Wassily Kandinsky (December 16, 1866 – December 13, 1944) was a Russian artist who is regarded as the Father of Abstract Art for painting some of the earliest works in the genre and for his book Concerning the Spiritual in Art, which is considered the first theoretical foundation of abstraction. Kandinsky didn’t start his career as an artist. It was an unusual experience while listening to music that he gave up his career as a teacher of law to focus entirely on painting. While teaching at the Phalanx art school in Munich, Kandinsky met Gabriele Münter, an aspiring artist. The two soon became involved in a love affair though Kandinsky was married. Interestingly, when Kandinsky married again it was not to Munter but to Nina Andreevskaya. The most famous paintings of Kandinsky are his 10 compositions which he created from Composition l in 1907 to Composition X in 1939. The first three paintings of the series were however lost in the Second World War as the Nazis considered them “degenerate”. Know more about Wassily Kandinsky and his art through these 10 interesting facts.
#1 He switched to an artistic career due to synesthesia
Synesthesia is a perceptual phenomenon by which the stimulation of one sense leads to the stimulation of another. Its name comes from the Greek words syn (join) and aisthesis (perception). A person having synesthesia can smell something when they hear a sound or see a shape when they eat. In Kandinsky’s case, he could see colors when he heard music; and while he painted, he could hear music. While Wassily had an interest in art, he initially chose to study law and got his law degree in 1892. 1896, was however a turning point in his life. While listening to a performance of Wagner’s composition Lohengrin at the Bolshoi Theater, he had an unusual experience due to his synesthesia. He later described it as: “I saw all my colors in spirit, before my eyes. Wild, almost crazy lines were sketched in front of me”. After this experience, Kandinsky decided to devote himself completely to art.
Miller, Renée B. (March 19, 2014). “Wassily Kandinsky’s Symphony of Colors”. Denver Art Museum.
#2 Music is integral to the art of Kandinsky
Music was instrumental in inspiring Kandinsky to create art. As already mentioned, he had a condition called synesthesia. The titles of his paintings give us an idea of the importance of music to his art. He titled his paintings Compositions, Improvisations and Impressions. The most important of these were his mighty 10 Compositions, which were created over more than three decades from Composition l in 1907 to Composition X in 1939. His Compositions may be compared to “symphonies” and the Improvisations to “concertos”; while the Impressions were often created in response to the experience of hearing particular pieces of music. German artist Bruno Haas analyzed the art of Kandinsky and stated how his families of colors resonate with one another to produce visual “chords”. Music and color were so clearly linked to Kandinsky that he associated each note with an exact hue. He once said, “the sound of colors is so definite that it would be hard to find anyone who would express bright yellow with bass notes or dark lake with treble.”
McBurney, Gerard. (June 24, 2006). “Wassily Kandinsky: the painter of sound and vision”. Guardian News & Media Limited.
Miller, Renée B. (March 19, 2014). “Wassily Kandinsky’s Symphony of Colors”. Denver Art Museum.
#3 He co-founded the influential Der Blaue Reiter
Neue Kunstler Vereiningung (N.K.V.) or New Artist Association was a group founded by avant-garde artists living in Munich. Wassily Kandinsky was a part of this group. In 1911, he submitted his painting Composition V for inclusion in NKV’s third exhibition. The work was rejected by the jury of NKV probably because of its pronounced spiritual nature. This led to Kandinsky leaving the group along with Franz Marc and Gabriele Münter. Other artists who were not content with the traditionalism of NKV soon joined them. Led by Kandinsky and Marc, these artists formed Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), a group which shared its name with a 1903 painting by Kandinsky. Der Blaue Reiter held its first exhibition in December 1911 and the following year they published the Der Blaue Reiter Almanach. Though styles varied within the group, they shared an interest in abstracted forms and prismatic colors. Apart from Marc and Kandinsky, other artists closely involved were Paul Klee, August Macke, Gabriele Münter, Alexej von Jawlensky and Marianne von Werefkin. Der Blaue Reiter was dissolved with the onset of the First World War. Though it was in existence for only a short while, it laid the foundation for Expressionism in Germany. Moreover, Der Blaue Reiter was influential on a number of subsequent movements, including Kasimir Malevich’s Suprematism and the geometric abstraction of Piet Mondrian.
Tanaka, Julie. (April 13, 2020). “Movements in Art: Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider)”. University of Notre Dame.
“Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider)”. National Galleries of Scotland.
#4 He had a love affair and a bitter fallout with Gabriele Münter
Wassily Kandinsky married his cousin Anna Chimyakina in 1892. He had known her since childhood and she was six years elder to him. Kandinsky met Gabriele Münter in 1902. She had joined the Phalanx art school in Munich where he was teaching. Kandinsky was 36 while Munter was 25 at the time. They soon became intimate and their love affair lasted for more than 10 years. During this period, Kandinsky separated from his first wife, divorced her in 1911, moved in with Munter in a house she bought and also got secretly engaged with her. Also, Münter became a founding member of Der Blaue Reiter and an important modern artist in her own right. As Kandinsky was Russian, the couple had to move to Switzerland when World War I broke out. Kandinsky then went back to his native nation while Munter moved to Stockholm. In 1917, 51 year old Kandinsky married Nina Andreevskaya, who was probably less than 20 years old. Their marriage lasted for the remaining 28 years of his life. Kandinsky didn’t inform Munter about his second marriage till three years later. She sued him for the shame brought by the broken engagement while he demanded his paintings to be returned.
Prodger, Michael. (Sep 23, 2020). “How Gabriele Münter painted “the content of things””. New Statesman.
#5 He had a long and fruitful relationship with Arnold Schoenberg
On January 2, 1911, at a concert in Munich, Kandinsky first heard the music of Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg. After the concert, the two met for drinks and thus began their friendship. Schoenberg, like Kandinsky, was a revolutionary artist. The compositions of most musicians, like Mozart, Chopin, and Beethoven, are written in a central major or minor key. They follow the rules of the diatonic tonal system to produce harmonies that would be attributed as consonance. Schoenberg discarded the familiar diatonic tonal system and instead used free atonality. Like the abstract art of Kandinsky might not make sense to an average viewer, the music of Schoenberg might be derided as cacophony. However, to Kandinsky the music of Schoenberg was a revelation. They two had a long relationship during which they shared their radical ideas and influences; while also fiercely criticizing the work of each other. They deeply influenced the art of one another.
L, Anna. (Mar 16, 2014). “When Art Meets Music”. Medium.
#6 His paintings were termed “Degenerate” by the Nazis
In July 1937, four years after it came to power, the Nazi Party put on two art exhibitions in Munich. The first was the Great German Art Exhibition and the other was the more known Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition. Among the 650 works in the Degenerate Art exhibition were 14 paintings of Wassily Kandinsky. The Nazi Party had already removed 57 of his artworks from the nation’s museums. Apart from Kandinsky, works of several other greats of modern art were displayed in the exhibition including Paul Klee, Max Beckmann and Emil Nolde. The art was displayed in different rooms by categories like art that was blasphemous and art by Jewish or communist artists. Kandinsky’s abstract works found its way in “the insanity room”. The exhibition handbook read: “In the paintings and drawings of this chamber of horrors there is no telling what was in the sick brains of those who wielded the brush or the pencil”. Some of the art, including the first three paintings of the Composition series of Kandinsky, was later burned by the Nazis.
Burns, Lucy. (November 6, 2013). “Degenerate art: Why Hitler hated modernism”. BBC.
#7 Art was deeply spiritual for Kandinsky
Kandinsky’s book On the Spiritual in Art, among the greatest books on modern art, examined the capacity of color to communicate the artist’s innermost psychological and spiritual concerns. He co-founded Der Blaue Reiter as he wanted to express spiritual values in his work, like Franz Marc. The image after which the group was named symbolized for him the spiritual force that could break materialistic thinking. The circle in his paintings represented the spiritual realm. For Kandinsky, art was spiritual. He denounced art that “becomes the satisfaction of vanity and greed … a scramble for good things … of excessive competition, of over-production … this aimless, materialist art”. Instead he believed that art must “feed the spirit” by revealing “the internal truth of art, the soul”. The artist must “be priest of beauty”. Beauty itself is that “which springs from the soul”.
McIntosh, Alastair (Oct 21, 2011). “Narcissistic modern art cannot help us in these troubled times”. Guardian News & Media Limited.
“Vasily Kandinsky Teaching Material”. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.
#8 He didn’t create the first abstract painting
Wassily Kandinsky is often credited with creating the first abstract painting in western art. The work given this honor is the first extant entry in Kandinsky’s parallel series of abstract “Compositions” and “Improvisations”. Created in early 1910s, it was left untitled by Kandinsky but is now known as the First Abstract Watercolor. It is indeed one of the earliest purely abstract artworks, but not the first. Czech painter and graphic artist František Kupka was the first to display purely abstract works in October 1912. French painter Francis Picabia completed an abstract painting in 1909, which was even before Kandinsky’s theories on abstraction. His watercolor Caoutchouc (Rubber) is credited by some as the first purely abstract painting. Swedish artist and mystic Hilma af Klint created her first series of abstract paintings, even earlier, in 1906. However, her work became known decades after her death in 1944. So, there is disagreement about who was the first artist to completely shed all references to well known forms in the representational tradition of Western European painting. It is to be noted that abstract artworks had been created in non-Western traditions from a very long time.
Cain, Abigail. (March 31, 2017). “What Was the First Abstract Artwork?”. Artsy.
#9 Kandinsky is regarded as the Father of Abstract Art
Wassily Kandinsky might not have created the first abstract painting but he was definitely the most important figure in the abstract art revolution in the west. In 1911, his most important treatise Concerning the Spiritual in Art was published. It appeared as a draft in 1909, years before his first abstract painting. Concerning the Spiritual in Art sparked widespread interest in abstraction in 1910s and it is regarded as the first theoretical foundation of abstraction. The book elucidated Kandinsky’s artistic theories and his valuing of expression and spirituality over naturalistic representation. Also in 1911, Kandinsky’s monumental painting Composition V was exhibited. A nearly pure abstraction, the artwork aroused public interest in abstract painting and, over the course of the next few years, abstract artworks were created by a range of artists and shown in exhibitions internationally.
Hess, Heather. (2011). “Über das Geistige in der Kunst: Insbesondere in der Malerei (Concerning the Spiritual in Art: Especially in Painting)”. MoMA.
“Komposition V (Composition V)”. (2013). Artists Rights Society (ARS).
#10 His auction record was broken twice within minutes
On June 21, 2017, at Sotheby’s Impressionist and modern art sale in London, Kandinsky’s 1909 work “Murnau – landschaft mit grünem haus” (“Murnau – landscape with green house”) was sold for £21 million ($26.4 million). His previous record of $23 million was held by his painting “Sketch for Improvisation No. 8”. Murnau is an early painting by Kandinsky when he was in the process of switching from figuration to abstraction. The work, however, held the record for just a few minutes. Six lots later, after a 13-minute bidding war, “Bild mit Weissen Linien” (“Painting With White Lines”) became the most expensive Kandinsky painting sold at auction when it fetched £33 million ($41.6 million). Painting With White Lines is an important 1913 abstract work in which color is the principal subject. It holds the auction record for Kandinsky till the time this article was updated. It must be noted that his most famous paintings are in museums which means that it is not known how costly they are.
Kazakina, Katya. (June 22, 2017). “Kandinsky Record Broken Twice as Painting Fetches $42 Million”. Bloomberg.