Wassily Kandinsky is often considered to have been the first major artist to paint purely abstract works. He was born on December 16, 1866 in Moscow, and grew up as an only child. His father was a tea merchant, and his childhood in Russia was filled with folk tales and was marked by a fascination with color. He studied Law and Economics at the University of Moscow, and practiced the former. He only started painting studies when he moved to Munich at the age of 30, where he studied at the Academy of Fine Arts. He would later move back and forth from Munich and Russia a few times, mostly due to the start of World War I. He was the founder of the Expressionist Blue Ridergroup, and at the age of 56, he taught at Germany’s Bauhaus School of Art and Architecture. Eventually, he moved to France and became a French citizen at the age of 73, continuing to work on his art until his death Neuilly-sur-Seine four years later.
Expressionism emerged in Germany in the midst of the pre-World War I climate of the early 20th century. Influenced by elements of African art and German and Russian folk art, this movement was a darker take on the concurrent Fauvism movement. Like the Fauvists, the Expressionists sought to break the constraints of the artistic conventions which dominated the previous movements. That is, they did not seek to depict the physical environment around them, whether it be realistic or impressionistic, focusing instead on projecting their own subjective perceptions and emotions into their art. However, they went a step further from the Fauvists in that their arbitrary and expressive use of color often depicted darker themes–sorrow, hostility, alienation–and that no one technique or practice held them together as a group. The Expressionists were bound by their refusal to be bound by anything: the styles which varied among the artists–be it convoluted or simple, purely abstract or more realistic–sought only to express their inner psychological states.
There were two main Expressionist groups: members of The Bridge (who sought to break from the typical forms of painting, were inspired by medieval and folk art, often used the woodcut as a medium, and often made social or political statements) and ofThe Blue Riders (who often dealt with mystical, spiritual and natural themes).
Style, Subject Matter, Technique & Their Influences:
Kandinsky pioneered the purely abstract work. His painting career was marked by a more Fauvist style, with bright patches of color and simple, outlined forms, but he gradually moved into his own distinctive style. The distorted, clashing, exaggerated and spontaneous elements which would eventually occur in many of his paintings all sought to share his psychological state with the viewer.
As a successful art theorist, he was a firm believer that synesthesia (i.e., association between different senses such as sight, sound etc) occurred naturally in art and ought to be harnessed effectively in order for the painting to have the maximum intended impact on the viewer. For example, in his book called On the Spiritual in Art (1912), he discussed the idea that certain basic shapes and colors brought out certain emotions among the viewers. This logical (although not necessarily correct!) and strict view towards the art form shows that Kandinsky, no matter how abstract his works were, did not just paint thoughtlessly.
Indeed, his works are never “muddy” or “messy”–there is a form and plan to them. They often contain strong linear elements and basic shapes, which make powerful and clean statements on the canvas. For his more “shapeless” works, he often superimposed outlines over patches of color to create a kind of “double” imagery, which creates a kind of unstable, ambiguous vibe (ex: Improvisation 19) while still maintaining a “focus” through the use of repetition. In addition, his convoluted swirls and blobs often meld together to create cohesive forms. For example, in Improvisation. Deluge., the varying swaths of color could easily make the painting look cluttered, yet he uses black negative space to effectively unify the varying colors into large, albeit amorphous forms. This use of negative space to help guide the viewer’s eyes around the canvas also occurs in Black Relationship.
Kandinsky was influenced by the Russian folk tales of his childhood and by his travels throughout Russia (the colors of specific group of houses and churches, in particular, made a deep impression on him). Knowing his use of synthesia in his works, it makes sense that not only texts and images, but also music–such as Richard Wagner’s compositions–inspired him.
Compared Artist (21st Century):
Sam Francis (1923-1994) was an American painter and printmaker. Like Kandinsky, he lived in France for a period, also was inspired by Buddhism, Asian culture and spirituality. In particular, Francis was interested in the subconscious/dreams/Jungian theory (ex: a collective unconscious among everyone). These influences on his art made him similar to Kandinsky in that he tried to depict through his paintings the touchstones of the human soul–emotion, want, need–on a very pure, physical and immediate basis. Just as Kandinsky’s interest in art theory prompted him to use certain colors and shapes to attempt to express certain emotions through an almost scientific method, Francis’s interest in Jungian theory forced him to look at emotions objectively: in order to accurately depict his subconscious, Francis closely analyzed his dreams and frequently visited a doctor for Jungian analysis.
His works often include the ample negative space, superimposed images and strong lines and figures which often marked Kandinsky’s work. His circle paintings in particular echo some of Kandinsky’s paintings, such as Several Circles (1926) and Color Study: Squares with Concentric Circles (c. 1913). Like Kandinsky, his works have an air of “intentional spontaneity.”
Upper Left Red (1961), 12.5″ x 15.5″
Untitled (1962), 59.8 x 91.5 cm, acrylic on canvas
While researching for this project, I realized that I had seen many of Kandinsky’s paintings before, but just hadn’t known that he was the painter. Having learned more about him, I now better appreciate abstract works. Before, I would sometimes think of abstract paintings as pointless or too simple to make, but Kandinsky (especially with his very precise and particular approach towards composition) made me realize that abstract works are often made with intention. I think I now better understand the skill and time required to create sense out of “nonsense” (random shapes, streaks, blobs and lines) as beautifully as he did. Just as graceful ballerinas make their dance look deceptively easily to the audience, or a good plastic surgeon makes it look like his patient has had no work done, so too was Kandinsky able to make his meticulous paintings look so beautifully effortless.
Improvisation 19 (1910), 120 x 141.5, oil on canvas
Improvisation. Deluge. (1913), 95 x 150 cm, oil on canvas
Composition VIII (1923), 140 x 201 cm, oil on canvas
Color Study: Squares with Concentric Circles (c. 1913), no dimensions/media available
Several Circles (1926), 140 x 140 cm, oil on canvas
Grey Oval (1917), 105 x 133.5 cm, glass painting
Black Relationship (1924), 36.8 x 36.2 cm, watercolor and ink on paper
Artcyclopedia. Last modified 2011.http://www.artcyclopedia.com/artists/kandinsky_wassily.html.
Floyd, Jay. Fragments (blog). Entry posted March 31, 2013.http://urbanfragment.wordpress.com/tag/sam-francis/.
Harden, Mark. “Kandinsky: Compositions.” Glyphs.http://www.glyphs.com/art/kandinsky/.
Kandinsky. Last modified April 2008. http://www.wassilykandinsky.net/.
“Sam Francis.” Wikipedia. Last modified February 25, 2014.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sam_Francis.