Wassily Kandinsky

by Adrian Blakey in The Great Artists Series

Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) is generally regarded as one of the founding fathers of non-representational abstract art.

His color palette is bold and vibrant, and in his later works, he embeds alluring motifs around his main themes.

If you are not familiar with Kandinsky,  here are some introductory links that explain who he was, and present some of his best known works:

While mostly enigmatic, I find that there is something definitely compelling in works like Composition VII (1913) or Yellow-Red-Blue  (1925)

These works are very different from one-another and illustrate how Kandinsky’s style evolved to become more geometric with simpler constructions in his later career.

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In  Composition X (1939), and Circle and Square (1943), he offers far fewer elements with less distracting themes and devices.

But let’s revert to Composition VII (1913). I think this work is a masterpiece:

Whilst at first glance it appears to be an entirely non-representational abstract, it comprises several quite distinct stylistic elements and themes over different parts of the canvas.

Historians have concluded that the painting IS in fact highly representational, claiming it is about Resurrection, the Judgment Day, the Flood and the Garden of Eden.

Who knows? Is it necessary or helpful to know the details of the artists inspiration in order to appreciate or find meaning in abstract works?

I don’t think so. What is interesting though is the notion that non-representational elements can be combined to create higher levels of entirely figurative meaning.

Now THAT is one seriously inspirational idea, and core to my current work.  Unlike  Kandinsky, I do provide some interpretative notes with my paintings to give the viewer some idea of what I’m attempting.

Composition VII is a busy and cluttered work.  The artist is expressing complex emotions, and making statements at multiple levels. I neither know nor care what specific stories may have motivated this work.

So let’s take a closer look at some of the components of this work, and how they integrate together. Slightly left of center is a construction of objects that appear to be the eye of this conceptual storm:

This element is complex and detailed. It  could have been a complete stand-alone work in its own right. It is at least as interesting as so many of the contemporary abstracts one sees online and in galleries today. I would argue it  is better than most.

Yet for Kandinsky, it plays a limited role.  Whilst it might play a leading role, like the principal actor in a play, its lines were not intended to be heard in isolation. I think this gives a real insight into the depth and sophistication of Kandinsky’s compositions generally.

As a painter,  I have a tendency to fill  background spaces with a balanced series of related micro-abstracts. While these elements in my paintings are entirely non-representational, they surround collections of abstract elements that collectively ARE intended to be figurative.

There is a lot going on in the backgrounds of works like “On Yellow“, “Ocean Birth“,  “Meg’s Inspriration“, “Weeping Picasso“, and “Ade’s Mother“.

I try to balance and harmonize the flow of colors, shapes, motifs and positions. And, as in Kandinsky’s Composition VII, these were not intended to be extracted and used as stand-alone works.

Unlike Kandinsky, I have experimented with making simpler abstract works that tell a partial or complete story that are intended to stand alone. See works like these for example: “Renewal“, “Mare Tranquillitatis” and “Cellular Machinery”.

This leads me to consider progressing to deliberately plan large scale elemental paintings over multiple canvases in which each canvas is a figurate abstract, like “Biogenesis” and, when displayed as a giant matrix, collectively make a higher level statement.

But let’s continue analyzing Composition VII. I  mentioned above how art historians have cast very specific and concrete figurative interpretations onto this work.  I think that’s a mistake in general and totally unnecessary to find meaning and enjoyment here, and from abstraction in general.

It is true, and well documented, that much of Kandinsky’s early work was figurative to varying degrees, and did depict scenes from mythology and Russian folk stories. There is no shortage of such works. See “Murnau, train & castle“, 1909 and “Blue Mountain“, 1908–09 as examples.

However, I see no reason to need to find such anthropomorphic interpretations here, and indeed argue that it is completely invalid and unsafe to do so.

Let me argue this by offering a counter-position, namely, that this work depicts, a man descending into madness. I can readily find all sorts of elements to build my case, which are and must be of course entirely bogus.

For the purpose of this exercise, I’ll boldly assert that this work is a response to Picasso’s then contemporary cubist portraits. To do this, I’ll go way out on a limb and tell you that Kandinsky intended to depict an abstraction of a human figure, as revealed in this  close up taken from the base of the work:

I’m prepared to bet that you will have trouble seeing my interpretation, so I’ve annotated the same section of the painting below to make it completely explicit:

One could continue in this vain to find “proof” of whatever one wants to find. For example, I could claim there is another overlapping face, the latter representing a manifestation of madness with it’s screaming mouth:

But this kind of commentary is as futile and as false as anthropomorphizing a mountain range or a forest. For me, this work is best appreciated for what it literally is and only that.

The fact that Kandinsky named it a “composition” immediately tells us that he has woven many parts together to create something new.

Composition VII has clear demarcations that separate areas of the canvas. There is a sparseness on the right-hand side compared with the smaller more compressed elements on the left. It’s also brighter on the right.

Does this suggest another equally bogus “interpretation”? Perhaps  we are looking at a surface that is not flat, so the the right hand side is closer to the viewer?

Or perhaps Kandinsky had a compression of time in mind, with time slowing as we moved to the right? Could this painting be a reaction to Einstein’s theory of special relativity published in 1905, close enough in time to be contemporary with this 1913 work?

Or was Kandinsky perhaps expressing his fear of a world inevitably approaching it’s first global conflict, being painted just before the outbreak of World War I?

Kandinsky did write extensively about his theory of painting. We know for example that he strongly associated certain colors with particular emotions, and that he believed in mankind’s progression down the ages.

He drew analogies with the temporal structure of music and was a great fan of Arnold Schoenberg’s atonal music.

But I don’t think it is possible to “read” his paintings using his writings as an interpretive guide. On viewing Kandinsky’s paintings in galleries, I’ve always been amazed by the impact of the fine detail that cannot be seen online or in books.

I often got the impression that Kandinsky was trying to baffle and confuse the viewer, that he was trying to challenge and break norms by defying expectations. It’s like a choral work in which each of the performers sing different discordant or atonal melodies in differing time signatures.

This work is as original and startling today as it was on it’s day of completion. It construction, balance and harmony with its scattered used of  motifs and its strong demarcation into overlapping but clearly distinct areas is a remarkable achievement. I’m giving this painter five stars!

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