Helen Mirren Tells Us Why Wassily Kandinsky Is Her Favorite Artist (And What Acting & 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.

Relat­ed Con­tent

MoMA Puts Pol­lock, Rothko & de Koon­ing on Your iPad

Jack­son Pol­lock: Lights, Cam­era, Paint! (1951)

John Berger’s Ways of See­ing: The TV Series

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Comments (3)
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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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