My last blog featured the German artist Gabriele Münter and I talked about her relationship with her one-time art teacher and lover, the Russian painter and gifted writer, Wassily Kandinsky. Today I am going to delve into his early life and feature one of his earliest paintings.
Wassily Wassilyevich Kandinsky was born in Moscow in 1866. He was the son of, Vasily Silverstrovic Kandinsky, a tea merchant. In a short-lived partnership, his father married Lidia Ticheeva and Wassily was their only child. Wassily recalled that when he was just three years of age he was taken on vacation to Italy and even at that young age he was fascinated by the colours that were all around him. In his 1913 essay entitled Reminiscences he wrote:
“…The first colours that made a strong impression on me were bright, juicy green, white, carmine red, black and yellow ochre. These memories go back to the third year of my life. I saw these colours on various objects, which are no longer as clear in my mind as the colours themselves…”
This photographic memory he had for colours and scenes that he witnessed in his everyday life in his beloved Moscow were to remain with him throughout his life and were to prove to be an inspirational source in his paintings. Kandinsky loved Moscow and was devastated when at the age of ten he was taken to live in Odessa by his father, who had been made manager of a local tea factory. Shortly after he and his family moved to Odessa, his father and mother divorced and Wassily was brought up there by his mother’s sister, Elizabeth Ticheeva. At the age of ten he had his first art and music lessons at the primary and grammar school in Odessa, where he remained for the next nine years.
Aged twenty, Kandinsky enrolled at Moscow University where he attended classes in law, economics and ethnography (a branch of anthropology dealing with the scientific description of individual cultures). His dissertation, The Legality of Workers’ Wages, focused on the legitimacy of labourers’ wages. In his last year of studies, he received a commission from the Society of Natural Science, Ethnography and Anthropology to go on a research expedition to Vologda in north west Russia, where he recorded the local peasant laws, and it was during this period that he came into contact with the folk art of the region. He was taken with the colourful decorative houses and the people dressed in their bright and vibrant peasant costumes, all of which made a lasting impression on him. He never forgot the colourful scenes and later these memories would be encapsulated in some of his early works. His report back to the Society after his trip was well received and he was made him a member of the Society, opening the way for him to pursue numerous lucrative jobs.
His university life came to an end in 1892 when he received his law degree and became a member of the Law Society. He was the offered a position as lecturer at the university which he accepted and it was whilst in that post that he met his cousin, Anya Chimiakin, and after a short courtship, they married. In 1896 at the age of thirty he was offered a professorship at Tartu University and this was to be a pivotal point in his life. He had to decide whether to carry on with his lucrative academic career or veer towards an artistic life and all the financial uncertainties that go with it. One major factor in his eventual decision to tread the artistic path was when he visited an exhibition of French Impressionists in Moscow at which he saw the painting by Claude Monet entitled Haystack at Giverny, which is now housed in the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow, Russia. Kandinsky was in awe of the work. He later wrote of his thoughts when he saw Monet’s painting:
“…And suddenly for the first time I saw a picture. The catalogue told me it was a haystack. I could not recognise it as such. The inability to perceive was embarrassing. I felt that the painter had no right to paint so unclearly. Dully I felt that the subject of the painting was missing. And I noticed with astonishment and confusion that not only does the picture enthral one, but also impress itself indelibly on the memory, always quite unexpectedly appearing down to the last detail before one’s eyes. This was all unclear to me and I was unable to draw any simple conclusions from this experience. But what was totally clear to me was the unexpected power of the palette, a power which had earlier been hidden from me, but which surpassed all my dreams…”
Kandinsky decided, at that late age of 30, to give up his academic career and study art. At this time Munich was regarded as a cosmopolitan city of art and it was an exciting period for art at that time in the German city as the Munich Sezession had just taken place three years earlier when a number of modernist artist groups had split from the conventions of nineteenth century Salon painting and Salon-style exhibitions. The Munich Sezssion was committed to excellence in all areas of artistic ventures and its paramount raison d’etre was to have an international and multidisciplinary approach to art. So, in 1896, Kandinsky travelled to Munich and enrolled on a three year course at the Anton Ažbe’s school of painting. Ažbe was a Slovene realist painter and teacher of art. He founded his own school of painting in the Bavarian city, which became a popular attraction for Eastern European students. Whilst attending this school of art he met and befriended the Expressionist painters, Alexei Jewlensky, a fellow Russian, and the Russian-Swiss Expressionist painter, Marianne von Werefkin.
After an initial failed attempt in 1898, Kandinsky applied and was accepted into the Munich Academy of Art in 1900, where one of his tutors was Franz von Stuck, the great German Symbolist and Art Nouveau painter, who at the time was considered the finest draughtsman in Germany. One of his fellow students in Stuck’s class was Paul Klee who would later work alongside Kandinsky. In 1900 Kandinsky exhibited some of his work at the Moscow Artists Association. Kandinsky was not completely happy with the art scene in Munich. He believed it to be too conventional and conservative and too associated with the affluent middle-class, and very narrow-minded in its doctrines. The following year Kandinsky decided to bring together some like-minded artist friends so that together they could exhibit a more progressive selection of their work. This idea bore fruit and in 1901 he, along with Rolf Niczy, Waldemar Hecker, Gustave Freytag and Wilhelm Hüggen, founded the exhibiting association called Phalanx. Kandinsky was the main driving force behind the project. The group aimed to help overcome the difficulties that often stood in the way of young artists wishing to exhibit their work and it attempted to redress the sexual inequalities found in the Munich Akademie by allowing men and women equal access to exhibitions. Following the success of the association Kandinsky, who was its president, opened his own school for painting and drawing, known as the Phalanxschule. One of the first pupils to enrol in his school was the German artist, and soon his lover, Gabriele Münter (see My Daily Art Display July 28th 2012)
I have chosen for my featured painting today one of Kandinsky’s earliest works. It is entitled The Isar near Grosshessolohe, which he completed in 1901 and which is now housed in the Stadtische Galerie in Lenbach, Germany. Großhessolohe is a small town, which lies on the banks of the River Isar, some five miles south of Munich. To me, the painting has the look of the works of French Impressionists and maybe the exhibition of their works in Moscow, which Kandinsky had witnessed five years earlier, had a bearing on this painting. Kandinsky had loved the Impressionists use of colour and this early painting of his highlights his similar passion for colour. Kandinsky was one of the most important innovative painters of modern art and was considered the father of abstraction and yet in this early painting of his we have no hint of how his future works would change. In my next blog we look a little further into Kandinsky’s life and witness how his art