Wassily Kandinsky, the first modern abstract artist, believed himself to be a prophet. He felt that his spiritual mission was to lead others to a more transcendent and spiritually rich life through his art, toward the ultimate goal of a better society. Deeply influenced by Helena P. Blavatsky and theosophy in his later years, Kandinsky was born a highly sensitive and perceptive soul in 1866 in Moscow. At a very early age, Kandinsky showed an extraordinary sensitivity to the stimulation he felt from sounds, words, shapes, and colors.
The Young Artist
Kandinsky’s parents were well-educated and upper class, his father a tea merchant. Most of his childhood was spent in Odessa where, like his own parents, the cosmopolitan population was of mixed ethnic groups. His family encouraged his precocious, artistic talents and by age 5 he was enrolled in private drawing classes. He studied piano and cello in grammar school and became as musically gifted and attuned as he was to the visual arts of painting and drawing. This organic union he intuited between color, music, and spiritual experiences set the theme for the rest of his creative life. He later wrote:
“Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.”
Despite the readily apparent affinity for art, Kandinsky appeased his family by seeking an education in law. He enrolled in the University of Moscow in 1886 where he also studied ethnography and economics. But fate, in the form of an ethnographic fieldwork scholarship, took him to the Vologda province in northwest Russia to study their legal traditions and religion. The focus on spiritual study combined with the rich folk art of the region ignited Kandinsky’s interest in the effects of color and symbolism on the human psyche that would sustain and inspire him for the rest of his life.
Kandinsky completed his degree and married his cousin, Anna Chimyakina, in 1892. He accepted a teaching and lecturing position on the Moscow Faculty of Law.
The hand of fate intervened again when in 1896, at age 30, Kandinsky viewed his first piece of nonrepresentational art, Claude Monet’s Haystacks at Giverny. That same year he heard Wagner’s “Lohengrin” at the Bolshoi Theatre. The synergistic combination of the two experiences inspired Kandinsky to leave his legal and teaching careers and move to Munich to devote himself full-time to the study of art.
During his first two years in Munich, Kandinsky studied at the art school of Anton Azbe. In 1900 he studied under Franz von Stuck at the Academy of Fine Arts. It was here that he began to develop as an art theorist as well as a painter. In 1901, along with three other young artists, Kandinsky co-founded Phalanx, an avant-garde artist’s association. Phalanx opened an art school in which Kandinsky taught. It was there that he began a relationship with his student, Gabriele Münter, with whom he would spend the next 15 years. The two traveled throughout Europe and northern Africa from 1903 until 1909. Kandinsky took note of the growing Expressionist movement, and by integrating the diverse artistic sources from his travels, he soon developed his own very unique style.
Kandinsky’s breakthrough work from this period and a portend of his work to follow, “The Blue Horseman” (1903), is one of the earliest examples of his use of color to express emotions and form in lieu of detailed lines and shapes. He believed that this allowed viewers to participate in the artwork and ascribe their own meanings to it. Kandinsky utilized this “projective” technique deliberately for many years, culminating in his abstract works from 1911 to 1914. Titles such as “Improvisation,” “Composition,” or “Impression” indicated his belief that the transcendent world was more prominent and valuable than the objective world.
The Beauty of Inner Necessity
It was during this period that Kandinsky paved the way and set the bar for the expressive modern art that would follow. His paintings sprang from a deep inner well forged by intense thought, self-reflection, and his spiritual studies. He called this devotion and longing for beauty and spiritual union “inner necessity.”
Wassily Kandinsky, like mythologist Joseph Campbell, believed that artists were the modern day prophets who would make the discoveries and share the transformative revelations culminating in a New Age for humanity. He was also astutely aware of the effect that colors had on the psyche and emotions of the viewer. He believed color to cause an inner resonance in the observer’s soul. While art was born from the “inner necessity” of its creator, the work also had a mystical, autonomous life of its own, “animated by a spiritual breath.”
In 1911, Kandinsky co-founded Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), a group of nine Expressionist artists that all believed in the connection between spiritual experience and symbolic associations of sound and color. The group published an anthology (“The Blue Rider Almanac”) and held three exhibitions. Kandinsky published “Concerning the Spiritual in Art” that same year. His first theoretical work on abstraction laid out his theory that the artist was a spiritual being who used line, color, and composition to elevate others. Der Blaue Reiter disbanded in 1914 with the outbreak of World War I, but the group played a key role in initiating the German Expressionist style.
After Germany declared war on Russia, Kandinsky was forced to leave the country. He and Münter traveled to Switzerland and Sweden for two years but returned to Moscow in early 1916 where their relationship ended. After the separation, Kandinsky suffered a nervous breakdown.
While back in Moscow, 50-year-old Kandinsky met Nina Andreevskaya, a 17-year-old art student and daughter of a Czarist colonel. They married and had a son who died three years later. The couple remained in Russia after the revolution, and Kandinsky helped the new government develop arts organizations and schools. But Kandinsky’s expressionistic search for spirituality in art conflicted with the minimalist, utilitarian style preferred by the new government. In 1921, when invited to teach at the Bauhaus school in Germany, Kandinsky accepted and moved with his wife to Berlin. In 1926 he published his second major theoretical work on the science of painting, “Point and Line to Plane.”
When the Nazis closed the Bauhaus school in 1933 and confiscated many of his works, Kandinsky was forced to leave his adopted home in Germany and moved to France, where he remained for the rest of his life. His style shifted from the geometric shapes of his Germany years to organic, biomorphic forms. He continued to paint in his Paris living room studio, synthesizing and refining much of his earlier styles and themes. The works from these years were complex and elaborate. His last two major compositions were painted in 1936 and 1939. These paintings were the pinnacle representations of his ability to use color and form to evoke the soul of the viewer, stirring the emotions and psyche into a heightened state of spiritual transcendence.
Kandinsky had many prominent supports and patrons who collected his abstract works, including Solomon R. Guggenheim, who housed over 150 works in the museum’s collection.
Wassily Kandinsky live a relatively secluded life in his last years and died of cerebrovascular disease in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France, on December 13, 1944.
“Of all the arts, abstract painting is the most difficult. It demands that you know how to draw well, that you have a heightened sensitivity for composition and for colors, and that you be a true poet. This last is essential.” – Kandinsky