There's a tendency to think of Modernism as principally reflecting the rapid technological changes that occurred at the beginning of the 20th century. But there was another strand, one that responded to the breakdown of conventional religion and the social and political upheavals that were taking place, and looked to art (and, some might say, to psychoanalysis and quasi-religious cults such as theos-ophy and spiritualism) to give meaning to contemporary existence in a way that Christianity had once done.
Wassily Kandinsky was born in Moscow in 1866 and trained in Munich. He believed, along with other "modern" intellectuals and artists of the time, that there was a qualitative hierarchy within human experience (this was a view that prevailed within the doctrine of theosophy, to which both Kandinsky and Mondrian were attracted), that works of art were united by an expressive or spiritual value. Kandinsky believed that "our souls" were "beginning to awaken after the long reign of materialism". For him, as for Nietzsche, the artist was hero, the "prophet of his environment", who could help "the forward movement of the obstinate cartload of humanity".
The son of a wealthy merchant, Kandinsky studied law and economics at Moscow University before turning to art, influenced by seeing Claude Monet's series of haystacks, and a performance of Richard Wagner's Lohengrin. He realised that colour expressed deep emotions, and that music was able to create and elicit an emotional response even though it was unconnected to anything actual or real.
This major exhibition at Tate Modern illustrates the path that Kandinsky took from his early days as a naturalistic painter, employing vibrant colour, to the language of abstraction.
Many early works were inspired by South Bavaria, where he spent time with his lover Gabriele Mnter. …