Wassily KandinskyWith the dawning of the twentieth century there also bloomed a new aesthetic in painting. Today we have come to know this as abstraction. Though art historians have given many different artists credit for having "invented" this type of art, a very strong case could be made for assigning this distinction to Wassily Kandinsky. The difficulty with making such assertions is that no artist in this formative first decade of this century boldly jumped headfirst (or even feet-first) into this radical non-representational form of artistic expression. Instead they bravely tiptoed in, getting use to the swirling creative currents and cold criticism of those used to the more conventional. Picasso was testing the waters, so was Miro, Braque, and others. But with his Sketch for Composition II dated 1909-10, Kandinsky seems to have been inadvertently leading the pack. And the fact that he did so from Germany, instead of Paris, with a painting so much less tied to any form of representational imagery than any of the others, is all the more remarkable.
Born in Moscow in 1866, Kandinsky's parents were divorced when he was five. He was raised by an aunt. He studied law and painted as a hobby. By 1896 he was a Doctor of Law, economist, and university lecturer. In that year he was deeply struck by two events, one, a travelling show of French Impressionist paintings, and the other, an opera by the new German composer Richard Wagner. These influences, along with time spent earlier in a rural province studying peasant law, where he was strongly effected by the brightly coloured houses, furniture, and costumes, combined to unleash within him an outburst of creative energy that forever shifted his focus from law to art. Though strongly expressive, his early work was quite representational though hardly conventional. Feeling limited by the bonds of subject matter however, he began to move further and further from all but the most elemental symbolic references to any "real world", into the psychological and spiritual effects of pure colour.
In 1914, Kandinsky returned to Russia where he taught and wrote about abstract art. But the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 founded a government that disapproved of his art so he abandoned his country for Berlin and the Bauhaus, a new arts college that brought together architects, artists, and engineers to teach, learn, and exchange ideas. In 1930, he had to leave yet another country because of his work. Hitler was no more attuned to his artistic vision than had been the Communists. In Paris, he further reduced his visual vocabulary to a few basic geometric elements: circles, semicircles, angles, straight, and curved lines. With these he composed a visual "music" that cemented his position as the foremost abstract painter of his time and perhaps of all time. He died in Paris in 1944. He was 78.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
4 April 1998