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Why Kandinsky chose to make abstract art

Gaby Reucher kbm
December 2, 2016

With his abstract forms and bold colors, Wassily Kandinsky was a revolutionary. Hated by the Nazis, he not only painted, but taught other artists to think outside the box. He was born 150 years ago on December 4.

Wassily Kandinsky, First abstract watercolor
Image: picture-alliance/akg-images

In 1910, Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky painted his first abstract watercolor. The following year, he presented his works in an exhibition held by the Neue Künstlervereinigung München, or Munich New Artists' Association. It turned out to be a scandal.

"Either the majority of the members in this association are incurably insane or we're dealing with a group of unscrupulous con men that very well know how to sensationalize the weaknesses of our contemporaries and try to take advantage of the large demand," commented the newspaper "Münchener Neuste Nachrichten."

For Europe's avant-garde, Kandinsky's abstract art was revolutionary.

Wassily Kandinsky portrait
Wassily KandinskyImage: Imago/Leemage

Search for the truth within

The early years of the 20th century were intense. Industrialization stirred expectations for everything to become faster, higher, further, and better. Science was releasing new discoveries practically every day. Sigmund Freud published his theories about the human psyche. Roald Amundson reached the South Pole and Werner von Siemens made the first telegraph that could send 1,000 characters per minute.

What seemed impossible yesterday was already obsolete today. People began questioning reality due to modern technology. For artists like Kandinsky, depicting reality was no longer the aim. The Russian artist wanted to portray the truth he found inside of people and reflect this internal world of emotions on canvas with abstract colors and forms.

Already in 1907, art historian Wilhelm Worringer wrote an essay about "Abstraction and Empathy," which asserted that "the tendency to abstraction is a consequence of people's deep insecurity about the world."

Kandinsky's artistic beginnings in Munich

Wassily Kandinsky Composition V
Wassily Kandinsky's "Composition V"Image: picture-alliance/Heritage Images

Wassily Kandinsky was born on December 4, 1866 in Moscow. After studying law, he turned to art and moved to Munich in 1896. There, he first studied at a private art school, but later attended the Munich Art Academy. At the same time, he founded an artists' association called Phalanx and ran his own painting school, where artist Gabriele Münter was a student.

The Abstract Expressionist was married at the time, but he began a relationship with Münter. Kandinsky spent a great deal of time at Münter's estate in Murnau. The pictures of houses and forests that he created there were still influenced by the folk art of his Russian home, but were already characterized by brilliant colors.

Kandinsky's theory of abstract painting

Supposedly, Kandinsky took up abstract art because he spotted a picture in his studio during twilight. It was lying on its side and Kandinsky recognized just forms and colors that fascinated him. He came to the conclusion that representationalism only hurt his work. Of course, Kandinsky was familiar with the color and light techniques of the Impressionists and the unusual forms of the Cubists.

Wassily Kandinsky also examined the theory of abstract art. In 1911, his definitive book, "Concerning the Spiritual in Art," was published. It examines the purpose of art and how colors and forms impact the human soul. Since abstract art is freed from representationalism, colors and forms can display their own spirit and express the feelings of the soul.

Kandinsky and the Blue Rider

While Kandinsky's works and theories were praised for being revolutionary, conservative art connoisseurs struggled with them. Even the Neue Künstlerverinigung München was critical of Kandinsky.

The Bauhaus group from left: Lyonel Feininger, Wassily Kandinsky, Oskar Schlemmer, Georg Muche and Paul Klee in 1925
The Bauhaus group from left: Lyonel Feininger, Wassily Kandinsky, Oskar Schlemmer, Georg Muche and Paul Klee in 1925 Image: picture-alliance/akg-images

On December 2, 1911, the association's jury rejected the artist's work "Composition V" for an exhibition. In protest, Kandinsky, his friend Franz Marc and Gabriele Münter withdrew their membership and founded their own association called Der Blaue Reiter, The Blue Rider, which August Macke also joined.

Together with Franz Marc, Kandinsky wrote "The Blue Rider Almanac" in 1912, which outlined the equal status of the group's members and sought to define a new language of color and form.

War separated the artists

When World War I broke out, Kandinsky returned to Moscow. Germany had declared war on Russia. Gabriele Münter moved to Stockholm. Their relationship was over but they stayed in touch. Münter rescued many of Kandinsky's works from the Nazis and donated them to Munich's Lenbachhaus gallery in 1957.

In Moscow, Kandinsky continued his academic career as a professor. In 1917, he married Nina Andreievskaya, who was 27 years younger. She would later handle his estate.

The newly formed Soviet Union restricted Kandinsky's artistic freedom significantly and, in 1922, he accepted an invitation from Walter Gropius and moved to Weimar to join the Bauhaus movement. His former neighbor and long-time friend Paul Klee had done the same just before him.

The geometric Bauhaus years

Gabriele Münter in Kandinsky's art class (1902)
Gabriele Münter (center) was in Kandinsky's art classImage: picture-alliance/akg-images

Architect Walter Gropius aimed to further his theory of the equality of the arts at the school he founded in Weimar in 1919. Artists and craftsmen were to work and teach together. Kandinsky taught various painting courses until the Nazis shut down the Bauhaus school completely.

After his Expressionist period, Kandinsky dedicated himself to geometric forms while at the Bauhaus school. He was still searching to define the principles of abstract art.

In 1926, he published his Bauhaus book, "Point and Line to Plane," in which he tried to develop a kind of grammar for form. Point and line are not just elements of painting, but also of music, he theorized. "Most musical instruments are linear characters," wrote Kandinsky. "The range of various musical instruments corresponds to the width of the line: a very thin one is produced by the violin, flute and piccolo."

He also viewed musical scores as a combination of points and lines, which communicate complex sounds in a simple way. Kandinsky wanted to transfer this simplicity to art: "There is only one way - analytical separation of basic elements to reach one's own graphic expression." These basic elements are geometrical circles, squares and triangles, which characterized Kandinsky's work during his Bauhaus phase.

Kandinsky rejected by the Nazis

Lenbachhaus München
The Lehnbachhaus in Munich shows Kandinsky works from Gabriele Münter's collectionImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Mies van der Rohe, the last director of the Bauhaus school, was told by the Nazis in 1933: "Kandinsky must be fired immediately because his mind-set makes him dangerous to us."

So Kandinsky emigrated to Paris, where his friend Marcel Duchamp had organized an apartment in the suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine.

While the Nazis confiscated 57 of his works, which they'd deemed "degenerate," art fans from around the world traveled to Switzerland in 1937 to admire Kandinsky's masterpieces in an exhibition.

The Expressionist died on December 13, 1944, in Neuilly-sur-Seine at the age of 78 - just a few months after the liberation of Paris. He always referred to abstract painting as the most difficult art form. "It requires that one can draw, that one is highly sensitive for composition and color and that one is a real poet - that's most important."