering to principles of balance, color, symmetry, movement and so forth, the artist delivers something delightful to view many times and, at the least, produces a very decorative object, pleasing and inspiring.

Sketch for Painting with White Border, Oil, 1913

Munich-Schwabing with the Church of St. Ursula, 1908

Houses at Murnau, Oil, 1909

Panel for Edwin R. Campbell No. 4, Oil, 1914

Improvisation No. 30 (Cannons), Oil, 1913

Transverse Line, Oil, 1923

Braunlich (Brownish), Oil on cardboard, 1931

Picture with an Archer, Oil, 1909

Painting with Green Center, Oil, 1913

Landscape with Two Poplars, Oil, 1912

Painting with Troika, Oil, 1911

The White Dot, Oil, 1923

Panel for Edwin R. Campbell No. 1, Oil, 1914

Composition VII, Oil, 1913

Yellow-Red-Blue, Oil, 1925

The Blue Rider, Oil, 1903

Several Circles, Oil, 1926

The Two Ovals, Oil, 1919

Black Lines, Oil, 1913

Small Pleasures, Oil, 1913

Improvisation 26 (Rowing), Oil, 1912

Accent on Rose, Oil, 1926

Composition VI, Oil, 1913

Tempered Elan, Oil, 1944 (His last painting)

Sketch for Composition II, Oil, 1909-10

Improvisation 19, Oil, 1911

The pictures you have seen in this article represent just a small portion of the work of Kandinsky. I have purposely included the first abstract painting and his last painting from 1944. The change in his perception and its manifestation in paint is remarkable to see.

As far as Expressionists such as Kandinsky, Franz Marc will be our next examination in this series. Be prepared to be delighted. Franz Marc’s images aren’t nearly as heady as the prophet, Wassily Kandinsky.

Just as a reminder, this series is a personal reflection and not a history. As a keen student of art and design, I have picked up the nasty habit of having an opinion. Do forgive me, Dear Reader.

Howard Bosler




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