Presentation of the painter Wassily Kandinsky
(C) 2002-2010 Philippe Audinos

Wassily Kandinsky

[Wassily Kandinsky (first name sometimes spelled as "Vasily," "Vassily" or "Vasilii") (December 4, 1866 – December 13, 1944) was a Russian-born painter and art theorist. One of the most important 20th-century artists, alongside Picasso and Matisse, he is credited with painting the first abstract works in the history of modern art.]

[Kandinsky was born in Moscow but spent his childhood in Odessa. He enrolled at the University of Moscow and chose law and economics. Although quite successful in his profession, he started painting studies (life-drawing, sketching and anatomy) at the age of 30.]

[In 1896 he settled in Munich and studied at the Academy of Fine Arts, Munich. He went back to Moscow in 1918 after the Russian Revolution. Being in conflict with official theories on art, he returned to Germany in 1921. There he was a teacher at the Bauhaus from 1922 until it was closed by the Nazis in 1933. At that time he moved to France. He lived the rest of his life there, becoming a French citizen in 1939. He died at Neuilly-sur-Seine in 1944.]

Artistic periods

[The creation by Kandinsky of purely abstract work did not arrive as an abrupt change], it is the fruit of a long development, of a long maturation and of an intense theoretical thought based on his personal experience of painter an on this fervor of the spirit to the inner beauty and this deep spiritual desire which he called the inner necessity and which he placed at the principle of art.

Youth and inspirations (1866-1896)

[Kandinsky's youth and life in Moscow brought inspiration from a variety of sources. As a child he would later recall being fascinated and unusually stimulated with color. This is probably due to his synaesthesia which allowed him to quite literally hear as well as see color. The fascination with color continued as he grew up in Moscow, although he seems to have made no attempt to study art. In 1889 he was part of an ethnographic group that traveled to the Vologda region north of Moscow.] He tells in Looks on the past that he had the impression to move into a painting when he entered in the houses or the churches decorated with the most shimming colors. [His study of the folk art in the region, in particular the use of bright colors on a dark background was reflected in his early work. Kandinsky would write a few years later that 'Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with the strings'.]

[It was not until 1896, at the age of 30, Kandinsky gave up a promising career teaching law and economics to enroll in art school in Munich. Also in 1896, prior to leaving Moscow, he saw an exhibit of Monet and was particularly taken with a depiction of a haystack which, to him, had a powerful sense of color almost independent of the object itself.]

Artistic metamorphosis (1896-1911)

[Kandinsky's time at art school was helped by the fact that he was older and more settled than the other students and he began to emerge as a true art theorist in addition to being a painter. Unfortunately very little exists of his work from this period, though presumably it was extensive. This changes at the beginning of the 20th Century and much remains of the many landscapes and towns that he painted, using broad swathes of color but recognizable forms. For the most part, however, Kandinsky's paintings did not emphasize any human figures. An exception is Sunday, Old Russia (1904) where Kandinsky recreates a highly colorful (and no doubt fanciful) view of peasants and nobles before the walls of a town. Riding Couple (1907) depicts a man on horseback, holding a woman with tenderness and care as they ride past a Russian town with luminous walls across a river. Yet the horse is muted, while the leaves in the trees, the town, and the reflections in the river glisten with spots of color and brightness.]

[Perhaps the most important of Kandinsky's paintings from the decade of the 1900s was The Blue Rider (1903) which shows a small cloaked figure on a speeding horse rushing through a rocky meadow. The rider's cloak is a medium view, and the shadow cast is a darker blue. In the foreground are more amorphous blue shadows, presumably the counterparts of the fall trees in the background. The Blue Rider in the painting is prominent, but not clearly defined, and the horse has an unnatural gait (which Kandinsky must have known). Indeed, some believe that a second figure, a child perhaps, is being held by the rider though this could just as easily be another shadow from a solitary rider. Kandinsky shows the rider more as a series of colors than of specific details. In and of itself The Blue Rider is not exceptional in that regard when compared to contemporary painters, but it does show the direction that Kandinsky would take only a few years later.]

[From 1906 to 1908 Kandinsky spent a great deal of time travelling across Europe, until he came to live in the small Bavarian town of Murnau. The Blue Mountain (1908 – 1909) painted at this time shows more of his trend towards pure abstraction. A mountain of blue is flanked by two broad trees, one yellow, and one red. A procession of some sort with three riders and several others crosses at the bottom. The face, clothing, and saddles of the riders are each of a single color, and neither they or the walking figures display any real detail. The broad use of color in The Blue Mountain, illustrate Kandinsky's move towards art in which the color itself is presented independently of form.]

The Blue Rider (1911-1914)

The paintings of this period are composed of large and very expressive colored masses evaluate independently from forms and lines which serve no longer to delimitate them or to bring them out but which combine between them, are superimposed and overlap in a very free way to form paintings of an extraordinary force.

The influence of music has been very important on the birth of abstract art, as it is abstract by nature and as it doesn’t try to represent vainly the exterior world but simply to express in an immediate way the inner feelings of the human soul. Kandinsky used sometimes musical terms to designate his works : he called many of his most spontaneous paintings "improvisations", while he entitled "compositions" some others much more elaborated and worked at length, a term which resonated in him like a prayer.

[In addition to painting Kandinsky developed his voice as an art theorist. He helped to found the Munich New Artists' Association in and became its president in 1909. The group was unable to integrate the more radical approach of those like Kandinsky with more conventional ideas of art and the group dissolved in late 1911. Kandinsky then moved to form a new group The Blue Rider (Der Blaue Reiter) with like minded artists such as Franz Marc. The group released an almanac, also called The Blue Rider and held two exhibits. More of each were planned, but the outbreak of World War I in 1914 ended these plans and sent Kandinsky home to Russia via Switzerland and Sweden.]

[Kandinsky's writing in The Blue Rider Almanac and the treatise On the Spiritual In Art, which was released at almost the same time, served as both a defense and promotion of abstract art, as well as an appraisal that all forms of art were equally capable of reaching a level of spirituality. He believed that color could be used in a painting as something autonomous and apart from a visual description of an object or other form.]

Return to Russia (1914-1921)

During the years 1918 to 1921, Kandinsky deals with the cultural development politic of Russia, he collaborates in the domains of art pedagogy and museum reforms. He devoted his time to artistic teaching with a program based on forms and colors analysis, as well as the organization of the artistic culture Institute at Moscow. He made little painting during this period. He meets in 1916 Nina Andreievskaia who will became his wife the next year. Kandinsky received in 1921 the mission to go in Germany at the Bauhaus of Weimar, on the invitation of its founder, the architect Walter Gropius. The next year, the Soviets have officially forbidden all form of abstract art because judged as harmful for socialist ideals.

The Bauhaus (1922-1933)

The Bauhaus was an architecture and innovative art school which had as objective to merge plastic arts with applied arts, and whose teaching was built on the theoretical and practical application of the plastic arts synthesis. Kandinsky taught the basic design class for beginners and courses on advanced theory and conducted painting classes and workshop, where he completed his colors theory with new elements of form psychology. The development of his works on forms study, particularly on point and different forms of lines, will lead to the publication of its second major theoretical book Point and Line to Plane in 1926.

Geometrical elements have taken an increasing importance in his teaching as well as in his painting, particularly circle, half-circle, the angle, straight lines and curves. This period has been for him a period of intense production. The freedom of which testifies each of his work, by the treatment of planes rich in colors and in magnificent gradations as in the painting Yellow – red – blue (1925), Kandinsky shows his distance from constructivism and suprematism movements whose influence was increasing at this time.

The main forms which constitute this large painting of two meters of width entitled Yellow – red – blue are a yellow vertical rectangle, a slightly inclined red cross and a large dark blue circle, while a multitude of black straight or sinuous lines and of arcs of circles, as well as some monochromatic circles and some colored checkerboards contribute to its delicate complexity. This simple visual identification of forms and of the main colored masses present on the canvas only correspond to a first approach of the inner reality of the work whose right appreciation necessitates a much deeper observation, not only of forms and colors involved in the painting, but also of their relation, their absolute position and their relative disposition on the canvas, of their whole and reciprocal harmony.

In front of the hostility of the right political parties, the Bauhaus left Weimar and settled in Dessau from 1925. Following a fierce slander campaign from the Nazis, the Bauhaus has been close at Dessau in 1932. The school pursued its activities in Berlin until its dissolution in July 1933. Kandinsky leaves then Germany and settles in Paris.

The great synthesis (1934-1944)

In Paris, he is quite isolated, as abstract painting, particularly geometric, is not recognized : the artistic tendency into the fashion where impressionism and cubism. He lives and realizes his work in a small apartment where a studio has been fit up in the living room. Biomorphic forms with supple and non geometric outlines appear in his paintings, forms which evoke externally microscopic organisms but which always express the artist inner life. He uses original colors compositions which evoke the Slavonic popular art and which look like precious watermark works. He uses also sand mixed to the colors to give a granular texture to his painting.

This period corresponds in fact to a vast synthesis of his previous work, of which he uses the all the elements, even enriching them. He paints in 1936 and 1939 the two last major compositions, these canvas particularly elaborated and slowly ripped that he had stopped to produce since many years. Composition IX is a painting with highly contrasted powerful diagonals and whose central form evokes a human embryo in the womb of his mother. The small squares of colors and the colored bands seem to stand out against the black background of Composition X as stars fragments or filaments, while enigmatic hieroglyphs with pastel tones cover the large maroon mass which seems to float in the upper left corner of the canvas.

In Kandinsky’s works, some characteristics are really obvious while certain sonorities are more discrete and like veiled, that’s to say they reveal only progressively to those who make the effort to deepen their connection with the work and to refine their sight. We must not content with a first and very superficial impression or a coarse identification of the forms that the artist has used and which he has subtly harmonized and put in pitch in order to enter efficiently in resonance with the soul of the observer.


From the death of Wassily Kandinsky and during thirty years, Nina Kandinsky has never stopped to diffuse the message and to divulge the work of her husband. All the works in her possession have been legated to the Centre Georges Pompidou, in Paris, where we can see the largest collection of his paintings.

Theoretical writings on Art

The analysis made by Kandinsky on forms and on colors don’t result from simple arbitrary ideas associations, but from the inner experience of the painter who has passed years creating abstract paintings of an incredible sensorial richness, working on forms and with colors, observing for a long time and tirelessly his own paintings and those of other artists, noting simply their subjective and pathetic effect on the very high sensibility to colors of his artist and poet soul.

So it is a purely subjective form of experience that everyone can do and repeat taking the time to look at his paintings and letting acting the forms and the colors on his own living sensibility. These are not scientific and objective observations, but inner observations radically subjective and purely phenomenological which is a matter of what the French philosopher Michel Henry calls the absolute subjectivity or the absolute phenomenological life.

On the Spiritual In Art

Kandinsky compares the spiritual life of the humanity to a large Triangle similar to a pyramid and that the artist has the task and the mission of leading to the top by the exercise of his talent. The point of the Triangle is constituted only by some individuals who bring the sublime bread to men. A spiritual Triangle which moves forward and rises slowly, even if it sometimes remains immobile. During decadence periods, souls fall to the bottom of the Triangle and men only search for the external success and ignore purely spiritual forces.

When we look at colors on the painter palette, a double effect happens : a purely physical effect on the eye charmed by the beauty of colors firstly, which provokes a joy impression as when we eat a delicacy. But this effect can be much deeper and causing an emotion and a vibration of the soul, or an inner resonance which is a purely spiritual effect by which the color touches the soul.

The inner necessity is for Kandinsky the principle of the art and the foundation of forms and colors harmony. He defines it as the principle of the efficient contact entry of the form with the human soul. Every form is the delimitation of a surface by an other one, it possesses an inner content which is the effect it produces on the one who looks at it attentively. This inner necessity is the right of the artist to an unlimited freedom, but this freedom becomes a crime if it is not founded on such a necessity. The art piece is born from the inner necessity of the artist in a mysterious, enigmatic and mystic way, and then it acquires an autonomous life, it becomes an independent subject animated by a spiritual breath.

The first obvious properties we can see when we look at isolated color and let it acting alone, that’s on one side the warmth or the coldness on the colored tone, and on the other side the clarity or the obscurity of the tone.

The warmth is a tendency to yellow, the coldness a tendency to blue. The yellow and the blue form the first big contrast, which is dynamic. The yellow possesses an eccentric movement and the blue a concentric movement, a yellow surface seems to get closer to us, while a blue surface seems to move away. The yellow is the typically terrestrial color whose violence can be painful and aggressive. The blue is the typically celestial color which evokes a deep calm. The mixing of blue with yellow gives the total immobility and the calm, the green.

The clarity is a tendency to the white and the obscurity a tendency to the black. The white and the black form the second big contrast, which is static. The white acts like a deep and absolute silence full of possibilities. The black is a nothingness without possibility, it is an eternal silence without hope, it corresponds to death. That’s why any other color resonates so strongly on its neighborhood. The mixing of white with black leads to gray, which possesses none active force and whose affective tonality is near that of green. The gray corresponds to the immobility without hope, it tends to despair when it becomes dark and regains little hope when it lightens.

The red is a warmth color very living, lively and agitated, it possesses an immense force, it is a movement in oneself. Mixed with black, it leads to brown which is an hard color. Mixed with yellow, it gains in warmth and gives the orange which possesses an irradiation movement on the surround. Mixed with blue, it moves away from man to give the purple, which is cooled red. The red and the green form the third big contrast, the orange and the purple the fourth one.

Point and Line to Plane

Kandinsky analyses in this writing the geometrical elements which compose every painting, namely the point and the line, as well as the physical support and the material surface on which the artist draws or paints and which he calls the basic plane or BP. He doesn’t analyze them on an objective and exterior point of view, but on the point of view of their inner effect on the living subjectivity of the observer who looks them and let them acting on its sensibility.

The point is in the practice a small stain of color put by the artist on the canvas. So the point used by the painter is not a geometric point, it is not a mathematical abstraction, it possesses a certain extension, a form and a color. This form can be a square, a triangle, a circle, like a star or even more complex. The point is the most concise form, but according to its placement on the basic plane it will take a different tonality. It can be alone and isolated or on the opposite put in resonance with other points or with lines.

The line is the product of a force, it is a point on which a living force has been applied in a given direction, the force applied on the pencil or on the paint brush by the hand of the artist. The produced linear forms can be of several types : a straight line which results from an unique force applied in a single direction, an angular line which results from the alternation of two forces with a different direction, or a curved or wave-like line produced by the effect of two forces acting simultaneously. A plane can be obtained by condensation, from a line rotated around one of its ends.

The subjective effect produced by a line depends on its orientation : the horizontal line corresponds to the ground on which man rests and moves, to flatness, it possesses a dark and cold affective tonality similar with black or blue, while the vertical line corresponds to height which offers no support, it possesses on the opposite a luminous and warm tonality close from white and yellow. A diagonal possesses by consequence a more or less warm or cold tonality according to its inclination according to the horizontal and to the vertical.

A force which deploys itself without obstacle as the one which produces a straight line corresponds to lyricism, while several forces which confront or annoy each other form a drama. The angle formed by the angular line possesses as well an inner sonority which is warm and close to yellow for an acute angle (triangle), cold and similar to blue for an obtuse angle (circle) and similar to red for a right angle (square).

The basic plane is in general rectangular or square, thus it is composed of horizontals and verticals lines which delimitate it and define it as an autonomous being which will serve as support to the painting communicating it its affective tonality. This tonality is determined by the relative importance of theses horizontals and verticals lines, the horizontals giving a calm and cold tonality to the basic plane, while the verticals give it a calm and warm tonality. The artist possesses the intuition of this inner effect of the canvas format and dimensions, which he chooses according to the tonality he wants to give to his work. Kandinsky even considers the basic plane as a living being that the artist "fertilizes" and of which he feels the "breathing".

Every part of the basic plane possesses an proper affective coloration which will influence on the tonality of the pictorial elements that will be drawn on it, which contributes to the richness of the composition which results from their juxtaposition on the canvas. The above of the basic plane corresponds to the looseness and to lightness, while the below evokes the condensation and heaviness. This is the work of the painter to listen to know these effects in order to produce paintings which are not just the effect of a random process, but the fruit of an authentic work and the result of an effort toward the inner beauty.

This book contains many photographic examples and drawing from Kandinsky’s works which offer the demonstration of its theoretical observations, and which allow the reader to reproduce in him the inner obviousness provided that he takes the time to look at those pictures with care, that he let them acting on its own sensibility and that he let vibrating the sensible and spiritual strings of his soul.

Quotes from Kandinsky

Quotations on Kandinsky

Encouraged reproduction

Contribution to the article on Wassily Kandinsky written by Philippe Audinos and added to the free encyclopedia Wikipedia on the site The paragraphs between square brackets have been written by others Wikipedians. This text can be freely reproduced and diffused under the condition to keep the reference to Wikipedia.

Version 0.4 of the 12/22/2010
(C) 2002-2010 Philippe Audinos
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