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Wassily Kandinsky: Biography & Paintings

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

In this lesson, learn about Russian artist and art theorist Wassily Kandinsky. Together, his fascination with color, design, and music and his passion for finding deeper spiritual meaning created a new kind of painting. He wrote important works regarding theories of art and color and became a pioneer of abstract art.

Early Years

Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) was born in Moscow and grew up in Odessa. Despite fascination with form, color, and music as a young man, he followed family wishes and studied law and economics at the University of Moscow. Upon graduation, he became an instructor of law. But it was not his passion.

The turning point? Two experiences with creative works that profoundly impacted him: he viewed an exhibit of French Impressionists in Moscow, where he was struck by Claude Monet's Haystacks at Giverny and Monet's use of color to express shape; and then he heard Wagner's Lohengrin. In 1896, at age 30, Kandinsky abandoned law and traveled to Munich to study art, eventually enrolling in the Munich Academy of Arts and becoming active in the regional art vanguard. An earlier ethnographic study trip had opened Kandisky's eyes to the colors and exaggerated forms found in Russian folk art, and during this period he moved away from figural works (images that portrayed a recognizable human body).

Blue Rider, 1903
Blue Rider, 1903

Blue Rider, painted in 1903, is a good example of where he was headed. You can recognize figures like the horse and rider, but the forms are indistinct. Kandinsky is more interested in shapes, large masses of color, and the play of light against dark.

Birth of Abstract Art

Kandinsky viewed music as the perfect art form, for it did not need to stick to recognized sounds and appearances. He wanted to pursue the same type of feeling in art, and as his work progressed, he moved further and further away from figural work toward abstract art. In other words, he moved away from work that depicted physical objects such as the human body to works that dealt with line, color, and shape. Kandinsky was passionate about creating a new artistic vocabulary, and he wrote about his ideas. His first influential written work was Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911), in which he explored his view of artists as spiritual conduits for emotion and meaning, without the need for representational images. He believed that art, released from literal imagery, could convey deeper meaning. An example of this sense can be found in Composition VII.

Composition VII, 1913
Composition VII, 1913

Composition VII is considered one of Kandinsky's masterpieces. This painting may look at first like chaos, but Kandinsky planned it carefully, doing 30 preliminary sketches and drawings before completing the final canvas. A vortex of shapes, lines, and colors swirls out of an inverted rectangle in an abstract image of energy, pattern, and rhythm. You can't really identify anything that looks like a person or object but Kandinsky hopes to provoke an emotional response. It speaks to creation as an explosion of inspiration and passion.

Fuge, 1914
Fuge, 1914

Fuge, done in 1914, is another work that explores color and shape and references Kandinsky's interest in music in its title--he often used musical terms and phrases to describe his work.

In 1914, the start of World War I forced his return to Russia. When the Bolsheviks took over Russia and formed the new Soviet state, Kandinsky gained prestige as a modern artist. He taught in Moscow but eventually fell out of favor with shifting Soviet communist beliefs and fled in 1921.

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