A Journey from the 'Beginnings' of Wassily Kandinsky

By Stern, Fred | The World and I, October 2008 | Go to article overview

A Journey from the 'Beginnings' of Wassily Kandinsky


Stern, Fred, The World and I


Artists embark on adventurous journeys throughout their lives. Their paths may lead them out of their homeland much as Gauguin's journey took him from France to the South Pacific and to the awakening of his palette in Tahiti. Others stay put in one location and their voyages take place in their minds.

Wassily Kandinsky wove both journeys into one great adventure throughout a long life (1866-1944). A childhood in Russia was the first of many phases. In Moscow he followed a parental wish for him to study law. The stirrings for a creative life led him in 1896 to come to Munich Germany, a vibrant art center, second only to Paris in the last decade of the 19th century. Soon he became the co-founder of an important expressionist art movement The Blue Rider (Der Blaue Reiter).

War clouds brought his return to Russia in 1914 where he was to spend six years taking on various administrative and teaching duties under the Soviets. But he could never accede to the subordination of the creative arts to industrial design, or to the service of the proletariat. In 1921 he returned to a vibrant Munich. A year later he received a call to become a professor at the prestigious Bauhaus School in Weimar Germany where his peers included Paul Klee. By 1926 he had achieved strong recognition and his canvases toured Germany to critical acclaim.

The coming of the Nazis brought an end to the Bauhaus. Kandinsky's paintings were removed from German museums. The social and political climate forced Kandinsky and his family to undertake yet another migration. This time he went to Paris, where he died in 1944, cold-shouldered by many of his peers and with his reputation in a precipitous decline. What a shame that Kandinsky did not see his reputation and influence restored on a world wide scale.

In the summer of 2008 New York's renowned Guggenheim Museum opened a small exhibit of Kandinsky's work covering the early years. Still ongoing, "Beginnings" consists of just twenty-one items, mostly woodcuts, lithographs, two oils painted on glass and a few canvases spanning eight years, 1903 to 1911. Nevertheless this exhibit clearly charts his path from realistic portrayal--"Lady with a Fan" (1903) and "Lady with a Muff"--to the beginning of his abstract canvases of 1910 and 1911. From that date on he embarked on a journey that was to make him an abstract painter of the first magnitude.

Creating the Unique Kandinsky Vision

It is interesting to compare Kandinsky to another Russian painter who never forgot the colors and feel of the Russian countryside, namely Marc Chagall. Chagall's folkloric interpretations continue throughout his creative life whereas Kandinsky was to veer off into abstract representation. Still a close observer will find remnants of the folkloric in Kandinsky's later work. Kandinsky's painting on glass of the "Lion Hunt" (1911) has the fairytale, childhood magic we find repeatedly in his work even in old age.

"Lion Hunt" was heavily influenced by his chance commission in the late 1880's to study criminal jurisprudence and religion in one of Russia's most remote northern provinces. In his writings he notes that it was there that he " ... first learned to look at a picture not only from the outside but to enter into it, to move around in it and to take part in its life."

Among Kandinsky's most interesting oil paintings is "The Blue Mountain" (1908/09). The canvas features a landscape dominated by a blue mountain, as a group of galloping riders on horseback enter a colorful woods. Some critics read "Blue Mountain" as a rendering of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Others see it as an affirmation of the transfiguring power of art. The theme apparently fascinated Kandinsky who produced seven other paintings of Blue Mountain with interesting variations. When the artist came to design the cover for "The Blue Rider Almanac" (Der Blaue Reiter Almanac) the blue mountain theme must have seemed a natural. …

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