Wassily Kandinsky Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.