Wassily Kandinsky Essay - Critical Essays

Kandinsky, Wassily


Kandinsky, Wassily 1866-1944

Russian painter, critic, and poet.

Considered one of the most influential painters of the German Expressionist movement, Kandinsky is best known for his artistic and theoretical contributions to the development of nonrepresentational, or abstract, art. Using brilliant colors in compositions of geometric shapes and lines, he sought to communicate experiences and emotions through a purely visual language divested of all symbolic or narrative content. In doing so, Kandinsky redefined traditional concepts of the picture plane and provided the rationale for much of modern art.

Biographical Information

Kandinsky was born to an affluent family in Moscow and educated in Odessa, a port city in the southern Ukraine. In 1886 he enrolled in a program of law, economics, and politics at Moscow University, where, after graduating in 1893, he accepted a position on the Faculty of Law. During his years as a student and instructor, he became fascinated with art, and after viewing the paintings of the French Impressionists in 1895 he abandoned his teaching position to study painting. As a student at the Munich Academy of Art, he developed and interest in Art Noveau or Jugendstil, a movement whose adherents promoted decorative art. By 1901, Kandinsky had become a noteworthy figure in the art community in Munich. Critics generally refer to the years between 1908 and 1914—when Kandinsky first espoused abstractionism—as the period of his greatest achievements. According to an often-cited anecdote, Kandinsky's "discovery" of abstract art occurred in 1908 when, struck by the beauty and originality of one of his own paintings, he realized that the work had been turned upside-down; the figures he had found especially pleasing and communicative owed their advantage to their lack of conventional denotation.

In 1912 Kandinsky, along with his colleagues Gabriele Münter, Franz Marc, and August Macke, formed the Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider) group. Blue Rider offered a forum in its publication Blaue Reiter Almanack for the diverse viewpoints concerning art, music, and architecture found in the Expressionist movement. At the onset of World War I, he returned to Russia, where he remained for seven years, teaching art at the University of Moscow and serving as a consultant for the country's cultural education program. In 1922 Kandinsky accepted a teaching position on the staff of the Bauhaus, Germany's creative center for architecture and design. He remained as an instructor at the Bauhaus until 1933, when the National Socialist Government forced the school to close. He then moved to Paris where he set up a studio and devoted his time to painting. He died in 1944.

Major Works

Kandinsky's early paintings were highly stylized and colorful landscapes that reflect the influence of the Fauvists, often containing figures reminiscent of fairy tale and Russian folklore characters, as in his Couple Riding of 1905. After his discovery of abstract art in 1908, his paintings became increasingly abstract, consisting of black lines and vividly colored arcs and triangles in compositions dominated by blue, purple, yellow, and red, colors that he believed representative of specific psychological states, In addition to painting, he documented the artistic principles upon which he based his use of color and form, publishing his theories as Concerning the Spiritual in Art in 1911. This essay proved to be one of the most influential treatises on art ever written. His later work is generally considered a culmination of his talents, and most critics note that the geometric and organic shapes in his later works are more precisely defined and more intricate in dimension, than those of his earlier works, creating an impression of energy and movement.

Critical Reception

While Kandinsky's delineation of the aims of abstract art is regarded as eloquent and important, many critics contend that his own work often failed to incorporate the principles he advanced. Such critics note in particular that his paintings do not achieve his goal of creating nonrepresentational works that would transcend mere decoration through their power to express ideas and emotions. However, Kandinsky's theories were successfully realized by subsequent artists and art movements, and he is therefore acknowledged as the primary theorist of modern abstractionism.

Principal Works

Klänge [Sounds] (prose poems) 1912

Über das Geistige in der Kunst [Concerning the Spiritual in Art] (criticism) 1912

Punkt und Linie zu Flache: Beitrag zur Analyse der malerischen Elemente [Point and Line to Plane: Contributions to the Analysis of the Pictorial Elements] (criticism) 1926

Kandinsky: The Bauhaus Years (catalog) 1966

Ecrits Complets. 2 vols. [Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art] (criticism) 1970

Arnold Schönberg, Wassily Kandinsky: Briefe, Bilder und Dokumente einer aussergewöhnlichen Begegnung [Arnold Schoenberg, Wassily Kandinsky: Letters, Pictures, and Documents] (letters) 1980

Kandinsky: Catalogue Raisonné of the Oil-Paintings. 2 vols. (catalog) 1982

Kandinsky: Watercolors and Drawings (catalog) 1992

Kandinsky (catalog) 1999


Wassily Kandinsky (essay date 1899)

SOURCE: "Secession," in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 23, No. 4, Summer, 1997, p. 729.

[In the following translation of an 1899 review, Kandinsky assesses the work shown at the 1899 Munich Secession's international exhibit.]

Kandinsky's review of the 1899 Munich Secession's international exhibition is his first major art essay.1 It appeared in Novosti dnia (News of the Day), 4 November 1899, a prominent Moscow daily newspaper covering local, national, and international events, with occasional features on literature and art. Its discovery revises the status given to Kandinsky's 1901 article "Critique of Critics,"2 which has been credited by Western scholars as his first essay on art.3 "Secession"'s publication thus gives us some of the earliest indications of Kandinsky's views on art, when he was a student in Munich. It was written only weeks before the approaching new century at a time when Kandinsky witnessed profound changes in art whose impact would be felt for years to come.

In "Secession," Kandinsky recognized art's affinity with the momentum of the changing age and the promise it would bring for greater innovation and expertise. The essay was a response to debates within Russia's art community on the value of such progress to Russian culture and society. "Secession" follows a series of articles written in 1898 and 1899—among others, Igor Grabar's "Decline or Renaissance?" and Sergei Diaghilev's "Complicated Questions"4—that challenged Russian realism's dominance and resistance to artistic change. These authors sought legitimacy for "decadent" Western European art, such as impressionism, postimpressionism, and symbolism, as an arbiter of progress for contemporary art in Russia. Western European art, in all its innovation and potential as a salvation for Russia's stagnant art climate, offered Russian artists a means of expressing their individuality freely; they thus defied the dated and repressive policies promoted by the Russian realists and the tsarist art academy. Kandinsky's review of the Munich Secession exhibition provided him with a means of broadening the Russian public's awareness of a pervasive international phenomenon. Artists throughout Europe were progressing towards individual expression as an acceptable form of artistic behavior. Popular support for this movement gave it a level of credibility difficult for even its most ardent Russian opponents to challenge.

Kandinsky was already painting at the time he wrote his review and was attuned to the changes in techniques and materials impacting Europe's art world so deeply. In painting, artists' rediscovery of tempera provided them with the technical means of treating color differently. Tempera's properties as a stable, quick-drying pigment, whose colors produced a bright and intense richness, were conducive to the creation of paintings in which artists could assert themselves through color as an expression of their individuality. The significance of this development in painting was paralleled by the Arts and Crafts Movement, which had elevated goods from their merely functional value to a higher art form, as a source of spiritual enrichment. Beauty became a commodity available not only to the cultured elite but to the masses. Sold in the form of household items designed by artists, their sense of color, line, and materials brought the industry an aesthetic sensibility that had been heretofore unseen.

Kandinsky's message of progress and artistic reform and its power as an indicator of what art would become in the future century was tempered three years later, however, in his 1902 review of the Munich Secession and Artists' Association (Kunstlergenossenschaft) exhibitions, entitled "Correspondence from Munich."5 As the new age failed to bring with it a consistent path of achievement, Kandinsky was unable to offer his Russian public the level of encouragement he had so willingly expressed in his earlier review. The work of many artists in both shows fell short of his expectations as artists' evolution towards mastering the synthesis of individual expression with technique and style either did not materialize in its own right or succumbed to faddish trends.

In one of my first accounts of Munich's art exhibits I spoke, by the way, of that strange and still-yielding impression, which turned up among spectators in the exhibition halls devoted to Scottish painting. I spoke of the tiresomeness and monotony of that foggy veil which covered these artists' paintings: fog in the morning, afternoon, evening, and night, with sun and in overcast weather; fog, appearing in landscape, genre, portrait, a beautiful fog, giving that fairy-tale and peculiarly poetic impression, but with too often recurring persistence as if by order of law, until exhausted. Arising now and then on its own but most of the time drifting over from Scotland, this foggy mood was cultivated in the painting of countries all over the world.

And it is just now, perhaps, that a reaction is beginning: pure and intense light, purity and brightness of colors are beginning to burn here and there with intense patches among many others, immersed as usual in a dull haze of paintings. I am not presuming to confirm with assurance that time will disintegrate these weakened colors sooner or later. But another tendency is already clearly emerging. In places, the bright sun shines, which is of a specific character; the mood of dusk that not too long ago took first place among motifs is now beginning to be interpreted differently—the purity and intensity of colors stare out shyly even in overcast weather. Munich's exhibit of innovators in art, this year's "Secession," will give a rough picture of these two trends in contemporary painting.

Whistler's brilliant words on the harmony of dusk flew all over the world with astonishing speed. It was also often reiterated by them that true beauty springs up with the death of day. "When the evening mist," said that great artist,

clothes the riverside with poetry, as with a veil, and the poor buildings lose themselves in the dim sky, and the tall chimneys become campanili, and the warehouses are palaces in the night, and the whole city hangs in the heavens, and fairy-land is before us—then the wayfarer hastens home; the working man and the cultured one, the wise man and the one of pleasure, cease to understand, as they have ceased to see, and Nature, who, for once, has sung in tune, sings her exquisite song to the artist alone, her son and her master—her son in that he loves her, her master, in that he knows her.6

The matter has come to the point where some of the most exceptional artists have begun to look at the sun through the dusky prism. They go to extremes trying to soften tones and turn the sun's spot into an apparition. The famous Scotsman Brangwyn, whose influence spread all over Europe in its turn and found avid supporters in Munich, acts in this fashion. This year a decorative panel was presented to these supporters at the "Secession": a few nude male figures playing classical pipes in a mist-filled sunny glade amidst trees with translucent shadows. As usual, it is an extremely pretty and interesting piece. The young and talented Angello Jank of Munich exhibited several pieces, which bore extremely close resemblance in tones to those of the Scotsman. His knights are very beautiful in the gloomy evening hours. The well-known Englishman Greiffenhagen submitted Annunciation, in which, as always, he combined the same foggy color treatment with the composition of the true offshoots of the English Pre-Raphaelites. The Municher Pipho reflected the same colors in his own work as if in a mirror. The forefather of all of Munich's school and on the whole of most of Germany's landscapists, Dill, again submitted several ultrafoggy pictures. The prominent French artist Carriere exhibited fog in the form of a portrait. From Russia fog was sent by Levitan (Silence).

And here, in the midst of this international assembly of fogs, patches of the new light caught on fire in some places. While this new light is not very obvious, nor stands on its own, it is still anxiously and timidly forging a path. Among the forefathers of this trend we welcome with steadfast fondness Claude Monet and alongside him the great Bocklin who, almost at the same time, could both paint colorless tones of oleographic pigments and create colorisi masterpieces. The tempera and oil paintings of other artists follow them, following the path of purity of tones and intensity of coloring. Of those who seek to resolve this problem with oil paints, there is not one who could sustain the purity of intense colors throughout the piece. Professor of the Munich Academy L. Herterich, in his Ulrich von Hutten, combined intense and pure tones on the armor with muddy and boring colors in a huge painting of a crucifixion and the head of a knight. Hierl-Deronco's huge painted canvas—Garden of Love—a row of female figures in a landscape—gave the most tasteless combination of intense strokes of color with the blackness and mud of...

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Peter Selz (essay date 1957)

SOURCE: "Esthetic Theories of Wassily Kandinsky," in German Expressionist Painting, University of California Press, 1957, pp. 223-33.

[In the following essay, Selz delineates the major themes of Kandinsky's theoretical writings, in particular his Concerning the Spiritual in Art and "Über die Formfrage. "]

The artistic purpose of the Blaue Reiter movement was most thoroughly articulated in Kandinsky's theoretical writings, especially the two essays, Concerning the Spiritual in Art and "Über die Formfrage," published in Der Blaue Reiter. Although these essays, which both appeared in 1912,1 are largely based on earlier esthetic theory,...

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Herbert Read (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: "The Lucid Order of Wassily Kandinsky," in Art and Alienation: The Role of the Artist in Society, Horizon Press, 1967, pp. 138-50.

[In the following essay, Read traces the development of Kandinsky's painting and philosophy of art.]

As a painter Kandinsky's achievement was coherent in development, original in style, and accumulative in force; but the painting was the direct expression of a slowly matured philosophy of art. It is possible that this philosophy of art has as much significance for the future as the paintings that were its outcome, but in this essay I shall try to show how the philosophy and the painting evolved, step by step in dialectical...

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Charles W. Millard (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "The Kandinsky Paradox," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XXVI, No. 1, Spring, 1973, pp. 177-87.

[In the following essay, Millard maintains that although Kandinsky was a great theoretician, he was not a great painter.]

Because Kandinsky occupies a particularly prominent place in the development of twentieth-century painting there has been an unspoken tendency to assume that his is an art of the first quality. If not ranked with the work of masters such as Matisse, it is tacitly presumed to occupy a place among the output of the major painters not much below the top level. It is, therefore, something of a shock to review a sizable and representative selection of his...

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Alwynne Mackie (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: "Kandinsky and Problems of Abstraction," in Artforum, Vol. XVII, No. 3, November, 1978, pp. 58-63.

[In the following essay, Mackie explores the role of abstract form in Kandinsky's art and artistic philosophy.]

In a very sympathetic article Hilton Kramer once voiced his misgivings (and disappointments) about Kandinsky, arriving at the view that he populated naturalistic (19th-century landscape) space with abstract forms and was unable to come to terms with the pictorial implications of the tendency of abstract forms to flatten space.1 Implicit in this criticism, of course, is the assumption that abstract forms demand a certain kind of spatial...

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Jonathan Fineberg (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "'Les Tendances Nouvelles', The Union Internationale Des Beaux-Arts, Des Lettres, Des Sciences et De L'Industrie and Kandinsky," in Art History, Vol. 2, No. 2, June, 1979, pp. 221-46.

[In the following essay, Fineberg traces Kandinsky's relationship with the influential art journal Les Tendances Nouvelles.]


The Parisian revue, Les Tendances Nouvelles, emerged in May of 1904 as part of an ambitious enterprise, consisting not only of a periodical, but of a gallery, an exhibition society, and an international artists' co-operative with explicitly Utopian goals. This...

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Rose-Carol Washton Long (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "Kandinsky's Vision," in The Life of Vasilii Kandinsky in Russian Art: A Study of 'On the Spiritual in Art', edited by John E. Bowlt and Rose-Carol Washton Long, and translated by John Bowlt, Oriental Research Partners, 1980, pp. 43-61.

[In the following essay, Long analyzes the purpose and meaning of Kandinsky's On the Spiritual in Art, maintaining that the artist "attempted to resolve the dilemma of how to effectively communicate a vision of man's spirituality while avoiding both materialistic representation on the one hand and decorative ornament on the other. "]

The publication of Kandinsky's On the Spiritual in Art in 19121 can be...

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Elizabeth R. Napier (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: An introduction to Wassily Kandinsky: Sounds, translated and with an introduction by Elizabeth R. Napier, Yale University Press, 1981, pp. 134-36.

[In the following essay, Napier provides a stylistic and thematic overview of Kandinsky's poetry. ]

In 1938, recalling the publication of Klänge, Kandinsky spoke of it as "a small example of synthetic work":

This is, for me, a "change of instrument"—the palette to one side and the typewriter in its place. I use the word "instrument" because the force which motivates my work remains unchanged, an "inner drive." And it is this very drive which calls for a frequent...

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Stephen Spender (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "The Glow of Irreality," in New York Review of Books, Vol. XXVIII, No. 13, August 13, 1981, pp. 40-43.

[In the following favorable review of Sounds, Spender considers the relationship between Kandinsky's poetry and his painting.]

The coincidence of the exhibition "Kandinsky: The Improvisations" at the National Gallery of Art in Washington with the publication of Elizabeth Napier's translation of Kandinsky's book Sounds (Klänge) is happy. Both belong approximately to the second decade of the present century. Kandinsky painted the first Improvisation in 1909. In 1913 Klänge, a volume of thirty-eight prose poems and fifty-six woodcuts,...

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Carter Radcliff (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "Kandinsky's Book of Revelation," in Art in America, December, 1982, pp. 105-09, 157-59.

[In the following essay, Radcliff examines the apocalyptic vision in Kandinsky's seminal essay, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, and compares it to the biblical book of Revelation.]

I would like to propose that Expressionism enjoys a special relationship with apocalypse. This is not a new idea. The Expressionists themselves came up with it. Nor, I must admit, does this notion permit us to draw very clear lines. What modernist style has not served as a more or less sensitive seismograph of our century's millennial tremors? High modernism aside, every plateau of the...

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Marian Pester (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "Kandinsky: The Owl of Minerva," in Passion and Rebellion: The Expressionist Heritage, edited by Stephen Eric Bronner and Douglas Kellner, J. F. Bergin Publishers, Inc., 1983, pp. 250-75.

[In the following essay, Pester deems Kandinsky and his work an embodiment of the revolutionary ideas spreading throughout Europe during the early twentieth century.]

Kandinsky (1866-1944) was one of the foremost philosophers of the abstract expressionist movement in painting. He was an artist of unsurpassed lucidity who refused to choose for the "analytical" against the "mystical/lyrical," and successfully materialized his vision in oils, watercolor, and graphics. At...

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Jed Rasula (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: A review of Sounds, in American Book Review, Vol. 5, No. 2, January-February, 1983, pp. 4-5.

[In the following review, Rasula offers a positive assessment of Kandinsky's Sounds, deeming it "one of the essential books of poetry of the century, whatever one may think of Kandinsky's art. "]

One of the essential conjunctions between modernists that never came to pass was a meeting between Kandinsky and the London artists of the Wyndham Lewis/Ezra Pound circle. Not that any such meeting was ever a possibility, but the English translation of Sounds makes one wish it had come to pass, somehow, more for Pound's benefit than Kandinsky's, I should...

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Rose-Carol Washton Long (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "Occultism, Anarchism, and Abstraction: Kandinsky's Art of the Future," in Art Journal, Vol. 46, No. 1, Spring, 1987, pp. 38-45.

[In the following essay, Long determines the influence of occultism and anarchism on Kandinsky's writings and art.]

As art historians in recent years have examined the development of modern art, it has become more and more apparent that the interest in occult and mystical knowledge evinced by many artists was often part of a search for alternatives to restrictive social and political attitudes and outworn conventions. For solutions to the problems created by an increasingly industrialized and commercialized society, many artists...

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Roger Lipsey (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "Wassily Kandinsky in the Years of On the Spiritual in Art'," in An Art of Our Own: The Spiritual in Twentieth-Century Art, Shambhala, 1988, pp. 40-50.

[In the following essay, Lipsey provides an overview of the major themes of Kandinsky's seminal essay, contending that "its essential achievement was to identify the new art as a legitimate language of the spirit and to lay groundwork for a way of thinking, particularly about abstract art, that made sense. "]

More deliberately than any artist of our time, Kandinsky explored the spiritual in art through his work as a painter and through writings—articulate, generous, impassioned—which circulated the idea of...

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Michael Faherty (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "Kandinsky at the Klavier: Stevens and the Musical Theory of Wassily Kandinsky," in The Wallace Stevens Journal Vol. 16, No. 2, Fall, 1992, pp. 151-60.

[In the following essay, Faherty explores Wallace Stevens's interest in Kandinsky's work.]

In June 1952, Stevens wrote to the Irish poet and art historian Thomas McGreevy:

It made Kandinsky for me. I had not seen much of his work up to then and certainly not enough to make it possible to see it as a minor cosmos, which it is. It is the sort of thing that is wholly esthetic and wholly delightful. And from that point of view it seemed valid. (Brazeau)


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Michael Faherty (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "The Third Dimension: Ezra Pound and Wassily Kandinsky," in Paideuma, Vol. 21, No. 3, Winter, 1992, pp. 63-77.

[In the following essay, Faherty determines the influence of Kandinsky's theoretical writings on the work of the poet Ezra Pound.]

The very first English critic to review Wassily Kandinsky's Über das Geistige in der Kunst was also the first to recognize its potential impact on the future of modern poetry. Writing in the arts journal Rhythm in the spring of 1912, shortly after Kandinsky's book first appeared on the shelves of Munich bookshops, Michael Sadler predicted that Kandinsky's theories of abstraction would not only alter the course of...

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Carol McKay (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "Kandinsky's Ethnography: Scientific Field Work and Aesthetic Reflection," in Art History, Vol. 17, No. 2, June, 1994, pp. 182-208.

[In the following essay, McKay discusses Kandinsky's ethnographic essay "From Materials on the Ethnography of the Sysol and Vechegda Zyrians: The National Deities" and relates it to his autobiographical essay "Reminiscences. "]

This article explores how, in two essays written at separate moments of his adult career, Wassily Kandinsky represented the same ethnographic fieldwork experience in quite differing terms. The first of these essays is a scientific one: Kandinsky's 'From Materials on the Ethnography of the Sysol and Vechegda...

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William R. Everdell (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: "Vassily Kandinsky: Art With No Object, 1911-1912," in The First Moderns: Profiles in the Origins of Twentieth-Century Thought, University of Chicago Press, 1997, pp. 303-20.

[In the following essay, Everdell investigates Kandinsky 's prolific output during the year 1911-1912.]

The tall, narrow roofs of the Promenadenplatz and Maximiliansplatz, which have now disappeared, the old part of Schwabing, and especially the Au, which I discovered by chance on one occasion, turned these fairy-tales into reality. The blue trams threaded their way through the streets like an incarnation of the air of a fairy-story, which one inhales with delightful...

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Robert C. Williams (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: "Concerning the Western Spiritual in Russian Art: Vasily Kandinsky," in Russia Imagined: Art, Culture, and National Identity, 1840-1995, Peter Lang, 1997, pp. 45-59.

[In the following essay, Williams chronicles Kandinsky' s interest in religious mysticism and theosophy and discusses its influence on his work.]

In the early days of the Russian Revolution Bolshevism coexisted with Bohemia. Hundreds of artists and intellectuals rushed to help build a new society in which they might play a role, painting Agitprop trains, erecting monuments, composing symphonies for conductorless orchestras, reading Futurist poetry, filming the storming of the Winter Palace,...

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Further Reading


Grohmann, Will. Wassily Kandinsky: Life and Work. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1965, 428 p.

Critical biography that includes a catalog of works, color reproductions, and photographs of the artist.

Lassaigne, Jacques. Kandinsky. Translated by H. S. B. Harrison. Geneva: Editions d'Art Albert Skira, 1964, 131 p.

Richly illustrated biographical and critical study of the artist.

Weiss, Peg. Kandinsky in Munich: The Formative Jugendstil Years. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1979, 268 p.

Chronicles Kandinsky's Munich years and studies how that time affected his work....

(The entire section is 325 words.)