Compositions, Impressions and Improvisations by Kandinsky

Impression III (Concert) by Kandinsky (1911)

Impressions III (Concert) was painted by Kandinsky soon after he had attended a concert by Arnold Schonberg in Munich in 1911 and according to the exhibition catalogue notes the painting should be looked upon as:

 “…one of modern art’s most outstanding examples of synaesthesia, correspondences between music and painting that other early twentieth-century artists sought. A dynamic wave of yellow paint flows across the painting from left to right like a great swell of sound that seemingly reverberates to and fro. Above it in the upper half of the painting is an energetic black in a diagonal position. In the preparatory pencil sketches one can clearly decipher the scene with the open, black grand piano as well as the curved backs of the seated listeners and those standing along the wall…”

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This is my final look at the later life of Wassily Kandinsky and some of his more abstract works of art.   In this blog I am featuring three of his these works, one from each of his three self-classified categories.   After 1910, Kandinsky decided to compartmentalise his work into three groups. The first he called Impressions and these paintings would still retain an element of naturalistic representation. They would be direct impressions of nature. The second category he deemed would be Improvisations and these paintings would convey spontaneous emotional reactions inspired by events of a spiritual type. The last category he termed Compositions. These were paintings which were not done spontaneously but put together carefully, over a period of time, following a number of preliminary studies. These were to be his most complicated works. Although the titles he gave to the three categories seems somewhat arbitrary in fact they harked back to his love of music and in the way he connected, in his own mind, art and music.  He would often add musical titles to his individual works such as Fugue, Opposing Chords or Funeral March.  By doing this, he wanted to evoke sound through sight and create the painterly equivalent of a symphony that would stimulate not just the eyes but the ears as well.

Kandinsky is believed to have had synaesthesia.   Synaesthesia comes from two Greek words Syn which means together and Aesthesis which means sensation.   It is a condition that allows a person to appreciate sounds, colours or words with two or more senses simultaneously. Kandinsky believed that colours and painted marks triggered particular sounds or musical notes and vice versa. Did Kandinsky have synaesthesia?  Maybe we will never know for sure but what we do know is that he was preoccupied all his life with the correlation between sound and colour. Following a performance of Wagner’s great opera Lohengrin in Moscow Kandinsky recalled:

“…I saw all my colours in spirit, before my eyes. Wild, almost crazy lines were sketched in front of me…”

Let me now return to his life story.  In my last blog we had reached the point when Kandinsky and some of his artist friends had set up Der Blaue Reiter group as a rival to their previous exhibiting association the NKVM (The Neue Künstlervereinigung München).    In the first exhibition held by the Der Blaue Reiter group, Kandinsky exhibited three of his works, entitled, Impression-Moscow, Improvisation 22 andthe painting which had been rejected by the NKVM jury, Composition V.  The exhibition came with a small almanac that Kandinsky and Franz Marc had been working on and the foreword of which set out to explain what visitors to the exhibition would see.  They wrote:

“…We are not seeking to propagate any precise or special form in this small exhibition.  Our purpose is to show, in the variety of forms here represented, how the inner wish of the artist takes shape in manifold forms…”

The exhibition which besides including works from artists, Kandinsky and Münter, included works from Franz Marc, Auguste Macke, Henri Rousseau to name but a few.  It also included strange sketches by the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg.  It was a confusing mish-mash of works, and artistic styles, which totally baffled and stunned both viewers and art critics alike. Even the most benevolent critics found great difficulty in finding some sort of common ground between the various artistic styles on show.   It was also around the time of this first exhibition that Kandinsky published his book Uber das Gestige in Kunst (Concerning the Spiritual in Art) in which he presented the reader with his thoughts about what he envisioned was the new purpose of art and his writing showed the great diversity of Kandinsky’s intellectual and artistic awareness.  In his book he discussed the spiritual foundations of art and the nature of artistic creation.  He also wrote an analysis of colour, form and the role of the object in art, as well as the question of abstraction.

Improvisation 19 by Kandinsky (1911)

Improvisation 19 was completed by Kandinsky in 1911.  Annegret Hoberg, the curator at the Städtische Galerie, Lenbachhaus, Munich, which houses many of Kandinsky’s paintings, including this one, wrote about the painting in the exhibition catalogue:

“…It seems as if an unknown ritual occurs in Improvisation 19, a kind of initiation and enlightenment of figures who can be understood as novices. One sees translucent figures outlined only in black. On the left is a procession of smaller form presses forward to the front, followed by shades of colour. The largest part of the painting, however, is filled with a wonderful, supernatural blue, which also shines through the group of figures shown in profile on the right, who seem to move toward a goal outside the painting. The spiritual impact of these long, totally incorporeal figures draws both on the uniformity (that is, they are all the same height, as in Byzantine pictures of saints) and on the fact that deep blue, almost violet shade in their heads may symbolize extinction or transition….This work underscores Kandinsky’s almost messianic expectation of salvation through painting…”

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The onset of World War I in 1914 affected Kandinsky, as being a Russian citizen, he had to leave Munich immediately.  He along with Gabriele Münter left and went to Goldach in Switzerland, a small town on Lake Konstanz.  They remained there until December of that year when Kandinsky went to Moscow and Münter travelled to Stockholm where she would remain and wait for him.  Kandinsky did go to Stockholm and met with Münter for the last time.  Their close relationship which had started back in 1902 had recently being deteriorating and by March 1916, it had run its course and the one-time lovers parted for the final time.  Kandinsky returned to Moscow and soon after his arrival in the Russian capital he met a young woman, Nina von Andreyevskaya, the daughter of a Russian general, and in February 1917 the two were married.

Whilst in Moscow Kandinsky spent much of his time not only painting but working as a teacher, writer and administrator.  He immersed himself in the cultural politics of Russia and collaborated in the new reforms in art education. He was director of the theatre and film section of Narkompros, which was the Peoples Commissariat for Enlightenment.  In February 1919 the Museums of Painterly Culture were established in Moscow and St Petersburg and Kandinsky became the first director of the institutions and worked hard to expand the organization by setting up a further twenty-two museums in the Russian provinces.    In May 1920 Kandinsky helped set up Inkhuk, the Institute for Artistic Culture and he formulated a curriculum for the teaching of art which was based on his strongly held belief that there was an inter-relationship between art and music and looked closely at fundamental forms and colours.  His theories did not go down with many of the Russian avant-garde artists on the staff of the institute.  They firmly rejected any kind of irrationality in the creative process and because of such differing views between these leading artists and himself Kandinsky found his position weakened and ultimately untenable.

In the autumn of 1921 a road to salvation was offered to him by Walter Gropius, a German architect and founder of the Bauhaus School in Berlin, who invited Kandinsky and his wife to visit the school.  This was a different Germany from the one he left at the outbreak of war.  Many of his artist friends, such as Franz Marc and Auguste Macke, had been killed fighting in the war, whilst others had moved away.  The Berlin art scene had changed.  The Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movement was now to the fore.   This grouping of German artists executed works in a realistic style, and they reflected what was characterized as the resignation and cynicism of the post-World War I period in Germany.   Leading protagonists of this style of art were George Grosz, Otto Dix and Max Beckman.  Also popular at the time were the works of the Expressionists and the cultural movement known as Dadaism.  This movement was, in the main, a protest against the brutality of the War and the members were also against what they believed was an oppressive intellectual rigidity in both German art and its everyday society. All of these artistic genres were diametrically opposed to all forms of abstract art, and so when, on arrival in Berlin, Gropius offered him a professorship in the Bauhaus in Weimar, Kandinsky jumped at the chance to start a new life in a new city.

In 1924, an artist friend from his Munich days, Paul Jawlensky, introduced Kandinsky to the German art collector and art dealer, Emmy Scheyer.  At that meeting she also met Kandinsky’s fellow Bauhaus faculty members, Lyonel Feininger and Paul Klee.   She formed the four artists into an exhibition group called Blaue Vier (The Blue Four) and Scheyer became their representative in America.  The four artists often toured, sometimes as far as America, giving lectures and staging Blaue Vier art exhibitions.

When Kandinsky left Russia he had to leave the majority of his paintings behind. They were sold but the return on them was poor due to the falling value of the Russian currency.   However during his eleven years at the Bauhaus he completed over three hundred paintings and several hundred watercolours, all of which he catalogued.  His time at the Bauhaus ended in 1932.  The previous year had marked the start of a vitriolic campaign against the Bauhaus by the Nazi party and the following year they had it shut down.  Kandinsky and his wife fled from Germany and went to Paris and settled in a new apartment in Neuilly-sur-Seine.  Kandinsky continued to paint and within twelve months living in Paris his output totaled an amazing 144 oil paintings and approximately 250 watercolours.   Kandinsky, although born in Russia, had been granted German citizenship in 1928 but when he tried to renew his passport in 1939, his request was declined.  That year, just before the start of World War II, Kandinsky managed to obtain French citizenship.

Composition IX by Kandinsky (1936)

Composition IX was completed by Kandinsky in 1936.  In the work we can make out multiple diagonal bands of colours and small shapes that resemble embryos as much as crustaceans.  This canvas earned Kandinsky criticism for not sufficiently articulating the background and the shapes. Nevertheless, it is one of the rare large format canvasses to which Kandinsky once again applied the name of Composition.  In his book, Concerning the Spiritual in art, he said that this one, of all his “Compositions”, was his most accomplished painting. In total, he completed only ten in all throughout his entire career. Sadly, when the French government purchased it for just 5000 francs rather than the 100,000 he had demanded, he felt quite humiliated.  This complex canvas is in fact one of the two works that the French State bought from Kandinsky during his lifetime.

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His last known watercolours and drawings were completed in the summer of 1944 and he held his last exhibition at the Parisian gallery, Galerie L’Esquisse that same year.  Wassily Kandinsky died of arteriosclerosis in December 1944, aged 78.

I have to admit I have struggled with this blog, the third covering the life and times of Wassily Kandinsky.  I struggle to understand abstract art even though leading up to this offering I have read reams of information with regards this type of art.  I have included three of Kandinsky’s paintings, one from each of his designated “types”.   I will not insult those of you who are very knowledgeable about this form of art by trying to explain, interpret and analyse the works but have relied on exhibition catalogue descriptions of the works.   I would like to have ended this blog by saying how much I like the works of Kandinsky but to do so, would be extremely economic with the truth.  I will conclude this look at the life and works of Wassily Kandinsky with one of his quotes:

“…Lend your ears to music, open your eyes to painting, and… stop thinking! Just ask yourself whether the work has enabled you to ‘walk about’ into a hitherto unknown world. If the answer is yes, what more do you want?…”

Have you managed the “walk about” ?

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Author: jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.

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