Wassily Kandinsky

Wassily Kandinsky Composition VIII

Composition 8 (Komposition 8), July 1923, Oil on canvas, 140 x 201 cm, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection, by gift

The event is significant: Wassily Kandinsky, forty-six, produced the first abstract watercolour. He goes further than Expressionism, further than Cubism, further than Futurism. And in his eyes, it is neither a first attempt nor an experience without a future, but a necessity of the time which engages the whole of art.

The way in which the artist arrived at this abstraction is worth tracing. He told it himself with humor to his friends. It was in 1908, as dusk approached, Kandinsky returned to his studio, still full of a day spent painting from nature. However, he suddenly saw, leaning against one of the walls, a picture of extreme beauty composed of shapes and colors whose meaning was unknown to him. Who could have placed there, during his absence, such a masterpiece? Then, as he approached, he soon discovered the solution to the riddle: it was one of his paintings lying on its side. He was then certain that figuration damaged his painting.

Already in the works produced before, in Murnau, in the Bavarian Alps where he spent his summers, Kandinsky made his themes explode – church of Murnau, mountains, clumps of trees, meadows – with colorful overflows. And he was already turning around from what he achieved in 1910: in his conviction, paining as an art of interiority, like music, can deploy the same forces.

In addition to the anecdote of the canvas placed on the side, two other circumstances of his life seem to have played a role. In 1885, during the exhibition of the French Impressionists in Moscow, he had been fascinated by Monet’s Haystack belonging to a series of canvases where the artist shows, covered by the light, the haystacks which surround his property in Giverny. The discovery of an almost abstract canvas. Followed by this haunting question: Why wouldn’t painters one day be able to work freely, using pure shapes and colors?

The same year, a performance of Lohengrin at the Court Theater came to confirm his feelings. Kandinsky likes to recall how, while listening to Wagner, wild lines were drawn before his eyes; how violins, deep basses and wind instruments mentally evoked the full range of colors; how a whole set of tensions was building in his mind. Twenty-five years later, it is these memories and this fascination that he managed, for the first time, to translate pictorially.

Kandinsky can unquestionably be considered the main founder of abstract painting, even if we simultaneously see the appearance of other precursory attempts, such as those of František Kupka followed, shortly after, by Black Square on a White Background by Kasimir Malevitch. It was around 1911 that Kandinsky found the way to abstraction. The length and detours of the path he then followed until 1914 have been exposed in numerous works.

Kandinsky remained all his life marked by the conviction that there is “spirituality in art” and by his adherence to abstract painting. This did not prevent him, as he evolved, from standing out from constructivist abstraction, in his eyes too „mechanical“, and from clearly seeing the formalism which, in the 1930s, threatened abstract art, conceived only as a response to the anonymity of mass society.


Nahon, P. N. (2014). S.V. « Kandinsky, Vassily (1866-1944) » in: Dictionnaire amoureux de l’art moderne et de l’art contemporain, vol. 1, Plon. [In French]

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