Good Vibrations: The Personal and Universal in the Work of Wassily Kandinsky

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Wassily Kandinsky is a central figure in the Expressionist art movement of the early 20th century. His paintings reflect this movement in many ways. Norbert Wolf writes of Expressionism, “The dogmas of this art, this religion of art with its projection of a good and true life, were fraught with contradictions. On the one hand, stood means of extreme subjectivity; on the other, a desire for individual immersion in and submission to the cosmos” (8). Kandinsky’s insistence upon abstraction, his use of and beliefs about color, and his references to music are three of the most prominent Expressionist aspects of his work. Each is a way to resolve the contradiction between an individual’s unique experience and the spiritual forces that bind humanity together.

At its most basic, Expressionism distinguished itself from past artistic movements by “raising the expression of emotions to the main criterion of good art” (Wolf 7) and devaluing the importance of representing a subject exactly as it appears. While emotional expression is a straightforward goal, nonrepresentational painting is a more complex concept in which “the formal elements of two-dimensional art, such as line, shape, and color, constitute the subject [and] the artwork’s effect on the beholder rests solely with the arrangement of its formal components”. These concepts are important to understand when viewing and critiquing Kandinsky’s work.

Although his early paintings were more traditional, as his career progressed, Kandinsky insisted on “nonrepresentational art.” Not content to allow his paintings to be merely a decorative combination of lines and shapes, Kandinsky organized his abstract designs to marry personal experience with a sense of the spiritual. This relationship not only added significant depth to Kandinsky’s work and the Expressionist movement, but it also paved the way for future art movements as well. Of Kandinsky’s theories, Norbert Wolf writes, “The development of an art of the psyche, what Kandinsky termed “spiritualization,” opened to painting the realm of abstract symbolism, a turning point in art history for which both Kandinsky and the Blauer Reiter in Munich stood” (9).

Wassily Kandinsky is widely credited with creating the first abstract painting. Aptly named First Abstract Watercolor (1910), it is composed of a few simple colors. Lines and brush strokes swirl boldly across the canvas with powerful motion. There is absolutely no identifiable subject matter, and yet scholars discovered that it “contained hidden apocalyptic themes of the Flood and the Last Judgement” (Edwards and Wood 239). In First Abstract Watercolor, Kandinsky juxtaposes a viewer’s personal and necessary act (trying to process the chaos with which they’ve been presented) alongside dark religious symbolism that references a greater power.

This juxtaposition can also be seen in Kandinsky’s The Black Spot (1912). In this painting, a large black spot features prominently near the center of a field of black lines and blue, yellow, and red color. Olga Matich writes of this work, “The Black Spot (1912), like other paintings with spot in the title, reflects Kandinsky’s experimentation with color and form—what he describes…as ‘masses, spots, and lines all piled together’” (107). Kandinsky does not, however, allow his painting to be only an abstract experiment in form. As Matich continues to point out, “In On the Spiritual in Art, Kandinsky describes black as if it were a dark spot: ‘an inner sound of nothingness…a dead nothingness as if the sun had become extinct…something that obscures spiritual light” (107). What appears at first to be form open to subjective interpretation is again imbued with deeper significance.

Color was extremely important to Kandinsky. He “describes his early experiences with color as lyrical; the houses and churches he saw in Russia appeared to him so imbued with color that they gave him the sensation of being in a painting” (Soriente 2). In Kandinsky’s work, all color, not just black, becomes a link between the artist’s emotions and those he hopes to invoke in a viewer.

Blue held significance to Kandinsky and appears often paintings throughout his career. He writes of the color blue, “The deeper the blue becomes, the more strongly it pulls man toward the infinite” (Gage 192). One can see this reference to the infinite in the deep blue hooded cloak of Kandinsky’s Blue Rider (1903). Galloping across the canvas with purpose, the figure is on a mission that appears both mysterious and important. In Blue Rider, deep blue is the focal point around which the rest of the painting revolves. In Kandinsky’s later work Blue Painting (1924), a similar blue becomes the field in which Kandinsky’s other figures are set. Almost glowing, this deep blue suggests infinity by way of being that of which the universe is made.

Kandinsky believed reaction to color was universal, and that while not everyone’s sensitivities were equally attuned, others could read the colors he painted. He writes, “The eye is strongly attracted by light, clear colors, and still more strongly attracted by those colors which are warm as well as clear; vermilion has the charm of flame, which has always attracted human beings. Keen lemon-yellow hurts the eye in time as a prolonged and shrill trumpet-note the ear, and the gazer turns away to seek relief in blue or green” (Kandinsky 24). Although Kandinsky considered these reactions universal, it should be noted that he did not consider them superficial. He continues to say that the main result of looking at colors is “their psychic effect” and asserts, “they produce a corresponding spiritual vibration, and it is only as a step towards this spiritual vibration that the elementary physical impression is of importance” (Kandinsky 24). By combining the “psychic” with the “spiritual,” Kandinsky suggests that for him, colors are not only a means of communication between artist and viewer, they are also another way the individual mind is linked to the cosmos.

When Kandinsky considers his early experiences with color to be “lyrical,” he hints at another overarching theme in his artwork. Kandinsky knew a lot about music and respected it greatly. Konrad Boehmer writes, “Kandinsky ranks music as the leading art form, because it is the most abstract and does not imitate the outer world” (Boehmer Ch. 12). Because it was the most abstract art form, music was the best at doing what Kandinsky sought to do with his painting; to combine individual experience and identity with spiritual communion, and Kandinsky references music often in his work.

One way Kandinsky references music is by giving his artworks different musical names. These names not only referenced different kinds of musical pieces, they were a way of ranking the amount of abstraction in a particular artwork. “Kandinsky’s whole correspondence, his theoretical writings and also the titles of his paintings (Impression, Improvisation, Composition, Pastorale, Fugue and so on) attest to the continuous presence of music” (Boehmer Ch. 12). By naming his paintings as if they were music, Kandinsky accesses the abstract emotional power of the “leading art form.”

Kandinsky’s relationship with music can be seen in his painting Impression 3 (1911). Impression 3 is a painting of a concert Kandinsky attended. Because it is supposed to be a picture of a concert, music plays an important role. As Konrad Boehmer points out, according to Kandinsky, Impressions are pictures that contain some direct representation (Ch. 4). However, Impression 3 contains little one might see at a musical concert. Boehner continues, “The true content is the impact of the expressive power of the music, which evoked in the artist inner vibrations, and permeated and transformed the relics of figural imagery through pictorial means that are derived solely from structural forces” (Ch. 4). For Kandinsky, a concert is not a piano and clapping hands, it is the sound the piano and the clapping hands make. Furthermore, the expressive power of that sound can be transferred by an artist into a painting and from that painting to a viewer. By painting music, Kandinsky hopes to capture its ability to inspire through abstraction.

Expressionists in general, and Wassily Kandinsky in particular, have expanded our understanding of visual art. Their work paved the way not only for future artists to work with similar Expressionist styles but for other nonrepresentational artists to experiment with ways of expressing themselves. Because of Kandinsky and his contemporaries, today abstract art, and even pop art, is common and accepted in the artistic community. This is particularly important as technology continues to make instant and faithful representations readily available. We take photographs of everything. We can even print in three dimensions. These conveniences render traditional representational artwork less powerful. Without Kandinsky’s work imbuing abstraction with spirituality, building an emotional language of color, and infusing two-dimensional artwork with music, it is possible that our inner lives a century later would be a little less strikingly individual, and a little less connected to the infinite.

Works Cited 

Boehmer, Konrad. Schonberg and Kandinsky: A Historic Encounter. New York: Routledge, 2013.

Edwards, Steve, and Paul Wood, eds. Art of the Avant-gardes. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.

Fiero, Gloria. Landmarks in the Humanities. New York: McGraw Hill, 2012.

Gage, John. Color and Meaning: Art, Science, and Symbolism. Berkeley: U. of California Press, 1999.

Kandinsky, Wassily. Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Mineola: Courier Dover Publications, 2012.

Matich, Olga. Petersburg/Petersburg: Novel and City, 1900-1921. Madison: U. of Wisconsin Press, 2010.

Soriente, Susan J. “Divine Abstractions: Spiritual Expressions in Art.” Sheldon Museum of Art Catalogues and Publications (2010): 1-16.

Wolf, Norbert. Expressionism. New York: Taschen, 2004.