Helen Mirren Tells Us Why Wassily Kandinsky Is Her Favorite Artist (And What Painting & Modern Art Have in Common)

Russian abstract painter and art theorist Wassily Kandinsky was born in Moscow on December 16, 1866 (December 4 on the Julian calendar), and raised in Odessa, where he took an early interest in music. As a young man he studied economics and law, but in 1895 his life was forever changed when he attended a Moscow exhibition of paintings by the French Impressionists. Kandinsky was deeply struck by one of Monet’s paintings from the series Haystacks at Giverny. He later recalled his epiphany:

That it was a haystack the catalogue informed me. I could not recognize it. This non-recognition was painful to me. I considered that the painter had no right to paint indistinctly. I dully felt that the object of the painting was missing. And I noticed with surprise and confusion that the picture not only gripped me, but impressed itself ineradicably on my memory. Painting took on a fairy-tale power and splendor.

Kandinsky quit his job as a law professor and dedicated himself to painting. He emigrated, first to France and then to Germany, where he moved further and further away from figurative painting. He was among the first to create works that were completely abstract, or non-objective. In his 1910 treatise, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Kandinsky declares that the elements within a painting should not correspond to any outer object, but only to the artist’s “inner need.”

In observance of the artist’s 145th birthday, we present two videos with different perspectives on his work. Above, actress Helen Mirren talks with the Museum of Modern Art about what Kandinsky, and art, mean to her. Below, a trio of scholars–Beth Harris, Juliana Kreinik and Steven Zucker–discuss Kandinsky’s 1913 masterpiece, “Composition VII,” for the Khan Academy’s Smarthistory series. “Composition VII” was painted by Kandinsky in Munich over a period of four days–but only after he had made more than 30 preparatory sketches, watercolors and oil studies.

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  • christopher palermo says:

    Blah blah blah. Is this art history and scholarly discourse in the 21st century? Incoherence peppered with personalized commentary? It’s not about you or human history, it’s about the extraordinary individuals whose art by some miracle has survived to create this wonder. They were people after all. Incidentally, Schoenberg was a pretty damned good painter himself.

  • Lois Slack says:

    Helen Mirren’s commentary was insightful and informative. I especially enjoyed her comparison of painting, acting and music..an interesting look into what the creative process means to her. She’s a bright woman and extremely accomplished in her art. I think she’s earned the right to comment.

  • Stephen Carpenter says:

    2 videos and one I could not watch all the way through. It was not Mirren it was the travesty from “Khan Academy”.
    “Smart History certainly wasn’t in evidence here. I have no idea what the three art historians were about other than themselves. Does it matter that Kandinsky was Russian and was in Germany as his world fell apart with literal blood in the streets? the eve of World War l was most probably incidental. So much for “smart” history.
    Maybe they mentioned after the 5:00 mark that his was a rather mystic approach, which would explain the difficulty with his work most people seem to have including these 3 who, it is assumed can and should know better.
    And as was pointed out earlier Kandinsky and Schoenberg were pretty decent painters but the music Schoenberg was working out at the time Kandinsky made these first paintings and sketches was NOT the full-fledged dodecagonic structure that we attribute to Schoenberg.

    Maybe later they may have mentioned the numerous preparatory sketches that led to this painting. Probably not.

    The kind of self-absorbed monologue issuing from an “expert” is why I disliked art history so much, why I recognized that there was real life in it somewhere, and why i did my graduate work in the study of art history as a discipline, and why i teach it on occasion but not at Khan. My students get more substance and inquiry.

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